The Bookseller as Humanist: A Conversation with Ross King

August 16, 2021   •   By Nick Owchar

WHEN MOST PEOPLE think of Florence and the Renaissance, writes Ross King in The Bookseller of Florence: The Story of the Manuscripts That Illuminated the Renaissance, they conjure up familiar images of “beautiful frescoes and altarpieces, of snow-white marble statues in sinewy poses, of the swelling burnt-orange dome of the city’s cathedral…”


It’s not a surprising reaction. It’s natural to think of the Renaissance in Italy in purely visual terms. But focusing on striking paintings or architectural splendors alone gives us an incomplete picture of that era.


“[E]qually if not more important for the centuries to follow,” King writes, “were the city’s lovers of wisdom” — people like Vespasiano da Bisticci, who is the subject of his engaging new book.


Don’t recognize the name? He may not be as familiar to us as Michelangelo or Machiavelli, but Vespasiano (it’s common to drop his surname) was a critical and influential figure and, King believes, his life still teaches us lessons now.


“I have great affection for Vespasiano. I spent several years in his company as I wrote this book, and I enjoyed it,” says King during a Zoom call. “Vespasiano was clearly fabulously brilliant, and Florence produced so many like him in that period. Here’s a prodigy, a fatherless boy at 11 who rose to the top of his profession and impressed everyone he met. He’s inspiring.”


The Bookseller of Florence isn’t King’s first venture into Italy’s gilded past. He’s the author of numerous other works, including Brunelleschi’s Dome and Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling (as well as the beguiling fictions Ex-Libris and Domino). His ease and familiarity with Vespasiano’s world make for an equally easy, informative, and evocative experience for the reader (much like Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, which spotlights the life of the manuscript hunter Poggio Bracciolini, whom Vespasiano knew).


King never planned to write a book about Vespasiano. He explains how the bookseller just kept popping up, Zelig-like, in the course of his research for other projects. What especially piqued King’s interest was the epithet frequently attached to Vespasiano’s name: “The favorite bookseller of Cosimo de Medici.”


“I was intrigued by what it meant to be a bookseller in the 1400s,” he says from his home in Woodstock in Oxfordshire, “and I was interested in knowing more about that era’s manuscript culture. I’d already written about the art of the 1400s, and I was ready to write about its ideas. It struck me that Vespasiano was the right person who could help me do this.”


Drawing believed to depict Vespasiano da Bisticci (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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Vespasiano lived from about 1421 to 1498, and during his 77 years he rose to the heights of success as one of Florence’s greatest cartolai, an umbrella term referring to booksellers, binders, stationers, illustrators, and publishers. Even though he shared that particular term with many others, another phrase is reserved for him and him alone: rei de li librari del mondo, “king of the world’s booksellers.”


Florence was roiled by many shocks during Vespasiano’s lifetime — among them the deaths of Cosimo and Piero de Medici, the rise of Lorenzo, the Medicis’ clashes with the Pazzi and other clans, the preacher Savonarola’s glowing bonfires — but Vespasiano navigated them all and built a thriving business. His client rolodex included the names of popes, emperors, dukes, and many other leading aristocrats (those connections enabled him to pen an important series of biographies about those he knew).


Over time, he helped stock the libraries of the era’s greatest figures — the Medici, Pope Nicholas V, Alfonso of Naples, and Federico da Montefeltro, among them — with exquisite vellum editions of Plato, Cicero, Quintilian, and many others, but his objective wasn’t simply to please his patrons alone. He believed, like his fellow book merchants, that recovering and restoring the ancient world’s wisdom might help reverse society’s plunge into violence and corruption.


Florence’s cartolai shared a fervent belief that this wisdom, King writes, might teach rulers “how to rule themselves more wisely and temperately, how to conduct more judicious and successful wars — in short, how to create a safer and more stable society than the one in which, for the past few centuries, they had been living.”


That humanist objective, King tells me, was the reason why he committed four years to writing this book and telling Vespasiano’s story.


“Recovering ancient texts wasn’t just quaint antiquarianism for Vespasiano,” he says. “He wasn’t thinking of the past just for the sake of the past. He believed the recovery of these old texts could help repair the present. When his society crawled out of the wreckage of the 14th century, everyone looked to improve themselves and needed examples. The best ones came from ancient Rome and Greece. The fact that this was what motivated the efforts of Vespasiano and others like him was a revelation to me.”


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If there’s a suspense angle to King’s book, it’s our expectation that Vespasiano’s rise to great wealth and success — that would enable him to have the beautiful country home Casa Il Monte outside Florence — would be followed by an equally deep fall.


That didn’t happen. Though a technological innovation would soon change the nature of books and their accessibility, Vespasiano was fortunate to live in a unique period of transition. That innovation, of course, was the printing press of Johannes Gutenberg, which resulted in mass-produced books and eventually marked the end of the unique manuscript market Vespasiano dominated.


The printing press’s invention is often assigned to 1453, the year Constantinople fell to the Turks. But its appearance wasn’t an immediate disaster for Vespasiano. In fact, King says, his business thrived and grew, and the two kinds of books — those made by hand and those printed on a press — managed to coexist in relative peace.


“It’s really not that different from what we have today,” he says. “Many people have physical books as well as some on an e-reader of some kind. The scales are somewhat evenly balanced, which is what we saw during Vespasiano’s time.”


The scale, of course, did tip in Gutenberg’s favor eventually, but not during Vespasiano’s lifetime. He did see it coming, however, and in his later years he faced a shrinking pool of illustrious patrons. He did manage to secure the crucial support of Lorenzo the Magnificent, who shared his love of manuscripts and disdain for printed books. Vespasiano remained, until the very end, “too much of a high-brow” who lamented to a friend in a letter, “Woe to the city that falls into the hands of the people.”


But that snobbery, King points out in our conversation, masked a bitter sense of disappointment — that the great humanist project he and his fellow cartolai had embarked on had failed. King says he understands Vespasiano’s disappointment, but as a historian he’s able to take a much longer view of the bookmaker’s legacy, which resulted in some takeaways Vespasiano might have found consoling.


Though many of the volumes he produced were destroyed, lost in fires or stripped of precious bindings the way luxury cars get stripped for parts, others have survived and can be found today in some of the world’s greatest libraries. Their existence and the biographies Vespasiano penned, King says, give us a vivid sense of the breadth and depth of the Renaissance’s intellectual foundations. Vespasiano’s tireless commitment to his trade reveals to us the Renaissance’s “sweeping horizons which […] have stretched across the centuries and into our own age.”


What also seems relevant to us now is Vespasiano’s belief in the power of the written word — his hope that books would inspire leaders to become better rulers and create a more just society. He lived in an era during which power was routinely abused and the masses ignored; if he’d had a crystal ball in his shop, he would have seen that we’re still waiting for that world of enlightened leaders he imagined more than 500 years ago.


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Nick Owchar is executive director of advancement communications at Claremont Graduate University; he blogs regularly at Call of the Siren.