From Italy's first printers

A leaf from Postilla super totam Bibliam (Commentary on the whole Bible) by Nicolaus de Lyra, printed by Konrad Sweynheym and Arnold Pannartz in Rome in 1471-2 (370 x 268 mm)

Konrad Sweynheym and Arnold Pannartz – both in Holy Orders – are thought to have worked in Mainz before migrating over the Alps into Italy, where they set up the first press in that country in a monastery 25 miles from Rome in 1464. Three years later they moved their press to Rome itself.

This leaf is one of 1820 that made up each five-volume set of a Bible Commentary issued from the Roman press of Sweynheym and Pannartz in 1471-2 – the first such commentary ever to appear in print. Its author, Nicolaus de Lyra, was a learned French Franciscan of the 13th/14th century. His comments cover every verse of the Bible; on my leaf he is concerned with chapters 13 and 14 of the Book of Exodus. (The practice then was that when a Bible was read out in public, each verse or short passage would be followed by a comment from Nicolaus or some other authority. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to indicate where the comment takes over from Bible text, the reader would add the words ‘post illa verba textus’, ‘after those words of the text ...’ So the commentary became knows as a postilla and the comments themselves postillae – hence the title of this book.)

With its long lines of text in monolithic blocks, alleviated only by the occasional chapter heading, the Sweynheym and Pannartz edition of Postilla must have been a challenging read. Signposts such as page headings or folio numbers are absent and there is no rubrication, at least in the copy from which this leaf comes. Even the actual Bible text to which each comment refers is missing, though the same printers did publish a separate version of the Bible to coincide with the Postilla. Later editions from other printers were more user-friendly, combining Bible text and postillae in a single edition. Nicolaus de Lyra’s words continued to be read and respected for many years, not least by Martin Luther himself.

Sweynheym and Pannartz were active printer-publishers for several years, issuing eight or nine books annually from their Rome press. But the fifth volume of the work from which my leaf comes, published on 13th March 1472, is prefaced by a sad plea addressed to the Pope, Sixtus IV. By their own count, by then they had printed a total of 12,475 books. ‘We first among the Germans brought the printing art to Rome’, they claim, ‘at great labour and expense. We battled against difficulties which others refused to meet, and as a result our money is all spent, and our house is full of unsold quires [unbound pages], but empty of the means of subsistence. Broken in strength, we implore your gracious help ....’ But it was to no avail, and their press closed down the following year.

The typographer Stanley Morison (who in the 1930s commissioned the Times New Roman font later made ubiquitous by Microsoft) described the typeface that Sweynheym and Pannartz used on my leaf as ‘the first true and typical roman used in Italy’. Viewed closely, he maintains, the type can be seen to be ‘roughly cast and of inferior design’; seen en bloc it nevertheless produces a handsome page.

Another leaf from a book by this author is here.