The Bookseller of Florence: The Story of the Manuscripts That Illuminated the Renaissance by Ross King

Once, years ago, I spent a week at a monastery outside Rome with a group of Dominican scholars who were trying to complete the definitive Latin edition of the works of Thomas Aquinas. I was writing about their efforts, and during meals in the refectory they would unloose on related topics. One of them was the nature of the publishing industry—in essence, the copying industry—in the era of the illuminated manuscript, before the advent of the printing press.

To hear them tell it, “publishing” back then was a white-hot center of the culture. A high-end bookseller would have known everyone who was anyone: the 1 percent of that time, humanist and arriviste alike. Imagine the clientele of a gallery owner, criminal lawyer, cosmetic surgeon, private banker, interior decorator, and hot restaurateur in today’s New York or London, rolled into one, and throw in a few warlords and clerics. Under the umbrella pines, from the quiet seclusion of a monastery in the Alban Hills, the scene was hard to visualize.

Ross King’s The Bookseller of Florence brings the scene alive. The bookseller of the title is Vespasiano da Bisticci, born near Florence around 1422 and apprenticed to a cartolaio, or stationer, at the age of 11. It was the perfect trade for a shrewd entrepreneur.

Florence was one of the most literate cities in the world—as many as 70 percent of adult men could read and write—and the cartolaio was indispensable. As the name implies, these merchants sold paper (carta) and parchment, but they offered a range of other services:

“Customers could buy secondhand volumes from them or hire them to have a manuscript copied by a scribe, bound in leather or board, and, if they wished, illuminated—decorated with illustrations or designs in paint and gold leaf. Cartolai were at the very center of Florence’s manuscript trade, serving as booksellers, binders, stationers, illustrators, and publishers. An enterprising cartolaio might deal with everyone from scribes and miniaturists to parchment makers and goldbeaters, and sometimes even with authors themselves.”

Duty Bound

This was the moment, at the dawn of the Renaissance, when ancient works by Plato, Cicero, Pliny, Tacitus, and others were rapidly coming to light. Acquisitive humanists spent fortunes creating private libraries. In the course of the 15th century, scribes and illuminators would copy five million manuscripts by hand. From his base in the Florence of Cosimo de’ Medici, Vespasiano was soon doing business with princes and Popes. His customers sometimes fought one another in battle. He was destined to become what one contemporary called rei de li librari del mondo—“king of the world’s booksellers.”

Fifteenth-century Florence: a walled city encompassing around 50,000 people. As many as 70 percent of its adult males were literate.

In a previous book, Brunelleschi’s Dome, an international best-seller, King described the design and construction of what remains to this day the largest brick-and-mortar dome in the world—the one atop the Duomo, in Florence. In that book, the dome itself becomes a character, a focal point of attention, as it is for anyone on the city’s streets or gazing down from the Tuscan hills. The Bookseller of Florence is different—the life of Vespasiano runs through it, but the life functions more as a bowl than a dome—a vessel filled with stories, digressions, tradecraft, statistics.

We learn of “manuscript hunters” like Poggio Bracciolini, scouring monastic collections all over Europe for lost classics of antiquity moldering in cupboards. There was money to be made: a secondhand copy of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics might sell for five florins; you could rent a house for a year on the outskirts of Florence for less than half that sum. From an ounce of gold—a nugget the size of a sugar cube—a skilled goldbeater could create 140 square feet of gold leaf, light as gossamer. (One illuminator advised another: “Hold thy breath while fastening the gold leaf, otherwise thou wilt blow it away and may hunt for it afterward.”) Vespasiano showed no patience for scolds, such as Seneca and Petrarch, who had derided the decorative display of books; he valued books for their beauty as well as their content.

In the course of the 15th century, scribes and illuminators would copy five million manuscripts by hand.

Vespasiano’s world was, of course, doomed. There is a famous moment in The Magnificent Ambersons when the inventor and entrepreneur Eugene Morgan evokes the coming age of automobiles: “They are going to alter war, and they are going to alter peace. I think men’s minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles; just how, though, I could hardly guess.”

The same speech, in the 1450s, would have been about Johannes Gutenberg. The German goldsmith had invented something called “movable type,” and was now showing off the fruits of his new printing press at the Frankfurt bookfair. Printed books still looked like scribal books—spaces were even left on the page for artists to insert hand-drawn initials and illuminations—but printers won on cost and volume. As printing shops spread, many traditional booksellers adapted successfully to the new technology.

Vespasiano wanted no part of it, and retired to his farm outside Florence. He wrote a series of sharp biographical sketches of great figures he had known, eventually turning the material into a book. The book was produced the old-fashioned way, a few copies made by hand. Predictably, it passed into oblivion.

But Vespasiano would have the last word. In 1839, three and a half centuries after the Florentine bookseller retired, an Italian cardinal discovered his bound manuscript in the Vatican Library. He had it published—with the help of a printing press this time—under the title Vitae CIII Virorum Illustrium, or The Lives of 103 Illustrious Men. Visiting Rome, a young Swiss historian, Jacob Burckhardt, came across the printed edition of Vespasiano’s book. It inspired him to change scholarly direction and produce a monumental study, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy—a book that helped create the idea of the Renaissance itself.

Cullen Murphy is the editor at large of The Atlantic and the author of several books, including God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World and Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America