I have been reading Julian Barnes’s Keeping An Eye Open, in which he remarks (p. 166) that ‘normal ocular fatigue sets in after about ninety minutes’. This is a huge relief, as I had always thought it was just me, but it is particularly relevant in the context of the superb and wide-ranging exhibition currently (and until 7 January 2019) at the Correr Museum in Venice. You will need (in my opinion) much more than ninety minutes, and if your eyes are not out on stalks at the end, you’re a better man than I am (though I have just heard that my ‘occupational’ glasses are ready for collection when I get home, which may help a bit).
The subtitle of ‘Printing R-Evolution 1450–1500’ is ‘I cinquant’anni che hanno cambiato l’Europa’, and the curators make an excellent case for this claim. There are books on display, from a leaf of the Gutenberg Bible onwards (as well as number of manuscripts), but the focus of the exhibition is on the research project based in the University of Oxford, the British Library and Venice itself, ‘15CBOOKTRADE’, and an important part of what is on show is statistics – what books were printed where, where decorated, how decorated, where bound, where how many sold, where sold, at what cost, and so on. (The project is funded by the ERC, so goodbye to all that (and much more) next year if the current British insanity prevails.)
Tremendous amounts of provenance research all across Europe have gone into the figures presented here. One of the crucial ‘foundation documents’ of the project is the account book of the Venetian printer Franciscus de Madiis (Francesco Madi: now in the Marciana Library, which has a small ancillary exhibition, but only until 30 September) from the period 1481 to 1488, which goes into minute detail of what books he sold, to whom, when and at what price.
A very interesting screen attempts to resolve the always difficult question of what money was worth in the period: thanks to de Madiis’ records it is possible to compare the cost of a book to the earnings of a labourer, or the price of two chickens. There is also a telling comparison between the most expensive printed book on display, the Digest of Justinian, produced in Milan in 1482, and a tiny illuminated manuscript Book of Hours from the same period, which cost the same amount.
I can’t remember which Doge, Pope, Prince or other privileged individual said of printing that it was vulgar and would never catch on (which always reminds me of the responses to ‘talking pictures’ in Singin’ in the Rain), but the figures provided here speak for themselves. Theology is (inevitably) the most-printed subject, but medicine, mathematics (including ‘how-to’ primers of practical calculations for budding merchants), grammar, vernacular literature (Petrarch was available in at least three types of finish) and the classics (including Herodotus in Latin translation) also mushroomed.
The destinations of books printed in Venice also provide some fascinating statistics. Either as sheets, or bound, they travelled all over Europe, though notably more to the north than to the south. Another fact emphasised is the number of printers from northern Europe who brought printing to Venice during these fifty years: Vindelinus de Spira (aka Wendelin of Speyer, a printer who learned his craft in Mainz, with his brother Johann, the first printer to publish in Venice, in 1469), Erhard Ratdolt, from Augsburg, and Nicolas Jenson from France, superb typographer, to name but a few.
During this period, the number of separate printing works in the city grew to about 200 – a staggering figure. Another very interesting display, giving the numbers by parish, shows a marked tendency to cling together, with a very large community around San Rocco. And of course, they were not just publishing in Italian and Latin in roman type.
Venetian printers pioneered the use of Greek and Hebrew fonts, and the first Armenian printed book was produced here in 1512, by Hakob Meghapart – the tradition of Armenian printing continues today (though in a somewhat reduced way) on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni.
This has been a very quick (and VERY amateur) overview of the riches of this exhibition. I’d thoroughly recommend it, if you like that sort of thing, and if you get the chance – and if you go on a Saturday, you can print your own little souvenir card, courtesy of the TIF – Tipoteca Italiana Fondazione, who have a typographical museum in Cornuda in the province of Treviso, not far away.
They have a tiny press (English, I’m delighted to say!) installed in the Correr, which you can operate (fewer muscles needed than usual), and these attractive examples of Gothic and Bembo type to take away.
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