top of page

The Advent of the Printing Press

Printing Press.jpg

Notes from:  CULTURE & TECHNOLOGY: THE IMPACT OF PRINT  V Cox, The Italian Renaissnace, I.B. Tauris, New York, 2016. p  102- 109.

Literature was an issue for Renaissance humanism – it was difficult for the legacy  of classical antiquity to take root- there was an aura around Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Horace & Cicero.

It was also difficult for the modern acclaimed writers to compare directly, especially

  • Dante( lack of decorum & mingling of high and low styles) and

  • Lodovico Ariosto where there was a digressive structure in his poem ( medieval tradition). Aristo’s supporters  eg Giovann Battista Giraldi Cinzio argud that his Orlando furioso should not be judges by classical epic standards but  on its own terms as a new genre, romance. It was difficult as the feeling at the time was that there was an Aristotelian ideal of unity of plot

  • Petrarch – his lyric poetry

  • Torquato Tasso, wrote in the 1570’s, and his more classically regular Jerusalem Delivered was the start of Italian  critics congratulating the  modern epic as being worthy

In the 16th century (1500’s) there was progress with respect to antiquity.

  1.  Critics observed that , for all its sophistication, classical literature was flawed on ground of the intrinsic falseness of the religious beliefs that formed it. This is the traditional progress. That is, Christian literature was  superior as it was truthful, and thus more fashionable. The models at the time combined Christian subject matter with humanistic and classicizing  form : the sacred tragedy, (esp in Jesuit); the sacred epic; the sacred lyric; the sacred comedy. Claimed that the Christian literature was  superior to pagan literacy production. This time was called the counter reformation. Followed on from  Jerusalem Delivered   where the Chrisitan muse was located in heaven, and NOT Mount Helicon.

  2. The technological progress is the second way literary culture progressed from antiquity.


There was a revolution in Renaissance communication. (Started earlier in Asia- moved to Germany but  spread quickly to Italy).

1- 1400 – development of woodcut images for printing

2- 1430’s the development of copper-plate engraving

3-1450- development  of a moveable type metal printing for  text

4- by 1500 Venice was the chief publishing centre in Europe.

Paper- was developed in the late Middle Ages as a cheaper alternative to parchment and vellum. It spread from Spain & Sicily and there were 2 paper mills already in 1283 , Fabrino, in the Marches.

Cost - The paper and the printing allowed wider dissemination in printed material. COST  - by 1460 the cost per page of printed bookds was around 1/8 of manuscripts, and this became cheaper over the next 150 years. Eg 1462 six lire for 200 quarto pages; in 1592 one lire for 150 quarto pages.( about 1 day’s wages – eg in 1590 a master builder earned 2 lire daily (was 1 ½ lire in 1565), and in 1590 semi – skilled worder 1 ½  lire per day -  was one lire in 1565. Thus books were everyday possessions and not just a luxury item.

An example of everyday  was Menocchio Scandella ( on trial for heresy in 1599) – who had a  dsozen books, the bible in vernacular, saints’s lives, popular history, Boccaccio’s Decameron,and an Italian  translation of the koran. The elite had vast libraries,  such as  the late 16th C  numanist and bibliophile Gian Vincenzo Pinells (1535- 1601) – a wealthy private citizen with over 7,000 manuscripts and books.

Visual images were circulated widely in late 15th and in 16th Century Italy. The arts of engraving and woodcut were beautifl and sophisticated. EG Raphael  collaborated with  engraver Mercantonio Raimondi to create reproductions of his own paintings, but also original works designed for the new medium. Titan did the same.

The chiaroscuro woodcut – was the first sub-genre, colour reproduction.

Cheaper woodcuts – used for home devotion. Early eg was the Madonna del Fuoco (Madonna fire)  - a hand coloured xylograph of Virgin Child and Saints in a school in Forli’ in 1420s

News, communication –

Late 15th C – broadsheets and pamphlets to  spread news of discoveries, battles, current affairs.

Mid 16th C – govt moved from town criers to print to communicate with citizens

Ideology and propaganda was  also a use for this technology eg in the Protestant Reformation

Avvisi – a 16th Century novelty – a robust and established system of circulating manuscript news sheets – Avvisi – esp as originating in Venice & Rome. This news was gathered and dedicated by a group of professionals known as  novellanti or menanti, & cardinals etc were warned of thiese people in 1598. They could read aloud to the illiterate.

Some issues at the time was a cultural transformation – print introduced new protagonists into print culture, along side the author, scribe , reader, patron, editors, printers , and publishing entrepreneurs, and professional authors – some isses with  greed and carelessness – 100’s of new errors into classical texts.

Censorship – began ad hoc in early 16th C Italy, but became centralized and systematic  . There was the  Index of Prohibited Books issued by Pope Paul IV in 1559. The last 16th C printers had to be censored before printing for  religious unorthodoxy and oral indecency. Machiavelli’s works for eg, was officially banned after  1559, ( with the exception of  rulers and military leaders whe could legitimately claim to need to consult them, under Papal licence)

The rise of journalism – created suspicion in latter 16th C , eg  a bully by Pope Gregory XIII in 1572 – describing a threat to moral order –  public /private affairs are scribbled but may be untrue .

Publishing industry – literary and editorial innovation-

Humanist collections of letters eg Lettere  of Pietro Aretino – 6 volumes – 1538-57

Poetry anthologies of medieval Europe – eg the Venetian publishing house of Gabriele Biolito in 1545 imitations spawned, as well as  the Collana storica: a collection of classical and modern historical writings- published in 1563 with his editor Tommaso Porcacchi.

Other print genres in mid to late 16th c – emblem books, costume books, lace pattern boods, anthologies (eg speeches, jokes, games, cosmedic and culinary recipes, political axioms, medical ‘secrets’

In the counter reformation – attractive new religious producst  eg  rosary themed books, anthologies of sacred dramas,lyrics or saints lives etc.

The Selva – or ‘forest’was a late Renaissance print genre- pulling together  - like a popular encyclopaedia of  general knowledge  - mass of historical, scientific and cultural info. For eg Valerius Maximus’s hugely popular Memorable Sayings and Deeds – over 70 editions in Itailan  16th C in the vernacular and Latin. For eg  Luigi Cantarinis’s 1586 Charming and Delightful Garden,,; Diverse & Remarkable Examples of Virtue & Vice; the  Deeds  and Deaths of Prophets

Demotacratizing effects of print. A 1564 work by a popular dr Leonardo Fioravanti – in the past  learned drs could convince their patients of anything they wished – ‘shortage of books, (dr) was revered as a prophet and whatever he said was believed, but….for the printing press. “awakened the world, which was sleeping in ignorance”. And not jus the wealthy – the revival was of dissemination of information.

bottom of page