When Books and Art Really Mattered
Updated: Jun 18
An essay on purveyors of wisdom in Renaissance Florence- A book review of new book by Ross King, "The Bookseller of Florence." By Brian Keeler
Ross King has outdone himself with this new investigation into the Renaissance. His other books, have also been revelatory journeys into the essence of luminary figures of Italy (and elsewhere.) Those books have been historical sleuthings of the movers and shakers of art history and history in general. This new book, "The Bookseller of Florence" continues that tradition but homes in on a figure that most readers have probably never heard of before. I've read and relished several of King's previous books, including; "Michelangelo and The Pope's Ceiling," "The Judgement of Paris," "Brunelleschi's Dome," and "Leonardo and the Last Supper," so this one was anticipated with eagerness.
The man in question here, Vespasiano da Bisticci, (ostensibly named in honor of the ancient Roman Emperor Vespasian) was a publisher and a self-made man, who came from plebeian origins, but through his own efforts found himself at the center of the intellectual milieu during one of the most exhilarating periods of history, the Renaissance. Ross King's work here brings to us a figure who interacted with most of the important figures who formed this era of accelarted learning. In short, Vespasiano is as at the center of the epicenter of the rebirth of the classics and the artistic and literary florescence.
As when an unknown Mayan ruin is discovered in the jungle of Guatemala, this book brings to us a fellow who influenced many of the philosophers of the day, yet has remained hidden in obscurity to most. Overshadowed by the more famous figures of the Renaissance until now, through King's research and scholarship, we are brought a seminal figure who influenced just about everything and everyone.
I got a tip of this book's publication before it was available and so, for the first time, I ordered a book prior to its release. I wasn't disappointed. This text shows how those involved in publishing of Florence in the 1400's were intertwined with artists, ( manuscript illuminators) scribes, ancient text revival, the vainity of statesmen, (generals and merchants seeking to have impressive libraries) and then reconciling these interests with relgious institutions of the day.
The New York Times review of this book, by the art historian Simon Schama brings to light the parallels with another of my favorite recent books. This being the account of the same period by Stephen Greenblat, titled, "Swerve." Pioggo Braciolino is the hunter of manuscripts in that book, and he plays an important role here in King's book. The entire concept of searching for ancient wisdom before it disappears into dust is thrilling and engaging as important works of the ancients were barely surving in dank monasteries. Pioggio discovers Lucretius' work, "De Rerum Natura" or "On the Nature of Things." We may recall Umberto Ecco's book, "The Name of the Rose" and the movie with Sean Connery of the same name as treading similar territory. Many of the other usual suspects (for fans of this era) are brought into the limelight. Marsillio Ficino, Lorenzo de' Medici, Savanorola, Duke Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino and many others. The artists of the period figure into the mix as well, as Leonardo and Botticelli are both considered. This new book by King proves that nothing is exhausted, as King takes this period of history that we've read about from many others and brings an entirely new light into the canvas.
Here is a passage from the book that portrays the excitement that must have been prevalent in an around the bookshop-
" By the 1440's the bookshop had become a gathering place for Florence's intellectual luminaries. Philosophy and literary discussions now took place not (sul canto del palagio) but inside the corner shop itself as visitors filed through the doors not merely to purchase manuscripts of Cicero or Pliny but also to hear or participate in learned discussions about them. One visitor claimed the shop was redolent with philosophy."
The streets in Florence that we've strolled will now scintillate with new energy as we are brought to know the trials and travails of a mercant and an entire subculture. The way the text evokes the quotidian necessities of book production, the whims of market demands and volatile politics is all part of this fascinating story. The bookshop of Vespasiano's was on Via dei Libria (Street of the Booksellers) across the street from the architectural icon, the Badia. The Badia, or abby is the building with a tower behind the present day Uffizi Gallery. The bookstore is a pizza shop today, but now when visitors pass by this eatery we can imagine it during the mid 1400's bustling with readers, writers, philosophers and paper merchants. Vespasiano got his start here, humbly as a "cartolaio" or paper vendor- he was was a prodigy and quickly became an accomplished student of philosophy and dealer of books.
One interesting factoid brought out by the book is that the more famous Bonfire of the Vanities inspired by the fiery sermons of the penitential Dominican Friar, Savonarola was not the first. There was an earlier one in 1424 with the same conflagration of art, books, playing cards or other luxury objects or so-called vanity items or those deemed lascivious. This first conflagration of art was enacted in Piazza Santa Croce seven decades boefore the more famous outbreak of similar intolerance.
King gives us mundane facts of how the production of books with velum, or animal skins used for the pages, was heavily indebted and dependent on sheep and cattle. It reportedly required one hide to produce one page and with great labor and time required in the making. Imagine scraping the hide of all its hairs and then sizing it to produce just the right thickness and sheen. With a typical book requiring 240 pages, we can see how the wool industry, which gave Florence its economic edge, and the consumption of meet and leather production were all intereleted.
We are also offered a window into the competing dyamics of the era. As Vespasiano's life mission, initially, was to bring the wisdom of the ancients into availability through his publishing and purveying of books. Toward the end of his life, this became less of a raisonne d'être, as he saw catastrophes of social and political natures bring into doubt the efficacy of this credo. Still, this underlying ethos of blending the ancient wisdom with the Catholocism prevailed and informed the art of Botticelli and dozens of others for decades. Florence was regarded by many of this period as Athens on the Arno, which suggests the allusions and aspirations to bring the ancient philosophy of Greece to Italy.
A quote from Vespasiano below underscores his belief in his work as bookseller bieng a purveyor of knowledge:
"All evil is born from ignorance. Yet writers have illuminated the world, chasing away darkness."
The transition of books from the efforts of monks and nuns in monasteries or in Vespassiano's shop working with quill and ink to laboriously produce copies to that of the printed book is an important aspect of books in this period. This is the sunset period or wanning days of the hand produced book There was controversy and dispute as to the merits of the new technology from Gutenburg's invention of the printing press. These eddies and currents of commerce and aesthetics add to the fraught and challenging era.
The street life and quotidian workings of the alleys in Florence are given new life as King shows us so much of the daily flow of energy, like "the Bench Singers" or hawkers "The Ciarlitani- Charlatans" who populated the narrow streets around the Badia. As with King's other work, this historical accont reads like a novel as the characters breathe in and around the bricks and mortar of Florence.
One final passage from the book encapsulates the credo of the era to reconcile ancient philosphy with Christianity: "Any qualms Ficino suffered about Plato's supposed impiety had long since evaportated. Like Ambrogio Traversari before him, he found to his relief that the Greek philosphers were in harmony with the truths of Christianity. "The whole of philosphy of the ancients," he wrote to a friend, "is simply religion united with wisdom." Religion and wisdom came together most profoundly in Plato, who was, Ficino believed, "indisputably divine," a savior who could reform and renew religious life by showing how philosophy might purify the soul."
Such were the grand concerns and aspirations of the Renaissance and Vepasiano in particular. When we compare that to the strident and divisive rhetoric in today's politics we understandbly long for and relate to the day when literature could have goals of such salubrious intent.