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Living with Books in Renaissance Ferrara

Living with Books in Renaissance Ferrara

By Don C. Skemer

Princeton University Library Chronicle, Vol.59:2 (1998)

A map of Ferrara, c.1600.

Introduction: The growth of private libraries was one of the most remarkable aspects of the history of the medieval book during the 14th and 15th centuries. Their proliferation had been made possible by earlier changes in manuscript production, particularly its gradual relocation from monastic scriptoria to commercial stationers in cities. Private libraries became especially widespread in Italy, amassed not only by Renaissance princes and church prelates but by the most literate members of urban society, especially affluent merchants, artisans, lawyers, physicians, schoolmasters, public notaries, and noblemen.

For the scholar studying this phenomenon, few Italian cities provide better evidence than Ferrara, situated in Emilia-Romagna about a hundred kilometers southwest of Venice. Ruled by the Este princes, Ferrara came to play a leading role in 15th-century Italian politics and cultural life, quite out of proportion to the modest size of the city and the territory under its control. Renaissance Ferrara was both a powerful state and an important center of learning. Influenced by humanists such as Guarino Guarini, Niccolò III d’Este (1383–1441) began to develop the great Biblioteca Estense through the large-scale acquisition of manuscript copies of classical and vernacular texts, which were produced by scribes, illuminators, and other independent book artisans in Ferrara and throughout Italy.

At the same time, however, many other Ferrarese were collecting books on a less princely scale, perhaps influenced to a degree by the Este family’s penchant for public display and opulence. Indeed, Adriano Franceschini has identified more than a hundred book owners in 15th-century Ferrara with total holdings of more than four thousand manuscript and printed items.

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