The Book Trade in the Italian Renaissance: Structure and Regulation

The Book Trade in the Italian Renaissance: Structure and Regulation

By Professor Angela Nuovo, Universita di Udine

46th Annual Erasmus Lecture

Given at the University of Toronto, October 21, 2010

Professor Nuovo spoke about how the book trade developed in Italy following the introduction of the printing press in the 15th century. Book printing quickly grew in Italy – during the 15th century over 10 000 works were published, but in the following century these numbers grew much larger. During the 16th century publishers in the city of Venice produced over 27 000 editions.

Professor Nuovo detailed some of the characteristics of the printing industry, including how it spread first into northern Italian cities, and how publishers soon found themselves catering and adapting to the tastes of their buyers – for example, during the 16th century the language of the books changed from mostly Latin to mostly vernacular, and religious books were in demand during the years of the Counter-Reformation.

Venice soon emerged as the ┬ácapital of the book printing industry in Italy and a system of privileges was established – these were concessions that could be bought from the local government which gave┬átemporary rights to various businesses – to publishers to print a particular text; to wholesalers to prevent others from importing the same text from outside publishers; and to booksellers to be the only shop that could import a title not printed in Venice. These privileges were not common – they only applied to about 17% of books published and were assigned only to new texts. Furthermore, privileges could not be hoarded – if you received a privilege and did not publish the text, the privilege could be taken away.

The system prevented any one publisher from becoming too dominant but allowed for continuous growth and prosperity in the industry for most of the 16th century. Other Italian cities tried to use similar privileges – the Duke of Medici for example, sold the right to be the sole publisher in the city of Florence to one publisher for a 12 year period. Other cities tried to entice Venetian publishers to move to their towns in exchange for salaries and privileges.

In the city of Rome during the late 16th century, the Papacy developed a system giving privileges to individual works, and then to whole groups of texts. Soon, publishers were getting perpetual rights to be the exclusive publishers for all their books, provided they were approved by the Inquisition. This was very lucrative, since religious works, especially prayer books, were the hottest sellers in 16th century Italy.

The reasons behind the Papacy’s interest in publishing was that they were worried that inaccurate editions of their religious texts were being published in this era of the Reformation / Counter Reformation, and believed that by having one publisher for a particular text they would prevent any problems from developing. The Popes even threatened to excommunicate Venetian publishers for breaking Rome’s privileges.

The printing business soon turned to Rome, leaving the industry to falter in the rest of the country. Between 1580 to 1596, nearly two-thirds of all publishers in Venice went out of business. Professor Nuovo finishes off her lecture by saying, “The Church harmed the Venetian publishers not when they prohibited books, but when they promoted them.”

In the question and answer period following the lecture, Nuovo noted that Venetian publishers even printed Qurans in Arabic for the Turkish market in the 1530s, but soon this business died off as Ottoman religious authorities banned Islamic texts published by non-Muslims.

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