The Bookseller of Florence

Forthcoming in April 2021

After almost four years of research and writing, I’ve finally completed my next book, The Bookseller of Florence, due for publication in April 2021. It’s the true story of one of the unsung heroes of the Italian Renaissance: Vespasiano da Bisticci.

Unlike previous people I’ve written about, Vespasiano needs a bit of an introduction despite the fact that in his own day he was a literary celebrity. He was friends with many of Europe’s most famous and powerful personalities—popes, kings and princes—as well as its most brilliant scholars and poets. He was a protégé and confidant of Cosimo de’ Medici, and his life dates (from 1422 to 1498) corresponded with the ‘Golden Age’ of Florence under the Medici. These decades marked a period of great intellectual change caused by the rediscovery of lost manuscripts and the invention of the printing press. They were also a time of terrible upheaval that included the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Pazzi Conspiracy in 1478, and a seemingly endless succession of plagues, plots and wars.

Vespasiano was born just outside Florence in 1422. His father, a woolworker, died when he was a child and so at the age of eleven he was put to work in a bookshop in Florence’s ‘Street of Booksellers’. His mixture of charm and intelligence, along with ambition and some vigorous social-climbing, took him a long way. He became known, for good reason, as the ‘king of the world’s booksellers’. And if he was the king of booksellers, he was also, quite literally, the bookseller to kings.

All bookshops are special, magical places, but few have ever had the reach or influence of Vespasiano’s. His premises became a meeting place for the greatest intellects of the era: a combination of reading room, debating society and classroom for eager students. His shop was also the best place in Florence for anyone hoping to learn the latest news or gossip. ‘If there’s any news,’ one friend said in 1448, ‘our Vespasiano will know about it.’ Vespasiano’s talent for keeping his ear to the ground meant his bookshop became a place for political discussion and intrigue in Medicean Florence. On several dangerous occasions he himself operated as a spy and informer.

Most of all, though, Vespasiano was renowned for finding and producing manuscripts. He specialised in works of the Latin and Greek classics—many of them recently rediscovered in remote German and French abbeys—that fuelled the ideas and movements of the Italian Renaissance. As a poet wrote about him:

You, Vespasiano, give back to the great men of the ancient world
The vitality of which the decaying years had robbed them.

He kept teams of scribes and illuminators busy copying and decorating manuscripts by the hundreds. He furnished the studies of scholars and collectors right across Europe, from England and France to Hungary. He also put together the prestigious libraries of powerful rulers such as Cosimo de’ Medici in Florence and Federigo da Montefeltro, duke of Urbino. Anyone wanting a manuscript of a work by Aristotle or Cicero knew where to turn. ‘Our Vespasiano,’ one collector wrote to a friend in 1446, ‘is the best guide for such things.’

But a change was coming. Vespasiano was at the height of his powers as a purveyor of knowledge when, in the early 1450s, Johannes Gutenburg perfected his printing press at Mainz in Germany. The technique of printing was a closely guarded secret, and so at first the new technology spread slowly through Europe. No printing press operated in Italy until 1464 when two German priests arrived at Subiaco, near Rome, and set up shop in a Benedictine monastery. Presses soon arrived in other Italian cities and towns, but no printer operated successfully in Florence until, in 1476, one began work at the Dominican convent of San Jacopo di Ripoli. This press was the start-up of an enterprising Dominican friar, Domenico da Pistoia, who used some of the convent’s nuns as his typesetters.

Fra Domenico’s press at the convent of San Jacopo di Ripoli might have seemed to pose little threat to the mighty Vespasiano. It specialised at first in printing prayers and songsheets for blind beggars and street singers to sell in the city’s piazzas—not quite the same clientele as Vespasiano. Fra Domenico occasionally bartered for goods and services with bedsheets and pairs of shoes. However, he and his team of nuns soon expanded their repertoire, and ultimately they printed the first Latin translation of the complete dialogues of Plato—a landmark not only in the history of printing but also in the history of ideas. Their edition made Plato’s work available to Europe’s scholars and, in doing so, kicked off a new era in intellectual history.

Overwhelmed by the printing revolution, Vespasiano retired from the business of producing manuscripts in 1480—only to begin composing (at his charming retreat in the hills outside Florence) one of the most remarkable books of the era, Lives of the Illustrious Men of the Fifteenth Century. A memoir of his friends, this book is a treasure trove of information about the period and its actors. He died at the tail-end of the century, in 1498, and is buried in the basilica of Santa Croce in Florence.

Mention of Renaissance Florence tends to make us think of beautiful frescoes and altarpieces, of snow-white marble statues in sinewy poses, of Brunelleschi’s swelling burnt-orange dome rising above the city’s cathedral. I’ve written a lot about heroic figures of the Renaissance such as Filippo Brunelleschi, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. But there were other heroes, too, and The Bookseller of Florence is about them: manuscript hunters, teachers, scribes, scholars, librarians, notaries, grammarians, booksellers, printers … and Fra Domenico’s little band of nuns learning their way around a composing stick.

These bookworms and ink-stained scribes and printers were as big a part of the Renaissance as Florence’s painters, sculptors and architects. They blew the dust off a thousand years of history and tried to imagine a different world: one of friendship and loyalty, of refined pleasures, of wisdom and right conduct, of justice, heroism and political freedom. They dared to imagine, in short, a world in which a life in a better society could be lived in the fullest and most satisfying way possible.

Many of these ideas were debated and discussed in Vespasiano’s bookshop, which a friend claimed was ‘redolent of philosophy’. They then flowed throughout the West thanks to the hundreds of manuscripts elegant copied by his stable of scribes. His bookshop was, in other words, a conduit through which flowed new ideas and values that remain with us today.

I’ve really loved accompanying Vespasiano on his journey through one of the most exciting centuries in history in one of the greatest cities ever. I’ll give him the last word, which I use as the book’s epigraph. It’s his testament to the power of words and ideas even in the bleakest of times:

All evil is born from ignorance. Yet writers have illuminated the world, chasing away the darkness.

Nuremberg Chronicle
Nuremberg Chronicle

The image at the top of the page is a detail from the woodcut of Florence in Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, printed in 1493. It shows just how small a town Florence was. It had a population of around 40,000 people, and you could walk all the way across it in less than an hour. 

Vespasiano

This is the only known portrait of Vespasiano. It was painted in the late 1470s by one of his illuminators, Attavante Attivanti, in a manuscript now in the British Library in London (Add. MS. 9770, folio 6r). Vespasiano makes a modest cameo tucked inside a capital ‘E’. Despite the small space, Attavante manages to conjure a vivid image: a man with a Roman nose, a heavy, creased brow, full lips and a weak chin. He looks morose, and his mournful expression may be that of a man who witnessed much war and bloodshed in the course of his life. The Street of Booksellers was the site of horrific violence around the time this portrait was painted, and Vespasiano complained about living in ‘the land of oblivion’.

Street of Booksellers

Street of Booksellers

Today this busy street is the Via del Proconsolo, but in Vespasiano’s time this stretch was known as the Via dei Librai, the Street of Booksellers. The photo shows the location of Vespasiano’s bookshop (now a pizzeria) on the left. Looming above it is the tower of the Bargello, once the palace of Florence’s chief magistrate and now a museum of sculpture featuring work by Donatello and Michelangelo. Directly across the street from the bookshop is the Badia, a Benedictine abbey from whose library Vespasiano borrowed books that he then had copied.

This photo was taken for me by my friend, the filmmaker David Battistella. The absence of people (the street is usually packed) is explained by the fact that David took it in May 2020, as Italy’s lockdown was eased enough for Florentines to venture into the streets.

Cicero Manuscript

Cicero

This page (MS 248B, folio 6v) is the opening of an edition of the works of Cicero that Vespasiano prepared in the 1440s for an Englishman, the diplomat William Grey. Vespasiano (who spoke no English) called him Guglielmo Graim. The manuscript’s scribe was a notary named Gherardo del Ciriagio, who completed his work in September 1447. He wrote in the beautiful and legible humanistic hand that was developed in Florence a few decades earlier. The capital ‘Q’ was done by the illuminator in gold leaf with the elegant white vine-stem decoration typical of Vespasiano’s manuscripts at this time.

William Grey was a wealthy young man who was related to King Henry VI of England, and who in 1454 became the bishop of Ely. Vespasiano wrote that Grey wished to put together ‘a very worthy library’ of ancient books. The works of Cicero, the most revered of Roman writers, were therefore a must.

This page shows the opening of the second of Cicero’s fourteen ‘Philippics’ against Mark Antony, whom he accuses of assailing him with ‘unprovoked abuse’. Cicero was trying to win over the 19-year-old Octavian—the future Emperor Augustus—following the assassination of Julius Caesar. However, Cicero’s famous rhetoric failed him, and in fact these fourteen speeches against Antony contributed to his downfall. In November 43 BCE he was beheaded on orders from Antony. Fulvia, Antony’s wife, took her own special vengeance, spitting on Cicero’s disembodied head before pulling out his tongue and spearing it with pins.

Grey left his manuscripts to the library of Balliol College, Oxford. I’m grateful to Professor Seamus Perry and to Dr. Bethany Hamblen for permission to reproduce the image.

Advice Against the Plague

Marsilio Ficino, Advice Against the Plague

Marsilio Ficino was one of the biggest literary stars in Europe—and so it was a coup for the press at San Jacopo di Ripoli to print his work in 1481.

Florence suffered an outbreak of plague every two or three years. A particularly bad one devastated the city in 1478-9. Ficino, a philosopher and doctor, treated a number of sufferers, and in 1481 he published his Advice Against the Plague. He offered prescriptions, precautions and practical advice. He advised fumigating your house with sweet-smelling herbs, washing twice a day in vinegar, holding a wet sponge to the nose, and making potions from trees such as myrtle and juniper. Ficino himself fell ill but was cured not by his various prescriptions but rather thanks to—as he modestly noted—divine intervention.

One of Ficino’s pieces of advice was to ‘flee quickly, go far away, and don’t come back too soon’. Today, owners of second homes are quite rightly discouraged from transporting their viral load into rural areas, but in the fifteenth century affluent Florentines fled the city during the outbreaks. Vespasiano would frequently retreat to his house a few miles outside Florence or else, lucky him, to a castle in the Tuscan hills owned by wealthy friends. Even the Florentine government left town during the worst outbreaks, regrouping in places such as in Fiesole.

This illustration comes from the copy held at Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. The first six lines of text are indented because the printer has left room for an illuminator to insert and decorate a capital ‘L’ (which you can see printed as a cue in the rectangle of empty space). Many early printed books were hand-decorated because printed books were meant to look as much as possible like manuscripts. However, whoever bought this copy did not have the money or inclination to get it decorated, and so the blank space remains. The lack of decoration in books such as this one explains how we came by our paragraph indentations.

Marsilio Ficino translation of Plato

Plato, Opera, translated by Marsilio Ficino

Three years after his Advice Against the Plague, Ficino went back to the press at San Jacopo di Ripoli for a much more ambitious work, his translation into Latin of the complete dialogues of Plato.

Plato now has an absolutely central place at the heart of Western philosophy. In 1929 A.N. Whitehead famously declared that the European philosophical tradition ‘consists of a series of footnotes to Plato’. It therefore seems hard to imagine a time when Plato’s works were lost and forgotten. But among the greatest achievements of the fifteenth century was the recovery of the Platonic texts from their philosophical obscurity. One problem for Plato’s reception in the West was that few people could read Greek. Another was that many people thought his works—from what little they knew of them—of dubious moral value. (The bit in The Republic about sharing wives caused much indignation.)

The recuperation of Plato began in 1397 with the arrival in Florence of a scholar and teacher from Constantinople, Manuel Chrysoloras, who taught Greek at the Studio Fiorentino, the local university. His students would become some of the greatest scholars of the fifteenth century. Vespasiano came to know many of them, such as the great Leonardo Bruni.

A manuscript of the complete works of Plato arrived in Florence from Constantinople in 1439. It was acquired by Cosimo de’ Medici, who eventually put Marsilio Ficino to work translating the Greek into Latin. Vespasiano made a beautiful copy of Ficino’s translation for the library of Federigo da Montefeltro in Urbino. However, Plato would not truly take his place on the proscenium of history until the Ripoli Press printed his complete dialogues in Latin in 1484.

Ficino was involved in the production and design of the volume. Look at how he used a Gothic-style typeface as well as double columns—all very retro in 1484. He wanted his edition of Plato to look like a Bible. For him, Plato was a religious figure who occupied a central place in the Christian story. He believed that (as he put it) ‘almighty God sent down from on high the divine soul of Plato’ so that through his genius ‘he might cast the light of holy religion among all peoples’.

Not everyone would agree with Ficino’s theological reading of Plato—but the great philosopher was, at last, here to stay. Other philosophers could begin jotting their footnotes.

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