Printing History and Book Arts – Recent Trends in the History of the Italian Book

Dialogo dove ne i congressi de quattro giornate. Case 4A 876.
Galileo Galilei. Dialogo dove ne i congressi de quattro giornate. 1632. Case 4A 876.

Presented to the Western European Studies Section of the American Library Association

Paul F. Gehl, Custodian of the John M. Wing Foundation

July 10, 2000

I would like to take just fifteen minutes of your time to sketch the present state of Italian book history studies. I will concentrate on publications of the last 8-10 years, and, though I include work done by foreigners on Italian subjects, I will stress recent work by Italian scholars, simply because this may be less well known to you than English and American work.

What I have to say builds, I hope, on the talks you have heard earlier in this session, because in the best sense, book history intersects with all the other fields of historical scholarship. All of us on the panel, moreover – and all of you to the degree that you collect, catalog, and use Italian books – are engaged in the kind of hard-won Transatlantic cultural exchange that John Tedeschi has described for us. As Dante Della Terza noted, the long career of Mario Casalini embodied a similar commitment to international understanding and cooperation. I think it is highly appropriate for us to celebrate him by forging on with that project.

So, let me describe new book-history work in three kinds of fields. Some kinds of book history in Italy are in fact very old, and new work in them tends to build on a long tradition, research of the sort Italians call “plurisecolare”. Other book history fields are really inventions of the twentieth century, but by now are well established and flourishing. In both these areas, of course, new work, often exciting new work continues. There are still other studies, however, that don’t quite fit these traditional areas, and which we can define as genuinely new, or at least new-ish, as regards Italy.

One kind of book history that I will not talk about is the multi-volume, multi-author, nationally-organized history of the book. The first American volume is just out, to much fanfare, the British well are underway, the French of course finished theirs years ago. In Italy there is no such project and may never be, because the Italians quite rightly do not see their book history as national, but rather as an international phenomenon from the fifteenth century until the nineteenth. Much native Italian book history is instead embedded in local history studies. Its greatest strength is in the depth of archival exploration such local studies provide. This can also be a limitation, at least looking, as we must inevitably do, from outside, for the simple reason that local historians hesitate to generalize. The fact of localism also presents particular challenges for researchers, and for the collection development librarian.

The older, “plurisecolare” fields of book history include paleography and codicology, retrospective bibliography, archival, manuscript and early printed book cataloging, and bibliophile subjects like the history of book binding.

Paleography/codicology is both the oldest and most important of such fields.

Italian scholars resent, and with good reason, the claims that are sometimes made that codicology, understood in broad terms as the study of the book as object, is a French innovation and that Italian work in the field imitates or follows French models. In fact, the detailed description of physical aspects of individual manuscripts has always been part of Italian paleography, while the history of scripts in Italy has been informed by the larger history of material culture at least since the 1920s, far longer than in France or England, or the U.S.

The last twenty-five years have seen Italian paleographers turning their attention more and more intensely to archival documents, and especially to those that evidence vernacular reading and writing habits. Qualitative studies of literacy, not to be confused with the quantitative ones favored elsewhere, have become the hallmark of paleographical study in Italy. You can follow this trend exactly in the pages of the journal Scrittura e civilta’, a title that seemed immensely daring and ambitious when the journal was founded in 1977, but which now seems a perfectly normal way of looking at script history. An important specialized field, to take a single example that has been pursued actively in the last ten years, is the study of the penetration of Italian chancery cursives into the handwriting-instruction practices of other European countries.

Italian manuscript scholars, perhaps even more than other Europeans, have embraced the digital revolution, with generous, even lavish support from the central government in Rome. Digital publications of important manuscripts are multiplying rapidly, almost always under the patronage of major national libraries, and a process called restauro virtuale applies digital enhancement techniques to damaged artistic manuscripts. For those who are interested there is a demonstration on the site of the National Central Library of Florence. The latest digital manuscript publication is the famous Codex Amiatinus just issued by the Laurentian Library in Florence in conjunction with their current exhibit of that physically restored bible.

Bibliography in the Anglo-American analytic sense is still a foreign import in Italy. Though the results of the best English and American work are now much admired by Italian librarians and scholars, there is really only one center for such studies in Italy today, at the University of Udine.

Enumerative and descriptive bibliography, however, are ancient and proud Italian traditions. Some splendid new examples have appeared in the last decade, especially in the local history arena and for ephemeral imprints. I am thinking particularly of the wonderful 1996 Bononia manifesta with 3500 entries for Bolognese broadsides and other slight publications, or, say, the 1994 Bibliografia della festa barocca a Roma. Bibliographies of periodicals also continue to appear, ranging from the thorough and now indispensable entries for Genoa assembled by Roberto Beccaria, to useful but flawed assemblies like the Stampa periodica dell’eta’ giacobina…in Emilia-Romagna which is printed from on-line records of varying quality –so various, in fact, that the compilers decided to sign their own records individually.

The vigor of this venerable tradition of enumerative bibliography can be gauged in a simple way by noting that Leo S. Olschki’s series, “Biblioteca di bibliografia italiana,” recently passed 160 volumes, of which over 30 appeared in the 1990s. Vol. 157, which came out just this year, is the first in an entirely new subseries with an English title, Rome: a bibliography from the invention of printing through 1899. It remains to be seen how useful this new series will be, but I note that its editor explicitly traces the origin of his endeavor to the 1792 Bibliografia storica of Ranghiaschi.

Cataloging efforts of all sorts have accelerated in recent years, accompanied by a great deal of alarmist rhetoric in the Italian press about the supposedly inevitable disappearance of the Italian language. This has spurred, among other things, political support for projects that put Italian culture generally and Italian language texts in particular on line.

In the library world, the Ministry for Cultural Affairs and the national collections it supervises have devised several important union-catalog projects, all of which feed data into the growing national on-line catalog, the SBN or Servizio Bibliografico Nazionale. Interestingly enough, alongside the large-scale national data-base projects, and to a large degree in direct contention with them, are numerous small scale, highly local cataloging efforts. The problem is authority control. Many local entities, either municipal, private or ecclesiastical, simply do not accept the national norms, and the SBN has, frankly, given them little incentive to do so, because the national authority work is so problematical –not so much badly done as just seriously understaffed. The local catalogs, moreover, also embody a deeply-felt Italian love of copy-specific data. What has resulted is a spate of locally-sponsored, printed catalogs, dozens and dozens of them in the last decade, and with more appearing every year, especially for early printed books, but also for archival collections, bibliophile collections, literary collections, collections of ephemera, and so forth. Typically these get published with local patronage, often by local presses, because they are judged to be of interest to a local public. They are also, of course, rich and useful documents for the history of book collecting and erudition more generally. One that seems particularly well done to me is Giovanni Busi’s Libri ebraici a Mantova (Fiesole, 1996) whose 333 entries describe the existing collection of the Jewish community library in Mantua.

Contemporaneously, there are several important on-line collections of primary texts for Italian history and literature, the most important being the Biblioteca italiana telematica, headquartered in Pisa but with contributors from fourteen Italian universities and several international collaborators. Some in this audience doubtless know about Italnet, a cooperative project of Notre Dame University and ARTFL which has also loaded many early Italian texts from the data bases of the Opera del Vocabulario in Florence.

So much for the ancient specialties of modern Italian scholars.

Established fields, that is 20th century fields that continue to display great vigor in Italy, include studies of individual printers or printing houses, censorship studies, and the history of libraries and collection formation, some of which I have touched on in terms of cataloging already. To my eye, the most important of these as permanent additions to the literature are the thorough accounts of individual surviving libraries. The nature of local publishing patronage in Italy has sometimes made it possible to do these in lavish fashion, so that they are at once contributions to cataloging, to paleography, to art history and to the history of bibliophilia and science. To cite one example that can stand for many, I would urge you to look at the 1998 Biblioteca Malatestiana publication, La biblioteca di un medico del Quattrocento with detailed codicological descriptions, excellent plates, and four interpretive essays.

Many such projects accompany book exhibits. Exhibit catalogs, as I don’t need to tell you, are a misery to collect and catalog, but in the Italian field they are more often than not worth the trouble because they tend to be so ambitiously done. Again, we can thank local pride and local patronage.

Let’s turn now, to some New/newish fields, those that have emerged as such only in the last decade or so. These include the history of journalism as distinct from literary history, the economic history of printing and allied arts, and something I would call visual-literacy studies, though it is really still a field without a name.

Journalism history may not seem like a new field, but if you look at Italian publications on the subject before 1985 or so, they are almost exclusively concerned with political or literary aspects of journalism, and usually with the content or personalities, not with the media or printing aspects. The 1980’s saw a great upsurge in the study of political journalism and that in turn brought on a greater interest in publishing itself. This is an area, then, where the last ten years have seen a virtual revolution, partly because huge collections of older periodicals and ephemera are being cataloged for the first time, partly because the intense study of local history has led Italian scholars to look anew at magazines and newspapers that were once considered mere curiosities, and partly because the rediscovery of the popular culture of the 18th and 19th century has been so vigorous. I have already mentioned the spate of new bibliographies and catalogs of periodical and ephemeral imprints that make this kind of research possible. Italian developments in this field directly parallel those elsewhere, and American scholars are making interesting contributions both for Europe generally and for Italy specifically. To see how far the field has come in recent years, you need only look at last year’s The Social History of Skepticism by Brendan Dooley.

The economic history of the book, especially in the sense we in America now most often think of it, as a history of consumerism, is a field where Italian scholars have lagged behind other Europeans and Americans, for reasons that have never been entirely clear to me. It may simply be that the Italian economic historians, blessed with such rich archives from the high middle ages onward, have kept occupied with the analysis of such basic products as wool, grain, oil, and textiles, for which good, centralized kinds of documentation exist, but have not gotten around to gathering the more scattered sources for a field like printing and publishing. To the degree that older studies exist, they tend to be on the production of basic commodities in the book field such as paper. And the older studies tend to be very local-minded. Some important new synthetic work has been done in recent years, however, on paper history, placing it in the context of regional economies. I am thinking especially of Renzo Sabbatini’s wonderfully readable Di bianco lin candida prole (Milan: 1990). New work entirely is to be found on the stationery trade and the economics of book production. Even the staid old field of binding history is beginning to receive attention from the economic point of view. In several recent books that I consider indispensable, Angela Nuovo of the University of Udine has offered long lists of the available documents for the book trade, most of which await analysis. Her bibliographies are equally essential for other aspects of book history in the first age of printing.

One last area that I want to touch on is the one I have already called, mysteriously enough, visual literacy. I mean by this studies that try to analyze the reception of purely visual or visual with textual images –to ask how they were read, and perhaps more importantly, how early modern people learned to read them. Ingrid Rowland and her students, as we have heard, are deeply involved in just this kind of work. The impetus for studies of this sort, in fact, comes from art historians who began some years ago to look at prints and the print trade as important corollaries to the more widely studied fields of painting and sculpture. The closer they looked at prints, however, the more autonomous the field began to seem, and the more closely it seems to parallel studies in book production and consumption. Their results, moreover, were comparable to the already well-developed ones for the history of textual literacy. More recently therefore, social historians have begun to work in this field, and the questions they ask tend to be the ones I find most exciting, about the development of local, regional, and international methods of reading images.

Three very different books by Americans typify the kinds of results such studies can generate. A colleague of Ingrid’s at the University of Chicago, Barbara Stafford, published a theoretical introduction last year with MIT Press under the title Visual Analogy:Consciousness as the Art of Connecting. This book is not specifically Italian in any way, though it dwells at some length on the baroque sensibility. Stafford sets out parameters as to what questions scholars should be asking of visual sources. At the practical end of the spectrum, American-born, French-educated, Italian citizen Sara Matthews published a narrowly based study in 1991 called Ange ou diablesse, about prints that represent women in the 16th century, which I consider a good model for the social reading of individual prints. More recently and much more ambitiously, there is Michael Hobart and Zachary Schiffman’s Information Ages, which talks about literacy and numeracy from the Mesopotamians to the computer age. Needles to say, Italian cultural history is only one part of the pictures these scholars offer, but all of them agree that Renaissance and baroque Italy was one principal stage for developing visual, numerical, and textual literacies. Keep your eyes open for further developments.

Enough. I want to end with these American books, by way of reminder that some of the most exciting work that goes on in American universities is based on the kind of cultural exchange we all work so hard at in libraries. My remarks also come with heartfelt thanks to our Italian colleagues for letting us till their fruitful fields, and to the Casalini family for helping us do the digging over the last fifty years.