The Old Library has 12 incunabula and 122 sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books printed in Venice. These have now all been catalogued online by Allen Purvis, one of our rare books project cataloguers. The project has revealed a lot of interesting data and has provided a good overview of Venetian publishing activity at that time.
Venice was an important centre for early printing. The first printers in “La Serenissima” were German and the earliest to be registered was Johann von Speyer in 1469. However, printers of other nationalities were soon established in the city, including many Italian printers. Publishing in Venice expanded rapidly (by 1500 there were over 200 printing presses) and continued to flourish there during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
According to Brian Richardson in his book “Printing, writers and readers in Renaissance Italy” the Italian city “which offered the best conditions of all was Venice”. Intellectual life flourished there, its government was relatively stable, it had good trading connections and it had wealthy merchants and investors to sponsor publication costs.
“Venice thus soon came to dominate the Italian printing industry, indeed for a while the European printing industry.” It produced nearly three quarters of the editions printed in Italy between 1526 and 1550. The typical print run for Venetian incunabula was 300-400 copies, but during the 16th century print runs increased to between 1,000 and 3,000.
Venetian booksellers’ shops were on the Mercerie and on the Frezzeria. Books were displayed inside the shops and in open shop fronts on the street. Volumes were usually sold unbound, though some bookshops offered binding services. The presses however, were situated away from the bookshops and the crowded streets.
Trinity Hall’s Incunabula from Venice
Our 12 Venetian incunabula were all printed between 1493 and 1500. The earliest of these is “Cinus super codice cum annotationibus” by Cino da Pistoia on the subject of Roman law – very fitting for a College that specialised in law! It was published by Andreas Torresanus de Asula in September 1493. Only two of the incunabula are on the classics (Terence and Suetonius) and all the others deal with civil or canon law.
Early law books
As we might expect works on law also make up a large proportion of the books printed between 1501 and 1650 (a total of 73 books or 59%). The main law subjects are Roman, civil or canon law and consilia. Other legal subjects include appellate procedure, feudal law, maxims, oaths, suretyship and guaranty, and wills. There are also a handful of books on administrative law, criminal law, commercial law, maritime law and military law. Five of the books cover the law of Naples (civil, criminal or feudal), one book covers the civil law of Genoa and there is a volume of law reports from Piedmont.
The Catholic Church
Apart from our significant holdings on canon law, we have four books that deal specifically with benefices and simony in the Catholic Church. Added to this are only six books that deal with Catholic theology. Two of these were given to Trinity Hall by the antiquarian and recusant, Robert Hare: “Martyrologium S. Romanae ecclesiae” (1578) and “Aurea in quinquaginta Dauidicos Psalmos doctorum Graecorum catena” (1569) on the Psalms. For a law library, and one that successfully weathered the political changes of the English Reformation, it is not surprising that we have so little Venetian publishing on theology.
A varied collection
The collection also features Venetian publishing on agriculture, astronomy, classics, medicine, military art and science, philosophy, political science and some travel books. A handful of books deal with the more unusual topics of medieval etiquette, marriage, old age and even duelling!
Italy is also represented, with a book of the correspondence of Claudio Tolomei “Delle lettre di M. Claudio Tolomei, libri VII” (1572), an Italian dictionary of words used in Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio “Della fabrico del mondo” (1560) which belonged to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and a book on the social life and customs of Venice itself “Relatione della republica Venetiana” by Giovanni Botero (1605).
This is just a brief overview of the fascinating collection of Venetian books in the Old Library. A look at the provenance of these books would make another fascinating story which we hope to tell one day!
A Pdf list of the publishers of Venetian books in the Old Library Trinity Hall can be accessed using this link Venetian publishers
“Printing, writers and readers in Renaissance Italy” by Brian Richardson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999 (ISBN 9780521576932)
“The Venetian printing press” by Horatio Brown. London, 1891
Web resource: History of Venetian printing
To read more about our incunabula go to “Gems of early printing”