The first book printed in Rome?

A leaf from Epistolae by Beati Hieronym (The Letters of St Jerome), probably printed by Sixtus Riessinger in Rome, probably not after 1467 (327 x 228 mm)

What this rather unexciting leaf lacks in visual appeal it more than makes up for in historical significance. It comes from a book which marks the first appearance in print of any work by a seminal writer of the early Christian church, St Jerome, and it may also be the first book ever published in Rome. There is uncertainty about the latter point because surviving copies of the book – The letters of St Jerome – give no indication of who printed it, where or when.

The back-to-front letter N is a distinguishing feature of some of Riessinger’s books, though not, it seems, unique to him. It appears twice on this leaf, in the right hand column of the verso page.

Close scrutiny of the surviving copies of the book has yielded some answers. The type used to print it has been compared with that in similar books in which the printer does give his name, indicating beyond doubt that the printer of the Jerome Letters was called Sixtus Riessinger. Fortunately, there is in one of the surviving copies of the book a handwritten note by an early reader which makes it clear that the place of printing was Rome.

Answering the ‘when’ question is more problematic. A date of ‘not after 1467’ seems to be favoured, but it has also been suggested this book might be the first ever printed in the Eternal City, ahead of a rival contender for that accolade, known to have been published in 1467 by two other printers recently arrived in Rome, Arnold Pannartz and Konrad Sweynheim. We may never know which contender got their book out first – and does it really matter?

Sixtus Riessinger was an ordained priest who learned to print in Strasbourg before moving to Rome in the 1460s. The two-volume Jerome Letters was his first publication, which perhaps explains the slightly rough and ready appearance of my leaf, with uneven line endings and a typeface described as a ‘somewhat irregular semi-roman’.

Amongst his other gifts, St Jerome, who died in about 420 AD, was an exemplary writer of letters (‘Epistles’ might be a better description). He is best known, perhaps, for his translation of much of the Bible, producing the latin text known as the Vulgate which eventually became the authorised version of the Roman Catholic Church. It is Jerome’s words that appear on the latin Bible leaves in this collection.

Riessinger’s edition of Jerome’s letters (in latin the ‘Epistolae’ of ‘Hieronymus’) also includes some of his religious tracts, one of which begins in the right hand column of the recto page of my leaf: ‘Tractatus beati Hieronimi de essentia trinitatis ...’ (Treatise of the blessed Jerome on the essence of the trinity ...).

Jerome’s collected letters circulated widely in manuscript. In print, Riessinger’s version (the ‘Editio Princeps’) was followed by some 20 further editions from other printers before the year 1500. Today an eBook version can be downloaded from Amazon for a mere 86 pence.