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All About Glass

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Early Modern Printed Books at the Rakow Library, 1450-1550: An Introduction

All About Glass

A select group of rare books in the Rakow Research Library’s collection serve not only as repositories of early glass knowledge but also as artifacts of fine bookmaking. They were written by ancient authors and printed some 1,000 years later during the first century of modern printing (about 1450–1550). In terms of the breadth of history conveyed by the printed word—the advances made by the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and the Chinese; the use of papyrus scrolls and clay tablets; the development of an alphabet; the invention of paper in China and its transmission to Europe along the Silk Road; and the powerful monastic system that produced the medieval manuscript—this one century eclipses all others. It bears the hallmark of modern book production, first in its “infancy,” then reaching maturity in perfect tempo with the Renaissance. For their part, the books trace the evolution of European intellectual life from a system of medieval absolutes based on faith to its countercurrent of modern individualism propelled by Renaissance Humanism.

It is fitting, therefore, to celebrate the accomplishments of the great early scholar-printers active during this century. They printed rare works by ancient authors, often from a single surviving manuscript. Neglected and frequently imperiled by the wars and conquests of the Dark and Middle Ages, manuscripts which had been so carefully produced by scribes were rescued from obscurity, largely through the financial support of wealthy Roman, Florentine, and Venetian families. Among these were the Medici of Florence, especially Cosimo and his grandson Lorenzo, who promoted classically inspired Humanistic learning. In addition to manuscripts found in continental Europe, ancient Greek texts were discovered in the Christian monasteries of Constantinople. In 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Turks, Byzantine Greeks sought refuge in Italy, and particularly in Venice. With them came manuscripts written in the original Greek or in Latin translations. The Greek population helped to further the revival of ancient learning and in many instances served as a highly specialized workforce for publishers in need of Greek translators, editors, and proofreaders.

During this period, there was an inverse migration of the two major cultural forces—the Renaissance and the printed book—along a north–south axis. As interest in the classics spread northward from Italy to the rest of Europe, typographers trained in the German printing centers of Mainz, Augsburg, Nuremberg, and Cologne brought their craft to Italy, France, Spain, and Switzerland.

It is not surprising, then, that the first “Italian” press was established by two Germans in the town of Subiaco, outside Rome. Printing subsequently spread to Rome itself. By the end of the 15th century, however, Venice had emerged as the center of printing and publishing in Europe. A thriving international commercial hub, Venice attracted printers, at least in part because its customer base spanned all of Europe. The first text printed by the first Venetian publishing house was Epistolae ad familiares (Letters to friends), a work of the Roman statesman and orator Cicero. The publisher was Johannes de Spira, who, after printing a second edition of Cicero’s work, issued the first edition of Pliny’s encyclopedic Historia naturalis (Natural history) in 1469. This original edition, which presents a famous account of the “discovery” of glass, is in the Rakow Library’s collection. Vindelinus de Spira, Johannes’s brother, printed another of our books, De situ orbis (A description of the world), probably the most important surviving ancient geographical work, written by the Greek scholar Strabo. Two additional books, works by Aristotle and Aristophanes, came from the press of Aldus Manutius, who is regarded as one of the greatest Venetian masters and a printer whose craftsmanship set a high standard for typography and design. These books are remarkably rendered in the original Greek, using characters from an intricately detailed Greek font.

While the printing business flourished in Venice, other Italian cities were developing their own production. One example from Rome is the classic work of Vitruvius, De architectura (On architecture), printed by Eucharius Silber in 1486. From the Bolognese press of Baldassare Azzoguidi comes a 1472 printing of Bibliotheca historica (Historical library), written by the Greek historian Diodorus during the time of Julius Caesar.

Presses established outside Italy are represented by a first edition of De antiquitate Judaica (Antiquities of the Jews) and De bello Judaico (The Jewish war), a sweeping historical canvas of the Jewish nation composed by the Jewish scholar Flavius Josephus in the first century C.E. and printed in Augsburg in 1470, and the Periplus Maris Erythraei (Periplus of the Erythraean Sea), a geographical guidebook for merchants, compiled about the second century C.E. and printed in Basel in 1533–1534.

University cities were often centers of printing, and Paris was a shining example in the 16th century. Its intellectual vitality and material prosperity made it a natural home for leading figures in the print movement. The Parisian publishing house of Estienne came to prominence through the work of several generations of scholar-printers. One of the Rakow’s books—a political history of Rome written by Dio Cassius about the early third century A.D.—was published by Robert Estienne in 1548, several years into his tenure as the king’s printer of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew texts.

The use of the printing press spread rapidly throughout Europe. Compared to the cost and tedium of manuscript labor, the mechanized processes of the press gave printers the potential for increased book production and an economic benefit that could be passed on to consumers in lower prices. As books gradually became more affordable, people read more. Thus, at a very fundamental level, the business acumen of printers promoted literacy and encouraged learning. But these businessmen were also artisans and very much aware that their work would outlive them. By engaging in the creative process, many early printers became scholars and philosophers. The books they produced are special, not only because they have survived the centuries, but also because they embody the aesthetic sensibilities of the Renaissance.

Venetian printers, in particular, shared an aesthetic ideal with another group of creative masters working in the same city—its glassmakers. What a golden age, when the art of glassmaking and artful printing coexisted in the same space and time! In glass and in books, Venetian production gave material form to the canon of beauty espoused by Renaissance Humanists.


Diane Dolbashian

This essay is part of a series on Treasures in the Rakow Research Library.

Published on January 7, 2014