How A Humble Bookseller Helped Give Rise To The Renaissance

Apr 14, 2021
Originally published on April 14, 2021 11:56 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When I lived in Florence, Italy, a few years back, I was on deadline, trying to finish writing a book. So it felt appropriate that many days, my errands took me down a narrow street long known as the Via dei Librai, the Street of Booksellers. The street runs through the heart of the city from the Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall, north towards the Duomo, the cathedral. And it is what happened on this street in the 15th century during the Renaissance that inspires Ross King's new book. It is titled "The Bookseller Of Florence." And Ross King is with us now.

Welcome.

ROSS KING: Thank you - great to be here.

KELLY: So who was this man who you christened the bookseller of Florence?

KING: In fact, I wasn't the one who christened him. He was known as the king of the world's booksellers. He was a fellow named Vespasiano da Bisticci, and he was born 1422. And he began work in the Via dei Librai as an 11-year-old and then for the next half-century, dominated the book trade not just in Florence but, really, across Italy and, really, for all intents and purposes, across Europe because, as I say, he was the king of the world's booksellers. And he was quite literally the bookseller to kings, people like the kings of Naples. He dealt with various popes. He dealt with the Medici family, so he was really the go-to guy for manuscripts.

KELLY: To find a book, to make a book, as you say, if you were a king or a pope - I mean, it's very clear reading your book that building a library in the 15th century in Italy was something of a competitive sport for kings, for popes, for people in positions of power.

KING: Absolutely, that's a good way to put it because they really wanted to enhance and burnish their reputations as learned men and as great patrons and also to show off their wealth and refinement. And one of the best ways to do that was to assemble a beautiful library. And Vespasiano was the man in the right place at the right time with a stable of anything up to about 40 scribes. He was not himself a scribe, but he had all of these people he could tap that he would pay to turn old manuscripts into beautiful, new, often illuminated manuscripts, beautifully decorated manuscripts, to adorn, to grace these beautiful libraries that were being set up across Italy, really across Europe in the 1450s, '60s and '70s.

KELLY: It's so interesting what you're doing here because I think many of us, when we think about the Renaissance and about Florence, we're thinking Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli, and you mentioned Brunelleschi - painters and architects and sculptors working in the visual arts. To put books at the center of everything of this whole explosion in knowledge and culture that was happening in Renaissance Italy is not the way the story usually gets told.

KING: I suppose. And I mean, it's natural for us to celebrate the artists, and we do so quite rightfully. But in some ways, what came first were the ink-stained scribes and the scholars in the tattered clothing, the professors and manuscript hunters who went to search in the dust and must of libraries in Northern Europe to try to uncover manuscripts that hadn't been seen for 4- or 500 years. And so I really wanted to celebrate them because they, in many ways, started the movement before the painters got going. But these intellects, these scribes and scholars, were the ones that really affected a kind of gear change or step change or pivot in thinking, which then led nicely into things like Filippo Brunelleschi deciding he was going to rediscover the stones of ancient Rome in the way that his friends had been rediscovering the parchment and papyrus of ancient Rome.

KELLY: And then go on to build Florence's famous Duomo...

KING: Exactly.

KELLY: ...Among other things. OK, so plot twist alert - Vespasiano is very successful, enjoying this fabulous moment where he's the king of Europe in terms of making and copying and distributing and selling books. And along comes this guy named Gutenberg...

KING: (Laughter) Yeah.

KELLY: ...With this new gizmo, the printing press, which I imagine threw quite a wrinkle into the book trade.

KING: That's right. (Laughter) I mean, the sad thing for Vespasiano - he was at the height of his powers in the 1450s and 1460s, when the printing press was invented. And it wasn't until the 1470s that the printed book really began to find a wide readership and a wide marketplace in Italy and also in Florence. And so he decided he was not going to embrace it. And he refused to let a printed book enter his shop because Vespasiano said a printed book would be ashamed to share space with one of his illuminated manuscripts. And so he had nothing to do with it. And of course - I'm sorry - I don't want to give away the end of my story, but things don't end all that well for Vespasiano. And there's maybe a lesson in there that we should embrace the new technology because ultimately, he decided that he was going to close his shop or he was going to retire and let the printed book take over.

KELLY: Yeah, which, obviously it did and...

KING: Yes.

KELLY: ...Remains dominant today - although we're now in an era where everyone reads everything instantly online. Do you think the art of bookmaking, of bookselling will survive in some form? Or one day, might we lose it altogether?

KING: I - well, I certainly hope we do because I think there is absolutely no greater pleasure - certainly for me, no greater shopping pleasure than going into a bookstore and seeing books. And I think everyone who's done that has had the happenstance of - and the serendipity of just seeing something on the shelf in a bookstore or library.

KELLY: Firing up your Kindle just does not compete.

KING: Well, I mean, you can find things that way, and things will be suggested to you through algorithms. But in many ways, those algorithms are - an algorithm is meant to be predictable. And it's the unpredictability where you see something that no algorithm would guess you were interested in. And I think that's the excitement of discovering something and taking it off the shelf and looking at it and poring over it.

KELLY: And what of Vespasiano? Are there any traces of him today when you wander around Florence?

KING: (Laughter) His - I would love to be able to say that his shop is still a bookshop, but it's not. It's a pizza parlor. You can go and eat a pizza there. But his legacy, I think, is both - the fact that he spread this knowledge far and wide, in many ways fashioned what the printed book looked like just because he was so prolific. But also, one of his great legacies is the book that he wrote. He became an author after selling so many books. He, in the 1480s, began writing his "Lives Of Illustrious Men," where he wrote this gossipy biography of all of the interesting people that he'd met over the years. And that was a great resource for me, obviously, as I was writing the book.

KELLY: That's a wonderful reminder that the tell-all memoir (laughter)...

KING: (Laughter) Yes, exactly.

KELLY: ...Has been alive and well for many, many centuries.

KING: A long history.

KELLY: Ross King talking there about his latest book, "The Bookseller Of Florence: The Story Of The Manuscripts That Illuminated The Renaissance."

Ross King, thank you.

KING: Pleasure - thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.