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Evolution of the Book in Italy 101: The Rise of the Printing Press


Humanity's infatuation with the written word has echoed throughout the ages. The creation and development of the book was one of the most outstanding achievements in preserving the social, religious, and political values of societies throughout history. This series aim to provide insights into the technologies and cultural context that led to the advancement of the book from the Middle Ages to the Italian Renaissance. Examining the book's function and technologies helps better grasp the mutual influence between society and the written form. The series examines the book's materials, purpose, and values as a knowledge repository and communication channel. It also delves into the development of the printing press, its relationship to literacy, and its impact on the book economy and humanist agenda. Illustrating a shift in form and function of the book from Medieval to Renaissance Italy, this series explores how ecclesiastical and secular use of the written word liberated and enriched culture. It will also provide insight into how the book also served as a reflection of cultural values and ideologies throughout its evolution.

This 101 series is divided into six articles, including:

1. History of the Book 101: Ancient Technologies

2. History of the Book 101: Medieval Monks

3. History of the Book 101: Illuminated Manuscripts

4. History of the Book 101: Universities & the Rise of Humanism

5. History of the Book 101: Rise of the Printing Press

6. History of the Book 101: A New Age of Literature

History of the Book 101: The Rise of the Printing Press

Before the invention of the printing press, books were produced individually by hand, resulting in limited availability and high costs. Manuscript production was primarily carried out by professional scribes within monasteries or scriptoria that involved laboriously copying texts onto parchment or vellum using quills or reed pens. These manuscripts were decorated with intricate illustrations, gilded pages, and ornate borders. The process was time-consuming and expensive, making books inaccessible to the general public. Owning books was primarily limited to religious institutions, aristocracy, and wealthy merchants. As intellectual curiosity grew during the Renaissance period, there was an increasing demand for books. Scholars and humanists aspired to study ancient Greek and Roman texts, leading to a revival of classical knowledge. However, due to the expensive nature of manuscript production, the dissemination of knowledge was constrained. This motivated the search for more efficient means of reproducing books, and ultimately led to the development of the printing press.

​​The development of the book in Italy from monastic scriptoria to universities, and the eventual advent of the printing press, marked significant milestones in the history of book production and dissemination of knowledge. This progression can be divided into three distinct periods: the Monastic period, the University period, and the age of the Printing Press. During the early Middle Ages, the primary centers of book production in Italy were centered in monastic scriptoria, or dedicated writing rooms within monasteries. Here, the monks painstakingly copied manuscripts by hand, typically religious works, in an admirable effort to preserve ancient knowledge and transmit it to future generations (Pettegree, 2010). Illumination, the addition of decorative illustrations and ornamentation, was a characteristic feature of these manuscripts. Monks were highly skilled in calligraphy and illumination, creating beautifully decorated manuscripts.

The development of the Medieval University had created an immense hunger for books, which grew alongside literacy rates in the late Middle Ages. With the expansion of universities across Italy in the 13th century, book production and the dissemination of knowledge expanded beyond the monasteries. Universities became centers of intellectual life and attracted scholars from all over Europe, who relied heavily on books for teaching and research. Universities like Bologna, Salerno, and Padua also became hubs for book trade and exchange, where students and scholars could commission copies of books (Patton, 1969). As the demand for books increased among scholars, universities became important centers for manuscript production. By virtue of demand, the production of manuscripts had transcended monastic walls, and the pecia system was introduced (Soertermeer, 2005). Under this system, the original manuscript was separated into sections, or pecia, and then distributed to scribes, who worked in an assembly line to create copies section by section in a method of production that closely resembles that of the monastic scriptoria. Scribes produced books on diverse subjects, including law, theology, philosophy, and medicine, to cater to the academic needs of students and professors.

Figure 1: Pictorial representation of a scribe working at his desk (n.d.).

The printing press that emerged during the Renaissance in Italy was a revolutionary advancement in the world of book production. Invented in the 15th century, the printing press was a mechanical device that had a profound impact on the dissemination of knowledge, the growth of literacy, and the spread of ideas throughout Europe. The man most widely recognized as the inventor of the printing press is Johannes Gutenberg, who was a German goldsmith who formed a printing company in the late 1430s (“Printing and Publishing”, 2004). His printing press brought together several technologies that already existed, but were adapted to give the press the basic form it had in early Renaissance Europe. Other cultures had already developed forms of printing, but Gutenberg was the first to use the screw press, which itself was a modification of the wine press that had long been used to squeeze grapes (“Printing and Illustration”, 2001). Goldsmiths had used steel punches to impress images onto a softer metal to create molds; a practice that was adapted to create molds for individual letters which were then arranged to create the text of a page (Lowry, 2000). His experience as a metallurgist enabled him to develop a means of casting interchangeable typefaces, made of an alloy of lead of tin, for printing that improved both the quality and durability of the printing process (“The Birth of Print Culture”, 2001). He also created an ink that better adhered to the paper surface. By 1455 his printing technique was well developed, and the first book, the Gutenberg Bible, was printed with movable type (“Books and Manuscripts”, 2004).

The operation of the printing press involved three key roles, each crucial in contributing to the reproduction of texts. The compositor was the most skilled of the craftsmen. He was responsible for setting the text of the pages, placing the metal typefaces one by one into two frames to create the text on both sides of the same page (“Printing and Publishing”, 2004). This role required meticulous work to preserve the uniformity and legibility of the text. Any misplaced or introverted letters would affect the overall quality of the reproduction, and as a result, it was a time-consuming process that required great precision and care. These frames, along with the type, were then set into the press, one above the other. This was the responsibility of the inker, who applied an even layer of pigment to the raised surfaces of the type, using a roller or a pair of ink balls (Lowry, 2000). He would then insert a sheet of paper between the frames, and had to ensure it was in proper alignment in order to maintain proper form and aesthetic to ensure quality. The operator then employed a lever or screw mechanism to press the paper against the inked form, transferring the text onto the pages (“Printing and Publishing”, 2004). Once he released the lever, the frames would separate and the inker then removed the printed page. This process was repeated for each page, with fresh ink used for every impression. As it was a time-consuming process, the compositor would set the pages for the next day while the inker and the operator ran the press, in order to keep it in production with minimal delay. After the printing was completed, the freshly printed sheets were carefully collected and arranged into the correct order. They were then folded into quires, trimmed, and bound into books in a process much akin to that of the monastic scriptoria. A quality press team could repeat this process 1,000 times in a single day, which would complete a large portion of text for the edition while the compositor prepared frames for the next (Lowry, 2000). Though, it proved difficult to train a press team who worked well in close coordination, and the required equipment–press, types, and paper–were rather costly, and had to be purchased before the completion and subsequent sale of a book.

Figure 2: Illustration of operators using the printing press (n.d.).

The printing press reached Italy in 1465, when two printers established the first at the abbey of Subiaco, in the mountains some 47 miles from Rome, where they printed four books before relocating to the city itself, and then again to Venice (Lowry, 2000b). In 1469, Venice saw the origins of its book market, and by 1480, there were printers established in 50 cities throughout Italy, which more than exceeded the mere 30 printshops operated in Germany at that time (“Books and Manuscritps”, 2004). In the following decades, the price of the book began to drop increasingly as a result of mass production. Prior to the printing press, handmade manuscripts were only available to the wealthy and elite, which limited intellectual pursuit to the upper class and nobility. But the printing press made the cost of book production lower, and less time consuming, and therefore more plentiful. In Venice, for example, the cost of a basic reading textbook decreased by 75 percent between the years 1484 and 1488 (“Printing and Publishing”, 2004). Books became affordable to common people for the first time; the average citizen was able to join ecclesiastical institutions, universities, and aristocratic collectors as consumers of the written word and participants in the spread of knowledge. Italy quickly experienced significant intellectual, cultural, and economic developments as a result of the flourishing printing industry. Prominent cities such as Venice, Florence, and Rome became centers for printing, attracting skilled craftsmen, scholars, and enlightened patrons. Publishing houses multiplied, and the Venetian publishing industry gained particular prominence due to its access to skilled artisans and strategic location for overseas trade (Cragin, 2001). The ports of the city exported prints to publishers of most European cities, and Venice ultimately became Europe’s printing capital in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Master printers and artisans both lived and worked in their small shops. Many printers even received a formal education, which made them the most literate of skilled craftspeople, and earned them a particular respect in Italian Renaissance society. But as artisans who worked with their hands, printers were firmly planted in the social ranks among the commoners, and were rarely able to rise above the status and position of a burgher (Cragin, 2001). The cost of setting up a print shop was relatively low; although the printing press and the type were expensive, they represented a one-time expense since they did not wear down quickly, and if they did, they could be inexpensively repaired. However, it was the cost of paper and investment in books that made the opening of a print shop tremendously expensive (Cragin, 2001). Printers worked closely with booksellers, who would invest in the publication of a few books. Booksellers often traded books with one another, to diversify holdings while limiting excessive capital on printing. In order to keep track of their publications, booksellers were in regular communication and soon began to coordinate prices, distribution, and public investments, eventually publishing a catalog of their inventory (Richardson, 1999). Bookseller-printers also traveled quite extensively to establish a connection with other printers in the industry, establish business, and assess markets. Networks began to develop, and booksellers saw the need to limit competition and redundancy. There was also a greater demand for a variety of books among the growing legal bureaucracy, intellectual endeavors, and a growing bourgeoisie, which encouraged booksellers to specialize their production of books to cater to one of these markets. (“The Birth of Print Culture”, 2001). Whether it be legal, medical, theological, or philosophic, each bookseller specialized in a genre. In the 16th century, book production and sales began to prevail in the urban landscape. It was common practice for booksellers to set up their shops and stalls near the working and living quarters of their target market; they sold scholarly and religious books from shops near universities and cathedrals, and sold legal texts near courts and political institutions (Cragin, 2001). In this regard, printing press operators simultaneously served as agents, editors, publishers, and booksellers, and turned the book publishing industry into one that is profit-motivated, as opposed to an art form for the wealthy. Printing, whether secular, religious, or popular texts in the vernacular, came to dominate cities throughout the peninsula, and had an immediate effect on the social and intellectual climates of Renaissance Italy.

Figure 4: Men working at a printing press, proofing copy, inking, and setting type (Straet, between 1800 and 1899).

The emphasis on learning during the Renaissance greatly contributed to the expansion of publishing in the first century of print. It served the interests of the humanists by making available many ancient Greco-Roman classics that had been rediscovered by early humanists such as Francesco Petrarca. Coupled with the rise of scholarship, humanists advocated for the extension of accessible literature to greater margins within society and demanded the translation of Latin works into the vernacular language (Cragin, 2001). Religious and secular institutions began to amass large libraries of written works, especially classical works in the vernacular, to meet rising societal demands. While Latin remained the universal language for European religious and scientific texts for several centuries, the growing availability of vernacular texts fostered a larger reading audience. This included the burgeoning non-artistic class of wealthy merchants, artisans, and financiers– the bourgeoisie, or middle class (“The Birth of Print Culture”, 2001). Humanism of the Renaissance fostered a spirit of creative individuality and self-consciousness that resulted in many new works of poetry, drama, history, novels, and personal literature. Though classical and medieval texts dominated the publishing industry during the early Renaissance, many printers published new works that would, in turn, propel the expansion of publishing. Such works convinced nobility that their political and aristocratic success depended on humanistic education of which history, poetry, philosophy, and rhetoric were central (Cragin, 2001). The new availability of books soon gave rise to the continued growth of libraries. The existence of book collections and libraries as repositories of knowledge was not a new phenomenon; its existence dates back to the Greco-Roman period, and was revitalized in the Middle Ages by monasteries and later, by aristocrats and scholars. However, the advent of printing permitted far more extensive collections, as new titles and knowledge became more readily available (“The Birth of Print Culture, 2001). Wealthy merchants, aristocrats, and humanist scholars alike began to assemble personal libraries that brought together many of the most valuable works on a number of subjects, and served as a means to display the owner’s social status and affluence. The book had been central to the articulation of wealth and power for many centuries, and a richly crafted illuminated volume was a princely possession and object of majesty. During the Renaissance, people began to place much more value on material possessions. The late fourteenth century saw the beginnings of personal libraries, and with the advent of the printing press, came a concrete shift in the possession and exhibition of a single gilded, prized volume, to the building of a collection of considerable size.

Books and manuscripts helped to fulfill the intellectual and material needs of many people, particularly scholars and aristocrats of the humanist movement. Some collectors would read their texts carefully, and cross-reference ideas in the margins, while others admired books solely for their beauty. Illuminated manuscripts were still considered treasured items, but the printed book became central to Renaissance material culture (“Books and Manuscripts”, 2004). Private collections soared between the years of 1350 and 1600. A wealthy patron in Venice might house a library of hundreds or thousands of books. Scholars such as doctors, lawyers, and apothecaries (pharmacists) kept private collections about their professions. Other collectors made their private libraries available for others, as a meeting place for scholars to exchange ideas and collaborate. For this reason, the printing industry and humanism could not function as separate entities. Authors worked closely with printers to see that the pages were free of typesetting errors, and print shops were known to employ scholars who had education and expertise in Greek to produce the humanist editions of classical literature and commentaries. With mechanical printing, it was possible to create thousands of the same page without fear of scribal error, enabling printers to create standard editions of classical works and new literature genres revered by humanists.

Figure 4: Illustration of printers and scholars in collaboration (n.d.).

Although the printed book can be understood as a mechanical product, its physical format in early development differed little from the medieval manuscript. Most significant of the similarities was the parallel between the script and its position on the page, and the position of the printed type. Many early printed books were designed to emulate the appearance of an expensive and adorned manuscript, with stylistic features that included ornamental initials commonly illustrated. Other features of the medieval manuscript, such as rubrication and marginal treatment, were also utilized in print. The conventions of the printed book were quickly established and printers quickly adopted a standardized style. This included the use of title pages, which were previously nonexistent as a means to save parchment, page numbers, running titles, colophons that indicated the publisher of the book, and easily readable typefaces (Lowry, 2000). Books produced during these early years of of the printing press–the period from 1450-1500–are referred to as incunabula, Latin for “swaddling clothes” or “infancy” ("The Birth of Print Culture", 2001). As printing became more sophisticated, the range of material in print extended beyond language. Printers expanded the number and type of illustrations in their works. Initially, printers put to use the production of pictorial images from woodblock engravings, which predated the printing press by about half a century. This was an independent process that required a water-based ink rather than an oil-based one, and was one of the primary techniques used to reproduce images in partnership with the moveable type. In this process, images were engraved into the wood to create a relief. When the prepared text had been printed, ink was applied to the raised surfaces of the wooden block, and it was then pressed into its respective location on the page to transfer the image (Lowry, 2000). The first publishers chose among several methods available, though they often used woodcut capitals and illustrations, or left space in the text for which the customer could employ a miniaturist to fill. Woodblock printing made image reproduction more accessible and affordable than ever and were relatively inexpensive to produce, but their durability and quality were limited (“Printing and Illustration”, 2001). However, the ability to replicate an illustration meant that it was worthwhile to invest time in. Soon, illustrators began to experiment with metal-plate engraving to facilitate the production of multiple impressions. While a woodblock had a limited lifespan due to wear and tear, a copper plate could sustain an extended printing run without compromising the quality of the image, and catered to the delicacy of the details. This advancement in durability and reproduction capabilities led to increased efficiency in the production of prints, and altered both the meaning and significance of pictorial images (Cragin, 2001). The use of illustrations in medieval manuscripts largely served to cater to the aesthetic of the wealthy or aid those who could not read, but in the printed book images ceased to be the focal point for the meaning or interpretation of a text. Despite this, illustrations remained important to sales. Initially, copperplate engraved illustrations were sold almost exclusively to aristocrats, but by the end of the sixteenth century, they had surpassed woodcut engravings. This process enhanced the efficiency of the mass production of printed text while still maintaining the artistry and embellishments associated with manuscript illumination that remained beloved by Renaissance society.

Figure 5: Illustration in printed edition of Aesop’s Vita et Fabulae (Tuppo, 1485).

By the end of the fifteenth century, Italy was home to three of the ten major book production cities in Europe, and was thus responsible for about a third of the books manufactured. Despite the number of established presses throughout the peninsula, patterns of production reveal that two or three publishers within the cities controlled 40 to 60 percent of the business (“Printing and Publishing”, 2004). Anywhere from five to 20 small publishers, who were often anonymous, were left to compete for the rest (Lowry, 2000). Among the leaders of the printing industry was Aldus Manutius, a passionate humanist, scholar, and educator. He established a printing company, the Aldine Press, which was active in both Venice and Rome between the years of 1495-1597. The Aldine Press concentrated quite heavily on Greek texts, and built a reputation as a leading publisher of Greek literature, and in its early years, was the only press to produce Greek texts (“Printing and Publishing”, 2004). With a deep passion for learning, Aldus devoted his life to publishing great writings of classical literature. He was also greatly concerned with the appearance of his books, as one of his main goals was to produce the highest quality books at the lowest possible cost (“Aldus Manutius”, 2001c). Aldus made two revolutionary contributions to the advent of print: he was the pioneer of the cursive, or “italic” type, and he made books more convenient by reducing their height to roughly seven inches. As Manutius sought to create books of exceptional quality and beauty, he realized that the existing Gothic typefaces were not suited to his aesthetic ideals, and he instead turned to humanistic handwriting as inspiration. He studied the handwriting of renowned scribes, such as Bartolomeo Sanvito and Pomponio Leto, with the aim of creating a typeface that emulated the elegance and legibility of their calligraphy (“Aldus Manutius”, 2001b). In collaboration with type designer Francesco Griffo, Manutius introduced a new typeface in 1501, known as "Italic" or "Cursive" (“Aldus Manutius”, 2001a). Italic typefaces were characterized by their sloping, fluid letters that imitated the natural flow of handwriting. This new typeface was particularly suitable for compact texts, making books more portable and convenient to read. In addition to the italic font, Aldus included in his typeface collection three complete fonts of Greek characters (“Aldus Manutius”, 2001b). He also contributed to the standardization of punctuation, defining the rules of use for commas and semicolons. In November 1502, the doge of Venice granted copyright to Aldus for both his Greek and Italic fonts, and thus forbade any other printers from imitation under penalty of a fine (“Aldus Manutius”, 2001c). In subsequent years, the Aldine Italic typeface became highly influential and widely imitated by printers of the Renaissance.

He further established himself in the book market in the form and function of the book itself. Books were traditionally in a folio format, in which the paper of the sheet is folded once, or in the quarto format by which it is folded twice. The Aldine Press instead used the octavo format, folded three times, seldom seen before Aldus Manutius’ use. What he called the libri portatiles, “carrying books,” became referred to as the portable book, bringing knowledge and wisdom to the literate masses and university students throughout Europe ( “Aldus Manutius, 2001a ). No longer designed for the lectern or pulpit, the reader at home and students individually could access their own copies of the literature, which included the works of Virgil, Horace, and Dante. However, these octavos were no cheaper than the same titles in a larger size, they were new only in the presentation of the text itself (Lowry, 2000a). Aldus presented the first complete book to embody both the new typeface and book format in 1501, when he published the collections of Virgil. This same year, the Aldine Press established a trademark impresa (printer’s emblem); Aldus’ books became quickly recognizable by a distinct trademark that depicted a dolphin’s body wrapped around the shaft of an anchor. The design of this impresa was taken from a reproduction of an ancient Roman coin, which bore a motto quoted from the Emperor Augustus, which read festina lente, meaning “make haste slowly” ("Aldus Manutius", 2001a). The proverb illuminated the tedious attention to detail required of printers in the mass production of books.

Figure 6: Aldus Manutius (Galle, 1587).

During his printing career, Aldus Manutius engaged in the most ambitious publishing program of the early print era. The Aldine Press is believed to be responsible for a total output of an estimated 100,000-120,000 books, many of which found their way into the libraries of princely and royal collectors as well as humanists (“Aldus Manutius”, 2001b). The output of Greek literature in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries was dominated by the Aldine Press, and helped to reconstitute the literary heritage of the Greeks that had been recovered by fifteenth century scholars, like Giovanni Boccaccio. Aldus Manutius earned a reputation for accurate scholarship and a classicist of talent which attracted many wealthy clients. He was also connected to respected humanists in Rome, Florence, and other cities in Northern Europe, which challenged the prevailing impression held by the elite that printers were merely skilled artisans. His cursive type closely paralleled the italic script favored by humanists and collectors, and his interest in placement of print on the page reflects Renaissance aesthetics and concerns with beauty and presentation (Lowry, 2000b). The full impact of Aldus Manutius and the Aldine press cannot be underestimated; the printed works of Aldus Manutius are representative of a wave of humanism that rippled through Renaissance Italy during the first half of the fifteenth century.

The printing press marked a turning point in the history of communication as a vehicle of mass transmission. It was a groundbreaking technology that played a crucial role in the spread of ideas, the democratization of knowledge, and advanced the cultural and intellectual movements of Renaissance culture. Before the printing press, books were handwritten by scribes, making each elaborate volume quite expensive, rare, and limited to the wealthy and influential. The advent of the printing press enabled mass production of books, which reduced the cost of books significantly and made them accessible to people from various social and economic backgrounds. Philosophical, scientific, artistic, and literary works could now be quickly printed and distributed throughout Italy, which fostered a more literate society and led to the rapid spread and exchange of knowledge. The process of copying texts by hand left room for errors and variations, which often resulted in different interpretations of the same text, sometimes with considerable discrepancies, and made it difficult to reproduce the same text accurately. The printing press thus introduced a level of standardization in the production of books, ensuring greater accuracy and consistency in the dissemination of texts, and reducing the likelihood of error substantively. This process also contributed to the preservation of important works, largely ancient Greek and Roman texts of which humanists and scholars were concerned. By making these texts more widely available, the printing press contributed to the revival classical literature, philosophy, and art at the heart of Renaissance culture. Humanism ultimately found its center of gravity when Aldus Manutius, scholar and advocate of humanistic studies, opened his printing press in Venice. Though the spirit of Italian Renaissance culture and society was not solely brought about by the advent of print, it fortified vitality, and ensured permanence.

Bibliographical References

Aldus Manutius. (2001). In Encyclopedia of World Biography Online (Vol. 21). Gale. [Accessed September 25th, 2023].

Aldus Manutius. (2001). In N. J. Wilson (Ed.), World Eras (Vol. 1, pp. 137-138). Gale. [Accessed September 25th, 2023].

Aldus Manutius. (2001). In N. Schlager & J. Lauer (Eds.), Science and Its Times (Vol. 3). Gale. [Accessed September 25th, 2023].

The Birth of Print Culture: The Invention of the Printing Press in Western Europe. (2001). In N. Schlager & J. Lauer (Eds.), Science and Its Times (Vol. 3). Gale. [Accessed September 27th, 2023].

Books and Manuscripts. (2004). In P. F. Grendler (Ed.), Renaissance: An Encyclopedia for Students (Vol. 1, pp. 97-99). Charles Scribner's Sons. [Accessed September 26th, 2023].

Cragin, T. (2001). Printing and Publishing. In P. N. Stearns (Ed.), Encyclopedia of European Social History (Vol. 5, pp. 377-389). Charles Scribner's Sons. [Accessed September 27th, 2023].

Lowry, M. J. C. (2000). Aldine Press. In P. F. Grendler (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the Renaissance. Charles Scribner's Sons. [Accessed September 26th, 2023].

Lowry, M. J. C. (2000). Printing and Publishing. In P. F. Grendler (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the Renaissance. Charles Scribner's Sons. [Accessed September 27th, 2023].

Patton, C. P. (1969). The origins and diffusion of the European universities. Yearbook of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers, 31(1), 7–26. DOI: 10.1353/pcg.1969.0002

Printing and Illustration. (2001). In N. J. Wilson (Ed.), World Eras (Vol. 1, pp. 453-455). Gale. [Accessed September 25th, 2023].

Printing and Publishing. (2004). In P. F. Grendler (Ed.), Renaissance: An Encyclopedia for Students (Vol. 4, pp. 1-5). Charles Scribner's Sons. [Accessed September 26th, 2023].

Richardson, B. (1999). Printing, Writers and readers in Renaissance Italy.

Soetermeer, F. (2005). Between Codicology and legal History: Pecia Manuscripts of Legal Texts. Manuscripta. DOI: 10.1484/j.mss.2.301873

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