Pressing to the Limits

It did not take Fust and Schöffer long to recover from catastrophe. They made a good team, until Fust’s death in Paris. After that, Schöffer reaped where Gutenberg had sown, supplying missals across Central Europe – good business, no risk, high quality – for another forty years. He died, rich, respected and eminent, in 1503.

His career thus spanned the years in which Gutenberg’s invention turned from a local wonder to an international phenomenon. Later, in the seventeenth century, when people began to ask how the revolution had happened, historians adopted a charming Latin name for these early printed books: they were the incunabula – the ‘swaddling clothes’, which by extension also means ‘infancy’ – of the printing revolution. This expression has now been taken into most major languages, sometimes acquiring a spurious singular form, incunabulum, sometimes a local equivalent: the German ‘Wiegendruck’ means ‘cradle-press’ and the Japanese ‘yoran-kibon’ means ‘cradle-period books’ (though they also use ‘in-kyu-na-bu-ra’).

At about the same time as incunabula came into use, Johann Saubert of Nuremberg drew up the first catalogue of early books and imposed an arbitrary cutoff point of 1500. The term and the date fell neatly together. Incunabula are those books printed up to 31 December 1500. Other catalogues followed, of other collections; academics and collectors came on board; and today major universities and libraries around the world have their incunabulists. It’s an academic industry. With the coming of computers, it became possible at last to pin down the whole subject, like some sort of literary human genome project, by listing everything published in movable type from Gutenberg’s first Donatus up to 1500, wherever the volumes had ended up. The project, coordinated by London’s British Library, is known as the Incunabula Short-Title Catalogue (ISTC). From its ninety-six contributing libraries in sixteen countries, the catalogue currently lists almost 30,000 titles, and rising, in virtually every European language (3,000 of them are on microfiche). By 1500 Europe’s presses had printed some 15–20 million books.

I’m searching for an analogy. It has been called a media explosion, and it was in a way, when you consider how Mainz exploded in 1462, but an explosion dies as it expands. This grew, more like an animal population colonising new land. It was an entirely natural, spontaneous expansion, flowing along trade routes, seeking out the likeliest nesting-sites – those towns with universities, cathedrals, generous rulers, large law courts.

It was not entirely unrestrained. For ten years Schöffer tried to preserve his monopoly by making his trainees promise not to tell their secrets. There is a story that when Johann Fust took samples of the 42-Line Bible to sell in Paris – Europe’s biggest university, the Sorbonne, with 10,000 students: surely a terrific market – the guildsmen of the book trade took one look and had this new rival chased out of town for consorting with the devil. Scribal practices endured, their products in demand for another twenty years. And printed book prices, as with any new technology, did not at once undercut manuscripts.

But the secret was out, and the market was hungry, and prices dropped, and the boom was on.

For academics, this is well-trodden ground, the stuff of detailed studies and theses. Rather than plod in the footsteps of experts, I prefer to scan the territory, then buttonhole you with some of the stories and connections that strike me as particularly intriguing, those books that seemed to do something new and – like Gutenberg’s own invention – inject into Europe elements which remain part of life today.


Germany proved an ideal base for expansion. It had good mines for the metals printers needed, good metalworkers, prosperous merchants with money to invest. For decades, Germans dominated the new trade, journeying with their sets of punch-cutting tools and hand moulds and formes, seeking financial backing and work wherever they could, settling for anything from a few weeks to years (Appendix II). Wherever these nomads went, they taught their trade to apprentices, who spread it further. Gutenberg’s protégés from Strasbourg days, Heinrich Eggestein and Johann Mentelin, started works in their own home town and were in production as rivals by 1460, both printing their own versions of the first German translation of the Bible, which was the first Bible translation in any modern spoken language. It was a hopeless translation, but still a challenge to the traditional role of churchmen as interpreters of God’s word. The archbishop of Mainz banned it in 1485 – one of the first acknowledgements that this new invention had the power to undermine establishments.

Apprentices from both Mainz offices scattered after the war of 1462, founding print shops in Cologne (1465–6), Basel (which issued its first Bible in 1468), Augsburg (1468) and Nuremberg (1470). Then, at an average rate of about eight new printers a year, printing spread to sixty German cities by 1500, many with two or more – Strasbourg had fifty by 1500 – making some 300 German printing works in all. Mainz itself, with half a dozen print shops, no longer figured high on the list, though Schöffer’s sons, Johann and Peter, kept on the business after their father’s death in 1502. Peter, a talented punch-cutter, worked in Worms, among other places, at a crucial historical moment we shall come to later.

Despite the scattering of the industry, one element – sales – remained centred if not on Mainz then at least nearby. Frankfurt, on the river route in the middle of Europe, had had a trade fair since the twelfth century, drawing traders from all Germany every spring and autumn. It was this fair that in the early fifteenth century gave Frankfurt its economic pre-eminence, while Mainz sank under the weight of its debt and destructive disputes. That was why Fust went there to hawk the 42-Line Bible in October 1454. He or Schöffer or their salesman no doubt returned there every year, especially after books became a formal part of the fair in 1480. Today’s Frankfurt Book Fair, with its hundreds of stands and tens of thousands of titles, is that fair’s direct descendant.


The most successful of all German printers arose in Nuremberg. This Bavarian town of some 50,000 people was one of Europe’s richest and most advanced. Its double walls and 128 watchtowers assured safety for the trade that brought in the wealth. It made Mainz look like a backwater: paved streets, stone bridges across the Pegnitz, and water mains. Politically, it was not exactly progressive. Its thirty-five aristocratic families dominated the city council, which stood no nonsense from any guilds. But the system worked a dream. It was a city bound by success, a camaraderie displayed every Shrovetide in a famous carnival, at which masked townsfolk capered wildly through the city and staged dreadfully xenophobic plays, as if marking their walled den to keep Jews and Turks in their place. But xenophobia lived happily with its opposite. Merchants and their agents secured trading privileges in seventy cities. Nuremberg-owned companies monopolised refineries in Poland and Bohemia, and in light industry – arms, armour, brasswork – Nuremberg was supreme. As a result, its craftsmen were well off enough to have their own houses, which then as now was a good way to ensure against social unrest in the future. In Venice, six of the fifty-six rooms in Venice’s ghetto for northerners, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, were occupied by Nurembergers. So despite the lack of a university, the city was ambitious to be part of the intellectual mainstream flowing from Italy. It was, in brief, a natural home for the most astonishing of German incunabula: the first great attempt at popularisation, and the first book whose publication details are known, the Nuremberg Chronicle.

Hartmann Schedel graduated in medicine from Padua and practised as a doctor all his long life. But his real passion was books. He inherited several hundred from a cousin and spent his spare time and money collecting, creating an immense library which is now in the Bavarian State Library. He started to collect printed books in 1470, though he never abandoned script, copying forty volumes himself. A meticulous scholar and obsessive note-taker, he was a creative force only as a collector (his wife would take issue with me: he also fathered twelve children). Yet his peculiar obsessions drove him to write one of the most famous books of his day.

The fame of the Nuremberg Chronicle does not rest on originality. It purports to be a world history, in 600 pages, from the Creation to 1493. In fact it is a ragbag of information grabbed indiscriminately from hundreds of sources, predominantly Italian, notably our prolific friend Piccolomini, who besides being Pope, friend of Nicholas of Cusa and admirer of Gutenberg’s Bible was no mean historian. Schedel had Piccolomini’s Historia Bohemica (published in 1475, long after his death) and a manuscript of his history of Europe, and simply copied from them both. He was quite indiscriminate in what he included, ignoring vital contemporary events, like Columbus’s discovery of America (news of which arrived just in time for inclusion). No: what marked it out was its illustrations, its design and its printing, which give it a unique place in the history of books.

The driving forces behind its publication were its patrons, Sebald Schreyer and Sebastian Kammermaister, both connoisseurs of Italian humanism and (crucially) woodcuts. It was their generous Renaissance ideals, to make the work available ‘for the common delight’, that underpinned the decision to publish in two parallel editions, Latin and German. Artists were to hand – Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, who had taught Albrecht Dürer, and one of his protégés, Michael Wohlgemut. Nuremberg was also home to Anton Koberger, godfather to Dürer, and Europe’s biggest media tycoon; printer, publisher and bookseller all in one, he had two dozen presses, a hundred pressmen and agents all over Europe. Under his auspices, prices dropped and print runs rose from a mere 200 or so to over 1,000. He prefigured later publishers in social ambition: he married an aristocrat and cultivated the upper echelons, a publishing lord in all but name. Author, sources, patrons, artist, printer and distributor: the shared skills were all present in a unique, tight-knit group of well-off neighbours, friends and relatives.

Except for the print run, details of the Chronicle’s production and contracts survive, presenting an extraordinary insight into this first work of popularisation. To run off an estimated 2,500 copies (1,500 in Latin, 1,000 in German), Koberger was required to provide a locked room for the workers to ensure there could be no plagiarism (it was pirated anyway after publication).* He bought the paper himself, invoicing his patrons later. He was paid four gulden for 500 pages: about £1/$1.50 per page, not far off the cost of printing and binding a present-day coffee-table book, if anyone did one in black and white.

It had over 1,800 illustrations, many, notoriously, being used twice or more. This gives an insight into the pressures, much the same then as now. The artists were working fourteen hours a day for their advance of 1,000 gulden – £100,000/$150,000, not bad, until you divide it by two and spread it over two years of production. And as time was of the essence, and not many people knew what Mantua and Verona really looked like, did they, so what the hell, why not just use the same view? Who cared, as long as they bought the book?

Well, they did and they didn’t. In 1509 558 copies remained unsold. The artists’ heirs, theoretically bound by contract to share the costs, found themselves charged with 1,200 gulden to cover unsold copies, returns and various other debts. This was more than their original advance; there is no record, publishers will not be surprised to hear, of the advance being repaid. As Adrian Wilson says in The Making of the Nuremberg Chronicle: ‘One can only conclude that the book trade has changed little in the intervening centuries and that the illustrator’s lot was no better than it is today.’

The author, it should be noted, gets no mention at all. No contract, no advance, no royalties, nothing. Obviously no agent. It seems Schedel was just thrilled to be published, and did it for love. I would say this project lacked something in terms of editorial control. Its presiding genii, obsessed with design, production and sales, forgot about content and ended up with unsold copies and no profit.

There are obvious morals here. Overambitious publishers; uncritical patrons; no editorial control; probably the wrong author in the first place – the thing was heading for the rocks from the start. But then, like so many misplaced ventures, if hindsight had been foresight, we would not now have a wonderful book that is the very stuff of medieval life.


Abroad, Germans spread under the same stimuli as at home, seeking markets among academics, prelates and lawyers. Germans trained more Germans and growth was exponential, until there were some four hundred working all over Europe; and those are only the known ones. Appendix II lists those Germans who first went to the place mentioned. But many travelled on elsewhere, and so did their local trainees.

To list who went where and when would be fine work for a train-spotter: not a bad analogy, as it happens, because the interconnections become as intricate as a railway network, as hundreds and then thousands of printers established themselves and moved and returned across the face of Europe. Assuming it took three years to train a printer to a level at which he would be game to take off on his own, and suppose each master printer trained just one other (later, apprenticeships varied from two to five years), the expansion of expertise would have been exponential on a three-year base. Two master printers in 1452 produce only eight by 1460, but then 128 by 1470; 1,000 by 1480; 8,000 by 1490; 64,000 by 1500 . . . Well, by then competition had imposed Darwinian restraints, and the graph had levelled off. By 1500 some 1,000 printing works may have been employing 10–20,000 people.

Another way of looking at this expansion is to count up towns with presses. By 1480 – just twelve years after Gutenberg’s death – 122 towns in Western Europe had printing presses, with or without German involvement. Almost half of them were in Italy.

Printing towns in Europe 1480

























Over the next twenty years the number of printing towns doubled again: 236 towns had one or more presses in 1500 (including, strangely, the village of Cetinje in Montenegro, where in 1493 the first Slavic press was set up, using Cyrillic type brought from Venice. It didn’t last long; the Montenegrins melted down the lead for bullets).



Italy owes a particular debt to young Konrad Sweynheym – from Schwanheim, between Mainz and Frankfurt – who was possibly a Gutenberg protégé and may well have benefited from the (always theoretical) link between Gutenberg and Nicholas of Cusa.

In 1459 Nicholas, bishop of Brixen in the Tyrol, had been having a hard time with the local Austrian ruler. His old friend Piccolomini, now Pope Pius II, had invited him to Rome. ‘Such abilities as yours,’ he wrote, ‘should not be allowed to languish imprisoned among snows and gloomy defiles.’ In Rome, Nicholas, who had done so much to reform Germany’s corrupt monasteries, became incensed at what he saw. ‘Everything is corrupt! No one does his job properly! Neither you nor the cardinals take the interests of the Church truly to heart!’ (This is Pius himself reporting the conversation, by the way, in a remarkably frank and vivid piece of self-criticism. He was, as I said, a writer at heart.) In reply, Pius told Nicholas to take a break.

Subiaco, seventy kilometres east of Rome, was a good place for a retreat, charmingly set in hills, by a lake created for the emperor Nero. St Benedict had turned hermit here in a cave, inspiring a Benedictine monastery dedicated to his twin sister, St Scholastica. And Nicholas, remember, was a great supporter of the Benedictines, through whom he had worked for reform in Germany.

Was it just another of those coincidences that it was to Subiaco – in particular to the Santa Scholastica monastery – that young Sweynheym and his friend Johann Pannartz came when they headed south in 1464? Not a coincidence at all, according to the preface of the Sweynheym–Pannartz edition of St Jerome, published in 1470. The preface was written by Giovanni Andrea de Bussi, who had been secretary to Nicholas of Cusa and was now chief librarian to the Vatican. So he, like his former boss, had an interest in arguing that printing, about which the Pope might still have his doubts, was a divine blessing, ‘a gift of happiness for the Christian world’. He went on:

It is perhaps no slight glory for Your Holiness that volumes which in former times could scarce be bought for a hundred gold pieces are today to be had for reading in good versions and free of faults throughout for twenty . . . One can hardly report inventions of like importance for mankind, whether in ancient or modern times.

And then comes this telling sentence: ‘It is that which the soul (rich in honours and meriting heaven) of Nicholas of Cusa . . . so fervently desired: that this holy art, whose shoots became visible at that time in Germany, should be transplanted to Roman soil.’

There is, of course, no evidence for a link, but it is easy to imagine one: Nicholas in Subiaco, with book-loving Benedictines whose colleagues in Mainz were close to the events that swirled around the invention of printing, and were central to the dispute over the rival archbishops (this is 1459, when Mainz’s civil war began to brew). By now he would have known about the 42-Line Bible. Maybe his own copy, the one that’s now in Vienna, had already reached Brixen, and he would soon be ordering his copy of the Catholicon (it’s still in his library at the Cusanus Research Centre in Bernkastel-Kues). Imagine a letter to his old friend, Gutenberg, mentioning how ideal Subiaco would be: the monastery, the Benedictines, the judicious distance from Rome and its dubious Pope. If ever any German printer wanted to come south, this would be a good place to start.

Letter or no, Sweynheym and Pannartz made it to Subiaco in 1464 – there the next year to produce Italy’s first printed book, the works of an obscure early Christian convert, Firmianus Lactantius – and on to Rome, printing twenty-eight titles in all. Then things went wrong. Overproduction in Italy was the problem. Their market dried up, and their house filled with unsold, unbound books. In 1472 Bussi put in a word for them with the Pope, but to no avail. Pannartz died soon afterwards, and Sweynheym turned to map-engraving.

These two were just the first of many to heed the call. Ulrich Hahn, a possible Bamberg trainee, was in Rome in 1466. Hans (or Johann) von Speyer and his brother Wendelin, both Mainz-trained, were granted a monopoly in Venice in 1467, as his Latin colophon proudly proclaimed: ‘The first to print books by means of bronze formes in the Adriatic city was Johann, who originated in Speyer.’ There the von Speyer brothers were joined by Nicholas Jenson, the French spy sent to learn what he could from Gutenberg, now a spy no more, because he had stayed on in Germany as a master punch-cutter before heading south. Jenson devised the superb Roman typeface which was used to print the first Bible in Italian, in 1471, thus marking a break with Germany’s script-based, hard-toread textura. After Johann’s death, his monopoly lapsed, and Jenson set up on his own. Johann Numeister, another Gutenberg protégé, settled in Foligno and produced the first edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy in 1472. (Incidentally, this was now a two-way process: Numeister trained Stephen Arndes from Hamburg, who returned to Germany and set up a major works in Lübeck in 1486.) A German-Jewish family, naming themselves Soncino after their first home town in Italy, became the first to publish in Hebrew; the founder’s nephew, Gerson ben Moses, was known as Menzlein, the Little Mainzer, in memory of the origins of his skill. By 1480 Italy far outdid Germany in the number of printing centres.


And Venice was printing capital not simply of Italy but of all Europe, with 150 presses. Success came for many reasons. It was a city-state that had preserved its independence from the dynastic rivalries of its neighbours. It was beautifully positioned for land and sea commerce, which it exploited to make itself Europe’s richest city. And it had within reach of its ships the Greek-speaking world of Byzantium. Thus, when the Turks seized Constantinople in 1453 and turned it into Istanbul, it was to Venice that its scholars fled, forming a community of expatriate academics, La scuola e la nazione greca, and creating an irony. The Fall of Constantinople was a notorious disaster for Christendom; yet it contributed to a boom in scholarship in Europe. The date 29 May 1453 was one of few implanted in my nine-year-old brain, because it was the birthday of the Renaissance, the date on which Europeans began to think and paint properly. As historical analysis, this lacks nuance; but it does emphasise that the law of unintended consequences, usually assumed to state that well-meant acts pave paths to hell, may also specify the opposite. It certainly did in this case. The influx of Greeks and their manuscripts fuelled a feeling among Renaissance scholars and artists that, in their search for classical antecedents, they had better explore their pre-Latin roots among the writings of the ancient Greeks.

One such scholar was a diffident provincial named Teobaldo Manucci, who in 1480 was teaching the young princes Alberto and Lionello Pio, of Carpi. Teobaldo, a graduate of Rome and Ferrara, got to know the boys’ uncle, Prince Giovanni Pico of Mirandola. Pico was both very rich and very brilliant, being fluent not only in Latin and Greek, but also Hebrew and Arabic – astonishing erudition for a man just out of his teens who died at the age of thirty-one. Through Pico, Teobaldo Manucci, now Latinised as Aldus Manutius, passed to Pico’s friend and fellow scholar Ermolao Barbaro of Venice.

In Venice, already so rich in printers that competition had driven many out of business, Aldus spotted a gap in the market. Despite the boom in Greek studies, no one was publishing in Greek. The local Greeks didn’t have the technology, and Greek handwriting had never been standardised. This struck the shy, Greek-speaking teacher as a terrible lack. How could classical literature underpin education, as it should, if there were no texts? Once stated, it was obvious. He found backers – his former pupils among them – devised a typeface, had punches cut and went into business. It was risky, of course, but the cost and originality enabled him to apply for and receive a twenty-year monopoly on the printing of Greek books. With this security, he published Aristotle, in five volumes (1495–8), going on to publish dozens of other major classical works, to the highest standards – he required his Greek typesetters and proof-correctors to speak classical Greek, or get fired. His commitment, his programme and his standards established the Aldine Press as Venice’s leading printer, and a tradition of Greek printing that lasted until the end of the nineteenth century.


All of which is by way of background to allow me to examine one of the craziest, most beautiful books ever printed.

The book has a lovely mouthful of a title: Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, which roughly translates as Poliphilo’s Struggle for Love in a Dream. The title says much about the book. The two invented words, in a literal translation, mean ‘sleepy-eroticstrife of many-loves’. It is an excessive, hothouse sort of a title.

So is the plot. In some ways it is a stock pastoral fantasy, with an enamoured hero pursuing, finding and accompanying his beloved Polia, aided and abetted by nymphs, through landscapes and numerous buildings. At the end, just as consummation seems inevitable, Polia vanishes into thin air.

But this plot unfolds in a lunatic fashion. Poliphilo falls asleep in a forest and dreams for much of the book. In his dream, at the request of nymphs, Polia tells her story, which proceeds until she meets Poliphilo and a priestess, who asks to hear Poliphilo’s story, in which he tells of a pseudo-death, visions and an awakening in Polia’s arms. Except that he’s still dreaming, dreaming that Polia ends her narrative. That’s when they embrace and she dissolves. He wakes. The end.

A baffling Russian-doll structure is just the start of the confusions. The book is written in an artificial language, which uses Italian grammar with words drawn from Latin, Tuscan and Greek, many of them totally made up, with Italian endings. There are also eighty epigrams and inscriptions, in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, mock hieroglyphs and ‘Chaldean’. It is the work of a cryptomaniac. Astonishingly, HP has been translated into English, in part in 1592 (only a third of it), and in full in 1999 by an American academic, Joscelyn Godwin, Professor of Music at Colgate University, Hamilton, NY. Godwin had been in love with the book for years and completed his translation for the five hundredth anniversary of its publication, brilliantly adapting it to pull back from the extreme and deliberate obscurantism of the original. He gives an impression of what a sentence would be like if he had matched the author’s classically based neologisms and style: ‘In this horrid and cuspidinous littoral and most miserable site of the algent and fetorific lake stood saevious Tisiphone, efferal and cruel with her viparine capillament, her meschine and miserable soul, implacably furibund.’

Through the author’s interconvolvulated coruscations, as he might have put it, palpitates an umbracious erotomania: in other words, it throbs with repressed sexuality. Both the hero and heroine are wildly, triumphantly, assertively erotic. Here is a description of Botticellian nymphs at play, girls ‘of tender years, redolent with the bloom of youth and beautiful beyond belief, together with their beardless lovers . . . They had gathered their thin silken dresses, bright with many attractive colours, and bundled them up in their snow-white arms, showing the elegant form of their solid thighs . . . They kissed with juicy and tremulous tongues nourished with fragrant musk, playfully penetrating each other’s wet and laughing lips . . .’ And so on, for many pages.

Weirdly, the book’s erotic content is expressed most powerfully through buildings, which form a series of stages for the action. Indeed, buildings take up more than half the book, and no fewer than seventy-eight of the first eighty-six pages are descriptions of buildings or gardens. Of the 172 engravings, eighty-eight are of buildings. In sequence we are led through a garden planted to look like a wilderness, a palm grove, a giant pyramid (which takes up fifty pages), a bridge, octagonal baths, a palace, an arena, a gateway, a gymnasium, a colonnade, a courtyard, two colossi, a statue of an elephant carrying an obelisk, another bridge, a bathhouse, a pergola and an aquatic labyrinth. The love story is a mere adjunct.

Yet story and buildings are interfused, in a quite extraordinary way. Poliphilo is a ‘lover of many things’, and Polia is a neuter plural – ‘many things’. And it is in architectural things that Poliphilo finds release for his pent-up passions, for buildings are symbols of the body. I have never heard of building fetishism, but here it is: this is nothing less than an architectural erotic fantasy. An arch is virginal, marble as flawless as a nymph’s skin. Buildings fill Poliphilo with the ‘highest carnal pleasure’ and ‘burning lust’. A temple of Bacchus is carved with a ‘rigidly rigorous’ phallus. Pining for Polia and questing for love, Poliphilo becomes enraptured by what he sees, but is at first frustrated, as a female statue bears the words ‘Do not touch my body’. Later, though, he enters a temple, which becomes a stage for ever more explicit rites. Doors are opened wonderfully smoothly by magnetic stones, inscribed in Latin and Greek with ‘let each follow his own pleasure’. A priestess sets a torch aflame then inserts it into a cistern, asking a nymph what her wish is. ‘Holy Priestess,’ she replies, ‘I ask grace for him [Poliphilo] that together we may attain the amorous kingdom’, while Poliphilo himself begs that ‘Polia should keep me no longer vacillating in such amorous torment’. The nymph, ‘with a sigh uttered hotly from the bottom of her inflamed heart’, admits that she is actually Polia and that ‘your persistent love has altogether stolen me away from the college of chastity, and forced me to extinguish my torch’. To this Poliphilo ‘inflamed from head to foot . . . dissolved in sweet and amorous tears and lost myself completely’. At the end of these love rites he ‘instantly felt the solid earth stir and shudder’, and ‘the groaning hinges of the golden doors sounded beneath the vaults like a thunderclap trapped in a sinuous cavern’. The very building, it seems, shares in Poliphilo’s orgasm. Some of the illustrations would even now rate as soft-core pornography (many of the offending organs being inked out in the Vatican’s copy). In the end, this is the story of Poliphilo’s progress from lover to lover, sex object to sex object. The phrase ‘amor vincit omnia’ (‘love conquers all’) echoes in many illustrations; ‘Eros is the mother of everything’ is carved into a mountain in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. How different, how very refreshingly different, from the abhorrence felt by pre-Renaissance churchmen just compare this with the dreadful flagellants of Northern Europe of recent memory – towards both buildings and the human body.


In Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, an explicit view of Leda and her amorous swan rests on a

meticulously designed caption written in Colonna’s weird mix of Italian and Latin.

What sort of person would write such stuff? And how on earth did it get printed? The book was ostensibly anonymous, which is why I have not mentioned the author’s name so far. However, the decorated capitals at the start of its thirty-eight chapters spell out a sentence – POLIAM FRATER FRANCISCVS COLVMNA PERAMAVIT (‘Brother Francesco Colonna greatly loved Polia’). Since ‘polia’ means ‘many things’, this sounds like a secret confession of his eclectic sexual tastes. This Colonna has long been assumed to be one who lived in the monastery of Saints John and Paul in Venice, notorious for being ‘unreformed’ and therefore rather lax in its standards, which meant that its monks were allowed to live outside the monastery and do pretty much what they liked. Until his death at the age of ninety-four, scandalous to the end, what Colonna liked, it seems, was women, architecture and gardens, which became the means for an encyclopedic exploration of ‘all that could be known’, all knitted into a surreal narrative. He was able to indulge these passions thanks to the astonishing generosity, or gullibility, of his patron, Leonardo Grassi or Crasso, who paid Aldus Manutius to produce the book.

The result, in commercial terms, was a disaster. It seems to have been suicidal to start with, for in an introduction the patron wrote that the author ‘devised his work so that only the wise may penetrate the sanctuary . . . These things are not for the populace.’ How right he was. Hardly anyone bought it (though Aldus himself must have been proud of his achievement, for he adopted one illustration of a dolphin and an anchor as the famous Aldine Press emblem, symbolising activity tempered by restraint).

A commercial failure; but in terms of looks and subsequent reputation, HP became a wonder. Within half a century it was a cult book, especially in France. Its typeface, deriving from Jenson’s Roman, evokes the typographic equivalent of lust. One print historian, George Painter, described it as ‘tall in uprights and firmly seriphed, both bold and delicate, equally dark and radiant in its blacks and whites’. (Resurrected and named Poliphilus, it was to have been used in a 1920s translation that was never made, finally emerging in Joscelyn Godwin’s new translation; and in the words you are now reading: this book is set in Poliphilus.) HP has those gorgeous decorated initials, and numerous Roman-style inscriptions, triumphantly proclaiming the perfection of classical standards that may still be glimpsed among the ruins of the past, and asserting the dominance of Roman lettering over Gutenberg-style Gothic. The illustrations have suggested to different art historians the influence, if not direct involvement, of a range of brilliant artists – Mantegna, Giocondo, Bellini, Botticelli and/or Raphael. The design is a masterpiece, with text, illustrations, captions and epigrams beautifully combined. The text is often shaped to fit underneath or round its picture, and it is occasionally set in the shape of a goblet. Nothing quite like it appeared until the avant-garde books of the early twentieth century, and collectors would die – or at least pay up to £500,000/$750,000 – for any of its surviving hundred or so copies. To some it is quite simply the most beautiful non-religious book ever printed.

Its reputation is also based on a completely different judgement, which ignores its language and design and sees it entirely as a visual treatise on classical architecture, covering a wide range of buildings, with all the related terminology. Every building mentioned has its ancient sources, here a temple related to the Mausoleum of Helicarnassus, there a paving deriving from the mosaics of Palestrina. But these are not just real buildings: the book explores imaginary ones, virtual ones, dream ones a mile high, or lit through impossibly narrow slits, or as transparent as the Crystal Palace.

So total is the expertise that one expert, Liane Lefaivre, of the Technical University, Delft, has written a book devoted to the proposition that the author was not Colonna at all, but the greatest and most polymathic of Renaissance architects, Leon Battista Alberti, who used similar sources and similar stylistic habits. She makes a strong case (though not one that has been widely accepted), linking Alberti with another Francesco Colonna altogether, a Roman, not a Venetian. So perhaps the acrostic is not a signature, but a discreet dedication.

Hypnerotomachia would surely have astonished Gutenberg. Nothing could be a more logical or surprising consequence of his Bible than this extravagant, pagan, totally uncommercial venture, nothing so foreign to his own austere, commercial and religious intentions.


In France and England, where printing was as significant as everywhere else, the trade developed without such a close dependence on German enterprise, and also without the hectic competition. It’s as if the cultures are infused with a rising tide rather than battered and swept by a tsunami.

In Paris, intellectual life was dominated by the Sorbonne. Here, twenty-four stationers, selling their wares through four booksellers, were contracted by the university to copy traditional academic texts. But during the fifteenth century teachers – led by Guillaume Fichet – also wanted access to the Greek and Roman writers who were behind the growth of humanism in Italy. In 1470 the rector of the Sorbonne happened to be a German, Johann Heynlin. The two of them imposed a different printing ethos in Paris. With Fichet’s backing, Heynlin invited two of his countrymen, Ulrich Gering from Constance and Michael Friburger from Colmar, to set up a print shop, and told them what to print. This was the first time that publishing emerged as a separate operation from printing – the beginning of specialisations that would, in the end, lead to numerous dedicated activities: publishing, typefounding, composing, printing, binding, selling.

William Caxton, England’s first printer, would be of significance for the sole reason that he wasn’t a German. This is not a theme to set the world aflame. But the fact is that Caxton was well established as a diplomat and businessman before he became a printer, and in his new profession he was able to stand on the shoulders of his predecessors. It is not his technical competence that marks him out. It is his commitment to publishing in English, thus starting the long process of reducing a chaos of inflections and dialects to a simpler, common tongue.

Caxton was a cloth-merchant, who in 1462, in his early forties, found himself looking after British trading interests in Bruges, ruling his little colony as both an ambassador and a governor. A few years before his governorship ended in 1470, he started work on a translation of a collection of legends about Troy, compiled by a French priest and dedicated to the Duke of Burgundy. Pretty soon he gave it up, perhaps because he saw no chance of selling it in an England in the midst of the civil war that came to be called the Wars of the Roses. But then, when his governorship ended, he was summoned to the Burgundian court. It so happened that the current duchess was Margaret of York, sister of King Edward IV. She had been married to Charles the Bold of Burgundy two years before, when Charles was trying to establish Burgundy as an independent country, and needed England as an ally against the French. The glorious marriage celebrations were still the talk of the country. In his audience, she asked to see his translations, offered a correction or two, and commissioned him to complete it. He then moved to Cologne, where he set to work. It was almost too much for him. His pen became worn – as he wrote – his hand weary, and his eye dimmed with the effort.

It was in Cologne that he heard of a better way to reproduce script. Ulrich Zel, one of Peter Schöffer’s protégés, had set up shop there in 1466, and one of his assistants was Johann Veldener, whom Caxton contracted ‘at his great charge and dispense’ either as a teacher or a printer of his book, or both. This was quite a risk, justified presumably by his ambition to exploit a new market, the production of books in English. Having learned his business and bought a press and type, he acquired a faithful assistant, Wynkyn de Worde, a German from Wörth, 100 kilometres south of Mainz (there’s no escaping the German connection quite yet). Gambling his capital on buying paper, he produced the first printed book in English, the 700-page Recuyell (‘recueil’: ‘summary’) of the historyes of Troye, probably in late 1471, probably in Cologne, though possibly a year or two later in Bruges, where he reestablished his business.

In 1476 he was back in London, in the precincts of Westminster Abbey, with England’s first printing press. Modesty was becoming his salient trait, for he had come to this business late in life and always gave the charming impression that he felt lucky that it was the ‘symple person William Caxton’ to whom the responsibility of printing in English had fallen. His success was rooted in self-doubt. He knew French well enough to recognise his imperfections, and he was not at all sure about his own language. How high-falutin should he be, how simple, how direct, how local in his expression? ‘Pardonne me of this rude and comyn Englyshe, where as shall be found faulte,’ he wrote in a dedication to the Queen Mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, ‘for I confess me not learned ne knowing the art of rethoryk ne of such gaye termes as now be said in these dayes.’ He need not have worried. He aimed as he said to produce an ‘englyshe not over rude ne curyous’, and succeeded wonderfully, producing 100 books which together, in the words of one biographer, Lotte Hellinga, form ‘a monument to one man’s delight in sharing with others his respect for texts (to which he gave new form) and his pleasure in reading them’.

His success, which made him rich, also laid the foundations of two factors that are with us still: the linguistic dominance of London and the many illogicalities that so baffle foreigners. English was undergoing extraordinarily rapid change at the time, as Caxton himself noted: ‘Certaynly our langage now used varyeth ferre [far] from that which was used and spoken when I was borne.’ Chaucer, born the previous century, is much harder to understand than Caxton’s English, as Caxton himself revealed: he caught Chaucer’s old-fashioned complexity in his most famous publication, The Canterbury Tales of 1477, upgraded in 1483. Old forms – adjectival inflections, odd plurals (like eyren for eggs), variable past tenses (ached/okeclimbed/clomb) – were on the way out, as Bill Bryson notes in Mother Tongue. If you travelled eighty kilometres out of London, there was no certainty you would be understood. In London they prayed ‘Forgive us our trespasses’, but in Kent they prayed ‘And vorlet ous oure yeldinges’. It fell to Caxton to pickle in type variant forms which might well have vanished: half/halvesgrass/grazebath/bathe, and even a triplet or two: life/lives, the second of which has two forms, long and short, as in ‘a cat with nine lives lives next door’. It’s tough luck on anyone learning English today that Caxton happened along just when people still wrote knight in the way Chaucer had pronounced it, something like ker-n-ich-t, more like its Germanic root, Knecht, than the nite of Caxton’s day, and our own.

All of this is of immense significance for the evolution of English. For the history of printing, however, Caxton’s story is one of effects rather than causes. By the time of his death in 1491, the heady days of research and development were over, and all Europe was busy with the consequences.


Yet at Europe’s southern fringes the inexorable advance of the printing press proved suddenly and surprisingly exorable. It stopped dead in its tracks, blocked by the world of Islam.

Now this, to European eyes, is something of a mystery. Islam, having established itself by the sword, had then developed an entirely different dimension, in which scholarship, art and science thrived. By 1000 it was as a cultural, religious and trading unity that Islam dominated the world beyond Europe’s frontiers, from Spain to the Punjab. One trader had a warehouse on the Volga and another in Gujarat. Arab dinars were used in Finland, and Arab slave-traders in the central Sahara could write cheques honoured in Cairo. This was not a world of inward-looking extremists. Hungry for learning, Islamic scholars looked back to the Greeks for their foundations in science and philosophy, and translated Greek classics en masse. Books were loved, honoured and collected into vast libraries: Cairo’s had 200,000 books, Bukhara’s had 45,000. In the eleventh century Avicenna (ibn Sina, as he was in Arabic) was known as the ‘Aristotle of the East’; his medical encyclopedia was Europe’s pre-eminent medical textbook for 300 years (as a tribute to the international nature of fifteenth-century scholarship, it was printed in a Hebrew translation by the German-Jewish printer, Josef ben Jakob Gunzenhauser Ashkenazi – ‘the German from Gunzenhausen’ – in Naples). It was the Arabs who seized on the Indian numerical system we now term Arabic. Their science gave Europeans countless terms – alchemy (‘al-kimiya’, ‘transformation’), zero (‘sifr’, ‘empty’), algebra (‘al-jabr’, ‘reunion’). Baghdad vastly exceeded Rome in wealth even if you discount the hyperbole of many Muslim accounts. In the tenth century one caliph greeted a Byzantine ruler with 160,000 cavalrymen and 100 lions, conducting his awed guest to a palace decorated with 38,000 curtains and 22,000 rugs.

With its wealth, scholastic traditions and urban comforts, Islam, you might think, was a perfect seedbed for the printing press. The Muslims had paper; they had ink; they even had wine presses, for the stern injunction against all alcohol came later. Moreover, Arabic is an alphabetical script. The fact that letters have four different forms, depending on their position, offers no great problem to punch-cutters and typesetters – after all, Gutenberg coped with up to a dozen different forms of the same letter.

Yet what happened when confronted with the possibilities inherent in Gutenberg’s invention?

Absolutely nothing.

Print made no impact at all on the Muslim world for 400 years, until the nineteenth century, when Muslims in India started printing tracts, and then newspapers. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Muslims in India’s north-west provinces and the Punjab were publishing 4–5,000 books every decade.

So why the gap?

It was not through lack of awareness, for knowledge of printing came with Jewish refugees fleeing from persecution in Spain to Constantinople. For much of the fifteenth century the million Jews in Spain – in the throes of liberation from Arabs, or ‘Moorish’ rule – were well established, with government positions and fine academics. But their advance often depended on conversion to Christianity to avoid Christian anti-Semitism. In 1492, with the final defeat of the Moors, the Inquisition came into its own, and offered the Jews a choice: convert or get out. Some 20,000 families, perhaps 100,000 people, chose exile, taking with them their skills, among which was printing. In 1493 Jewish refugees in Constantinople produced the first books in Hebrew. A Qur’an was printed in Arabic in Italy by 1500. A generation later, in 1530, Gershom ben Moses, the grandson of Israel Nathan Soncino, founder of the great Jewish-German-Italian publishing family, set up in Istanbul, and later moved to Cairo. There is no way that an educated Muslim could not have known about printing or its potential.

And yet from Muslim traders, scholars, administrators, not a flicker of interest, or outright hostility. When the first printing works was established in Istanbul in 1729 by an ex-slave who had gone into government service and converted to Islam, he managed to print just seventeen titles before religious opposition became so intense that the press was closed down in 1742.

Again: why? To historians, it’s something of a problem, because no Muslim leader ever commented on the matter at the time. As one scholar, Francis Robinson, Professor of History at Royal Holloway, University of London, says, ‘current scholarship is unsure why Muslims rejected printing for so long’. Some superficial reasons come to mind but fail to persuade. Perhaps it was because scribal traditions were embedded in Islam, or because calligraphy was and is revered as the highest of Islamic arts? But such traditions were strong in fifteenth-century Europe as well. Perhaps because there would have been opposition to innovation, especially non-Islamic innovation? There is something in this, for Europe was now in the throes of worldwide exploration that bypassed the Islamic world, and reinforced its defensive, inward-looking conservatism; but still practical advances, from the flintlock to the electric light, eventually found acceptance.

As Robinson says, and as any Muslim will confirm, the answer lies in some fundamental Islamic assumptions about the nature of truth. For Muslims, the Qur’an is the word of God, even more so than the Bible is for Christians or the Torah for Jews. The Qur’an’s beauty is a proof of God’s existence. And ‘Qur’an’ means ‘recitation’. Its divinity is realised by being learned and read aloud. Its words are, as Constance Padwick puts it in Muslim Devotions, ‘the twigs of the burning bush aflame with God’. It was written only as an aid to memory and oral transmission. The Egyptian standard edition of the Qur’an printed in the 1920s was produced not from a study of variant manuscripts but from fourteen different recitations. To be a Hafidh, someone who can recite the whole thing from memory, was and is a high honour.

And this infused all other instruction. An author’s work acquired authority only when read back to the author by a scribe. In a Quranic school (madrasa) the teacher would dictate and the pupils write, but the purpose was always to transfer an oral text from memory to memory. The book was secondary. In the words of an Islamic verse, ‘Books die, but memory lives’. Indeed, the proof of ‘lawfulness’ was provided by an ijaza, a list of those who had transmitted the content of a work orally, from person to person. Thus ‘the pupil was the trustee in his generation of part of the great tradition of Islamic learning handed down from the past’.

Finally, it was, of course, in the interests of the religious rulers to emphasise this, as was the way of priestly elites in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Imams would not willingly have done themselves out of a job by allowing people direct access to knowledge. This would have been to open the way to bida (innovation), a virtual heresy. True, Islam adopted print in nineteenth-century British India, but only because they were losing out to Christian missionaries and Hinduism. In Robinson’s words, ‘print changed from being a threat to their authority to the means by which they might prop it up, indeed promote it’. In Catholicism, print was initially seen as a divine gift, only later assuming devilish traits; in Islam it was devilish for 400 years, until a greater evil cast it as a lesser one.

What is revealed in the Islamic response to printing is part of a continuing and widespread distrust of the written word in conservative societies. As Barbara Metcalf, Professor of History at the University of California, Davis, writes, Hindu Vedic traditions were rooted in the notion that ‘truth is tied to the living words of authentic persons’. This attitude goes back to ancient Greece, which was also wedded to the oral transmission of knowledge. When the alphabet – ‘Phoenician writing’, as the Greeks called it – made its breakthrough into Greek culture, in around 750 BC, it filtered in from below, being adopted by artisans in contact with Phoenician traders. Two hundred and fifty years later, many intellectuals were still not sure that writing was a good idea. ‘If men learn this,’ wrote Plato, ‘it will plant forgetfulness in their souls.’ For true wisdom, you need human interaction, with good teachers. Once their words are in a book, the whole process breaks down.

For Muslims, as Robinson says, printing ‘attacked what was understood to make knowledge trustworthy, what gave it value and authority’. No more authorised transmission, no more memory, all authority gone, and God’s will undermined.

No wonder Gutenberg’s invention came up against a brick wall.

*The first attempt to establish copyright came a few years later, in 1519, when a Jewish doctor, Paul Rici, in a translation of a medical treatise by the Muslim surgeon Abul Kasim (Albucasis), threatened excommunication to anyone pirating the work within six years of publication. It took another 200 years for copyright to be first protected legally (England, 1709).

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