May 15

An edition of Cicero’s Letters, from a printing of 300 copies at Venice by Wendelin Da Spira, was presented this day in 1471 to the Dominican convent in Nürnberg, by Friar Peter Schwartz. This volume, set in roman type, is an indication of the spread of the humanist ideas into northern Europe by way of the printed word.

When the period which we call the Renaissance began, about 1400, such scholars as the poet Petrarch became vitally interested in the interpretation of the ancient classics of antiquity. This involved the re-copying of numerous early manuscripts. As the scholars were often enthusiastic calligraphers they rejoiced in their labor, consciously attempting to follow the basic structure of the Carolingian miniscule, thus paying tribute to the ancient authors whose works they were reviving. The then-current gothic hand was viewed with suspicion by the humanists who were more concerned with classic curves in letterforms than in the proved economy of the tightly controlled gothic.

It was generally felt by the humanists that to copy Cicero or Tacitus in a gothic hand was a desecration. It soon became common practice to letter the classics in the roman hand, although such texts as law books, prayer books, medical books, and the like were done in the gothic. There soon existed a brisk market for beautiful calligraphy which existed well into the period following the introduction of movable type. Indeed, the rich collectors preferred the manuscript copies to the “cheap” printed editions. The great bookseller, Vespasiano de’ Bisticci, employed dozens of scribes in a copying establishment which had for its clientele the most distinguished bibliophiles of the period. It has been said that one of his customers, the Duke of Urbino, boasted that his library contained not a single printed book. Such disparagement of printed books was carried to an extreme when calligraphic copies were made of printed books.

The established success of the roman hand through the distribution over all of Europe of the classic Latin texts was primarily responsible for the cutting of roman types rather than the blackletter forms when printing was introduced into Italy. The first printers there, Conrad Sweynheim and Arnold Pannartz, were brought from Germany by the classical scholar Giovanni Andrea de’ Bussi, Bishop of Aleria, and placed under the patronage of Pope Paul II, also a humanist, primarily to produce the books for which the Roman classicists were pressing.

Within a few years there were many printers in the Italian city states, all engaged in the production of multiple copies of classics composed in roman types. The result was a glut of the market. A number of printers became bankrupt, including the reputable Nicolas Jenson of Venice. In order to restore their finances, many of these printers turned to the gothic types, and began to print law texts, for which this style was particularly suited. By the year 1500 the printing trade was assuming the form in which it was to be most successful. Standards were set by competition rather than by privilege granted by decree, a factor tending to limit production. However for many years in numerous locations throughout Europe the number of establishments was still controlled by law.

Leave a Reply