Book Review: The Bookseller of Florence

The Bookseller of Florence: The Story of the Manuscripts that Illuminated the Renaissance
by Ross King
496 pages
Expected publication date: April 13, 2021, by Atlantic Monthly Press

The rare book trade is not unique to the modern era. It has, in fact, been a staple of society since there were books to trade, whether said books were in the form we know them as today, handwritten manuscripts, or scrolls. Once something has been written down and declared to be valuable– either for the words written within or for its status as an artistic object. In Florence in the mid-fifteenth century, the book trade was especially vibrant in the city that is often seen as the epitome of the Italian Renaissance. One man, Vespasiano da Bisticci, was at the heart of the Florentine book trade, and while his occupation did not bring him wealth, it brought him fame among the literary and artistic circles of the time. His clients included artists, noblemen, poets, popes, and generations of the Medici family itself. Even in the latter half of his career, with the Gutenberg moveable-type printing press made hand-copied books nearly obsolete, Vespasiano continued to have scribes copy texts by hand, creating beautiful editions of works by such luminaries as Plato and Petrarch long after most bookmakers had switched to using the printing press.

Ross King’s latest popular history, The Bookseller of Florence, is more than a biography of a single man. He uses Vespasiano’s life as an anchor point from which to expand his history of books, bookmakers, booksellers, and readers, and while the narrative roves from ancient Greek philosophers to the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by the Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire, it always finds a line back to Vespasiano and his bookshop in Florence. Still, the scope of bookmaking is vast, and King doesn’t hesitate to go into detail about the history of bookmaking and the materials used, taking the reader back to Egypt and Rome to explain the origins of the materials and detail the process that took us from papyrus to vellum to paper, and from scrolls to the books we know today. There is a good deal of discussion, too, about the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato; their works were beloved and discussed by Renaissance philosophers and church officials who argued about the ancient philosophies about whether or not they were too pagan to be read by good Christian people, or whether they enhanced the teaching of the Bible and so were acceptable to be disseminated.

Italian writers get a suitable page count, too, with Petrarch’s poetry, Dante’s Comedy, and Boccaccio’s Decameron. King makes special note of Boccaccio, whose critics warned that the raunchy stories were not fit for ladies’ eyes (indicating that, contrary to common modern opinions, upper-class women, at least, were educated and prone to buying books).

And because art and literature are not separate from historical events– and because those events affected Vespasiano’s life and trade– King discusses the major events of the time, from the fall of Constantinople to the infamous Pazzi conspiracy of 1478, as well as the election of popes, the doings and deaths of poorly-behaved noblemen, and how monks and nuns got into the book industry themselves- and not just for religious texts.

For readers lacking a solid foundation in the history of the Italian Renaissance, The Bookseller of Florence could be difficult to read. King sketches out the backgrounds of most of the figures he mentions, but there are enough of them that the flood of names and places could be overwhelming. Keeping a Wikipedia page open to look things up might be a good idea.

But for those who have an interest and grounding in Renaissance history, The Bookseller of Florence provides a treasure trove of facts and insights about books, their history, and our ongoing fascination with them. At times it feels elegiac, like when King discusses the lost works from Greece and Rome, but more often than not it lights up with the love of the written word that all readers feel when presented with a beautiful book.

Thank you to NetGalley and Grove Atlantic for providing me with a free ebook in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion.

One thought on “Book Review: The Bookseller of Florence

  1. Beautiful review, thanks for this one. I don’t think I’m particularly well-versed in Renaissance history, so it might take me a bit more effort, but I am fascinated by the topic and your review has me even more interested. I like that it’s more than a biography, that it tackles many aspects of history.

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