My second novel, The Floating Book, is about the dawn of printing in
Of all inventions, I would argue that printing is the one that has most changed humanity, because it is the one that has most influenced the way in which we humans express ourselves. Even the internet still defers to the book, visually and linguistically. We still think in pages, in words juxtaposed with images.
In the course of a few brief years in the middle of the fifteenth century, everything about books changed. Until then, each volume could be created only as quickly as a single man, writing by hand, could compose or copy it. Each book was as different as the handwriting of its scribe and the talent of its illuminator.
With printing, three hundred books could be printed in a day. Three hundred identical copies of each book, day after day.
This transition from slow books to fast ones was recognised for all its wonder and danger. In
, the revolutionary idea of printing could have gone either way. Some Venetian oligarchs and many churchmen were against the printing press, believing it to be Lucifer’s latest weapon against the innocence of the ignorant public. But others, such as the book collector Domenico Zorzi, saw mass-manufactured learning as an ingenious boon, akin to the Lord’s multiplication of good things in the loaves and fishes. Not only might writers now feed the minds of the multitudes, but publishers could ensure that this was achieved at a price not beyond the purse of a reasonably prosperous man. The written word was no longer reserved for those with bottomless scrigni or coffers. Venice
On March 18th, 1468, Domenico Zorzi persuaded his peers at the Venetian collegio to allow printing to commence in
. And not long afterwards two young German brothers made their way over the Alps from Venice . Johann and Wendelin Heynrici carried with them the matrixes and iron letters of their trade. By coincidence, and perhaps as an omen, at exactly the same time, there arrived in Speyer the entire library of the learned Cardinal Bessarion, destined to make the giddy, beautiful Serenissima a more bookish, serious city. But in those days there was as yet no Marciana library and the books were carried off to the Doge’s Place until a suitable repository could be made for them. Venice
Meanwhile the two brothers from
stoically faced down the byzantine bureaucracy of the Venetian state. They had also to deal with the Venetians’ prejudices against their race – Germans were considered boorish and fit only for making useful objects like weighing scales. It was rumoured that their very skin stank of metal. The brothers had a great deal to prove, and not just their technical skills. Speyer
Printing, of course, would fuse technology with creativity in a way that had never happened before. And in more forms than one: I believe that it is no coincidence that oil painting and printing arrived in
at around the same time. Giovanni Bellini himself was a sensale (a kind of tax official or broker) at the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, which for me was the logical place for Wendelin and Johann to set up business, in the centre of town and close to the German community’s Venice church of San Bartolomeo on the San Marco side of . Bellini was brother-in-law to fellow-artist Andrea Mantegna, a great friend of the charismatic scribe Felice Feliciano, who seems to have joined the German brothers in an advisory capacity. Rialto
Johann and Wendelin embedded themselves more deeply in their adopted community. They married local girls. Johann’s bride was Paola di Messina, the daughter of the artist thought to have brought the technique of oil painting to
. And on September 18th, 1469, the Collegio of Venice Venice conferred upon ‘Johann von Speyer’ the exclusive right to print the letters of and the Natural History of Pliny ‘in the most beautiful form of lettering’. Cicero
And that was the very beginning of
Venice’s long reign as the greatest printing centre in . Italy
|logo of Aldo Manuzio
Printing stumbled through its first years in the city, beset by accusations of immorality from intemperate priests and rumours of collusion in the forging of currency (the tools of printing being similar to those of minting). Some printers were even executed. The vicious plague of 1478 reduced the number of printers from twenty-two to eleven. But gradually the lot of the stamperie improved. Soon the French typographic genius Nicolas Jenson was competing against the
brothers with his covetable small formats; within twenty years Aldo Manuzio had set up his legendary press. Greek and Hebrew printers gravitated towards the city. Which was the first city to print the Koran in Arabic? Where were the first books produced in Armenian? Where did the first best-sellers appear? Yes, Speyer , every time. Venice
The names of the consiliari who signed the original document for Johann von Speyer included Angelus Gradenigo, Bertuccius Contareno, Franciscus Dandolo, Jacobus Maureceno, Angelus Venerio. The names of these men are painted on the ceiling in a small room of the Marciana library where I did the research for The Floating Book, holding in my own hand Johann and Wendelin’s first edition of Catullus, printed in their graceful font and lightly rubricated in red.
Now, nearly 550 years later, the same building shall host another historic appointment. On Friday April 12th, two days from now, the writers of
In the last four weeks alone have come the announcements or threats of closures of four more bookshop: addio to the venerable Goldoni, the Capitello, the Laboratorio Blu, the Marco Polo. This is a hard blow for a city that already lost her biggest bookshop, the Mondadori, a couple of years ago (you can read my obituary here) and which has also seen the recent closure of other establishments like the Tarantola and the Fantoni at San Luca, the Rossa at San Pantalon, the Solaris at the Maddalena, the Libreria Patagonia, known for its owner Vittorio’s ability to find even the most unfindable volumes.
|a staircase of books at Luigi Frizzo's Acqua Alta bookshop
The announcement of the closure of the Goldoni seems to have been the last straw, or in Italian parlance, the drop that made the vase overflow for
More than a hundred Venetian writers and writers about Venice, as well as many illustrators, have been galvanized into an unprecedented ‘class action’ by Alessandro Marzo Magno, author of L'alba dei libri. Quando Venezia ha fatto leggere il mondo (The Dawn of Books: When Venice Made the World Read.) Among those who have joined the cause are such well-known novelists as Strega Prize winner Tiziano Scarpa, Enrico Palandri, Andrea Molesini, Roberto Ferrucci, Alberto Toso Fei, Renato Pestriniero and Francesco da Mosto. Writers about
, including myself, have also been recruited. Venice
The campaign started as a flow of emails between friends, spread to friends of friends and led to a meeting last Tuesday with the Assessori of Commercio e Attività culturali, and other city officials, who have declared themselves ready and willing to participate in the saving of
The writers have announced that they are going to take a strong and determined position against these losses, which have become untenable. Now Venetian writers are creatures of their time, of this time: they are fully aware that the printed book is suffering everywhere; that bookshops are suffering from online offerings too. But in
, the cradle of Italian printing, the loss of the bookshops is less bearable than elsewhere. We are facing, as Tiziano Scarpa puts it, a paradox: a city of culture, without the shops to purvey culture. And Roberto Ferrucci speaks for us all when he says that this is a time when it behoves Venetian writers to stand up for their bookshops. What sense would there be in writing, he asks, if there were no booksellers? Venice
The epidemic of bookshop deaths can also be seen as a metaphor for the inexorable destruction of once-important elements of quotidian life in
. It is not only the bookshops that are disappearing in a cityscape now dominated by the economic imperatives of tourism: bars, mask shops and glass shops are the new plague on the built environment. In my own ‘village’ of San Vio, I remember fondly the two butchers (the deaf one and the grumpy one), the fruttivendolo, the latteria, the bakery, the hardware store, the haberdashery. In the last ten years, all have disappeared – and so it is in every zone of Venice, each of which once used to have at least one bookshop, providing vital intellectual and cultural sustenance for a local population as well as employment for educated, book-loving Venetians. Venice
The Marciana, the oldest cultural institution in
, has been happy to host Friday’s public meeting of the writers, at which a manifesto will be presented, along with a programme of events designed to breathe life back into the bookshops. Venice
|Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
If all goes well, you’ll be reading its contents in the English press, I hope, in the next week.
So I shall not pre-empt them too much. I think they may well be the most interesting and eloquent words uttered about the future of
since Filippo Tommaso Marinetti scattered hundreds of copies of his Futurist Manifesto Against a Past-Loving Venice from the Campanile in San Marco in 1910. (The Futurist agenda, however, was quite different from that of the eighty Venetian writers currently pursuing their action against the dumbing-down of their home. Marinetti wanted to ‘murder the moonlight’ and cleanse the ‘putrescent’ Venice, ‘the festering bubo of the past’, of all stultifying sentimentality, recreating her as an industrial modern city, breathing industrial smoke, not dreams. He called for the canals to be drained and filled with the rubble of the ‘leprous’ palaces that lined them, and for gondolas, ‘those rocking chairs for cretins’, to be burnt.) Venice
What can be done to help the bookshops in
? Well, without giving too much away, a number of practical measures are under consideration. There are precedents too. In Venice , there is talk of devoting some ‘sacred spaces’ in the public realm to high-quality bookshops, with controlled rents. This has already been done in Milan . Could similar spaces be found in Paris by the three institutions with the biggest property holdings: IRE, the Curia and the Comune itself? Venetian bookshops might be considered cultural rather than commercial operations, with appropriate financial help and reduced rates. Could there be stronger relationships between the bookshops and the museums? Venice
And the writers, in the meantime, will seek ways to raise public awareness about the precious literary sustenance they are in danger of losing. Flash mobs, blacked-out bookshop windows, public readings and other events have been suggested. And Friday’s manifesto itself will be a lasting witness to the passion of Venetian writers for their trade and for their history.
If you would like to sign up to the campaign against the closures of bookshops in
Venice, you can join the Venice, City of group. Here is the link Readers Facebook
Robin Saika has posted a new translation of Marinetti’s Contro Venezia Passatista here
Michelle Lovric’s website
Michelle Lovric’s new novel for young readers, The Fate in the Box – a dark tale of 18th-century
– is published on May 2nd by Orion Children’s Books. Venice
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