Crossing borders: Italy – introduction

From the start, German printers were keen to sell their books abroad, helped by the fact that anything in Latin could be read by scholars and churchmen throughout Europe. Soon printers themselves were in demand abroad. Men from Germany crossed the Alps to set up the first presses in Italy in the1460s, and French academics brought in German printers to establish the first press in that country a few years later Further afield, it was Germans who were the first printers in The Low Countries, Spain, Hungary and Poland.But with the Renaissance under way, it was Italy rather than France that would prove particularly fertile ground for the new art. By 1500 there were 150 presses operating in Venice alone.

Crossing the Alps was a fearsome under­taking in the Middle Ages. Yet a succession of German printers did it from the 1460s onwards, bound for Italy. With them on their mule trains they must have taken presses (or drawings for constructing them) and supplies of metal type (or the equipment for making it).

With the Renaissance under way, Italy should have been fertile ground for the new art, and so in due course it would become, but not before a fair proportion of new start-ups had gone out of business after a few years. Perhaps immigrant printers did not have the deep pockets requisite in a trade where a lot of money has to go out before any money comes in. And as incomers they may have misjudged the market and produced more than they could sell. Eventually it was the wealth and mercantile might of Venice which made that city the powerhouse of Italian – or even European – publishing. Venetians could make printing pay by exporting Latin books throughout Europe.

Figures from the wonderful online Incunabula Short Title Catalogue tell the story. It reckons to include 90% of all printed items published in Europe up to the year 1500. Venice is credited with some 3800 editions, more than any other single location. (Paris is next with 3200 – and Parisian books tended to be smaller than Venetian ones.). Among countries, Italy as a whole shares first place with the German speaking lands, each producing close to 10500 editions. French speaking lands are next with 5400, while England earns the putty medal with a paltry 412

In general, early Italian printing differs from early German printing in the typefaces used. Of the ten leaves in my collection that were printed in Italy between 1480 and 1500, eight are in roman type. But of the ten originating in Germany over the same period, none is roman, though some might be classed as ‘gothic (or black-letter) with roman tendencies’. As the name implies, the third major class of typeface, italic, also originated in Italy.