Only in Venice

Venice books
Much of the material for this blog piece comes from the book, “Bound in Venice.”

If you traveled back in time to Venice in the latter half of the 1400’s, you would have encountered dozens and dozens of bookshops and printers. An unusual, almost revolutionary sight indeed. Because within two or three decades, “publishing” had gone from monks painstakingly copying a miniscule number manuscripts, to a mechanical mechanism that published thousands of books.

Gutenberg may have invented the printing press and moveable type in Germany, but it was the city of Venice that rocked when it came to publishing in the 15th and 16th centuries. Without Venice, Gutenberg’s invention might have languished for years.

During this time, half the books in all of Europe were printed in this sea side city. Venice publishers printed the first Talmud, the first Koran, the first book in Greek and the second Bible in vernacular (Italian). They revolutionized punctuation, more or less invented the paper-back, printed the first best-seller (it sold 100,00 copies, an impressive figure even in this day and age), the first printed text of cosmetology, and some of the first medical texts.

The list continues: the first book on chocolate, and the first song books with musical notes (a challenging task for the printer). Of course, no publishing mecca would be complete without the first printed porn book, Salacious sonnets sonetti lussuriosi, by Pietro Aretino. The author was known to remark that the women in Venice were so beautiful, that they made him forget his male lover.

While the rest of Europe was slogging around in pig muck and ignorance (most of the population couldn’t read), a quarter of the male population between the ages of 6 and 15 in Venice attended school and a sophisticated bunch of citizens treasured some of the most beautiful books ever printed. Intellectuals met in Venice bookstores to discuss the issues of the day.

Why was Venice the publishing capitol of the civilized world during this time? Venice was one the three biggest cities (Naples and Paris were the other two) in Europe with a population of over 150,000. Alpine streams gushed with water, making paper production possible—a task that needs enormous amounts of water. The city had literate citizens, and was at the center of trading routes between Europe and the Middle East which meant they had plenty of capital.

Venice had the three characteristics necessary for becoming the information capitol of the then world: Industrialization, globalization, and marketing. Venice’s importance rivals the importance of today’s information giants: Google, Facebook, Apple (all who are located in one place, California’s “Silicon Valley”) and Microsoft.

Finally, the German city of Mainz (where Gutenberg lived and made his inventions) was sacked in 1462, driving many printers and punch cutters into exile and they settled in Venice, a place very hospitable to the printing trade and in need of their skills.

The publishing period between 1450 and 1501 (Gutenberg’s first Bible was printed in 1452) is known as the “incunabula,” Latin for swaddling clothes or cradle. It is an arbitrary date, but it was during this transition period—from hand-written manuscripts to printed words—that many innovations took place. The inclusion of title pages, pagination, the author’s name, colophons (name, date and place of publishing), the printer’s mark, and indexing, none of which were present in manuscripts. All these characteristics are still present in today’s printed books.

Of course, nothing lasts forever. Venice lost its coveted position of being the center of trading routes, as the British, the Spaniards, and French took the lead in discovering new worlds. Trade routes shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean—the route to North America.

The Catholic Church, always a stickler for censorship decided that Venice, which had been fairly independent, should bear the brunt of censorship. Northern Europe, where the Protestant reformation took place, was protected from the Roman Inquisition, and a free press resulted. So publishers moved up north.

By the middle of the 16th century the book burning had begun in Venice. First came the bonfires of Protestant books and then the burning of all kinds of books. If the publishers were smart they wisely disappeared before the bonfires. Rome produced an index of condemned books which had to be strictly followed. The number of printing shops greatly declined. And the golden age of Venetian printing became history.

It’s become a truism to say that, “Venice was the Silicon Valley of publishing.” But that’s backwards. “Silicon Valley is the Venice of (internet) publishing.”


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