Rosa M. Salzberg (University of Warwick)
Sixteenth Century Journal: XLII/3 (2011)
Mobile and marginal, street sellers tend to disappear from the historical record, yet they played a very important part in the dissemination of cheap print from the earliest days of Italian publishing. They operated in the most central spaces of Italian cities such as Venice and Florence, selling cheap printed pamphlets, fliers, and images alongside other small consumer goods. They helped to make print accessible to a wide audience, often engaging in oral hawking or performance that could reach beyond the confines of the fully literate minority. However, these sellers occupied an ambiguous position in Italian cities, more often welcomed by customers and audiences than by guilds and government authorities. The increasing restrictions on print peddlers introduced in the era of the Counter-Reformation reflect the efforts of civic and religious authorities to grapple with the contemporary challenges of a burgeoning print market.
In February 1560, several cartolai (stationers) petitioned the Duke of Florence, Cosimo I de’ Medici, for an exemption from a recent prohibition against selling in the street on religious holidays. All three petitioners—Tommaso di Antonio del Grasso, Santi di Giuliano Ceserini, and Bartolomeo di Luca—emphasized their poverty and responsibility to provide for large families. They explained that they had been accustomed, “according to long tradition” (secondo l’antica con- suetudine) to sell various kinds of cheap printed texts and images on feast days in the Via Calimala, near the Mercato Vecchio in central Florence, and elsewhere around the city. The prohibition was a great threat to them as without the income from holiday street trading they could not support their families. They argued additionally that these kinds of goods, “if they are not laid out in wide open spaces so they can be seen, . . . will never sell”; moreover, that “it is customary to sell these kinds of things in all cities on such days.”