Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 23, 2014
Sean Roberts Printing a Mediterranean World: Florence, Constantinople, and the Renaissance of Geography Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013. 336 pp.; 25 b/w ills. Cloth $49.95 (9780674066489)

Reading Sean Roberts’s Printing a Mediterranean World, one is struck by the intriguing variety of editions of a single work set against the background of late medieval Florence and its investment in the renaissance associated with print and geography. Roberts charts the making and dissemination of Francesco Berlinghieri’s Geographia (1482), a “resurrection” (newly configured) of Claudius Ptolemy’s work of the same name. An added dimension of Roberts’s book is its focus on two Ottoman princes as recipients of copies of the Geographia. He argues that, “The possibility of a diplomatic context for the Geographia suggests the need for reevaluation not only of the book’s donation to the Ottoman princes but also of its place within the Florentine environment of its origin” (6). Thus he proposes to interrogate Florentine geographical knowledge and “the embodiment of that knowledge in the visual and material cultures of books and maps” (7). He concludes that Berlinghieri’s work was chosen as “the best example of what Florentine visual, material, and intellectual culture had to offer to a powerful foreign recipient” (7). In making this case, Roberts takes on Jerry Brotton’s earlier characterization of the Geographia as a work produced with the objective of seeking Ottoman patronage (155–56; Jerry Brotton, Trading Territories: Mapping the Early Modern World, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998).

Roberts rightly suggests that the Geographia, a transitional text functioning at the juncture of manuscript and print, may be used to rethink unilateral notions of cartographic “progress” (40). He also hopes to complicate the place of books in what he considers, rather falsely I think, the standard “binary” between things intellectual (like books) and things material (172). The case for book and cartographic culture necessarily combining the two has been made long since. That is not to suggest that Roberts’s proposed strategies for using the study of material culture to provide a fuller picture of Berlinghieri’s text and its picture of the world are not worthwhile. Quite the contrary, assembling and comparing the diverse visions of the world presented in the texts of this era cannot help but provide a more nuanced sense of the objectives and mental maps of their authors and the demands of their readers. That project is enhanced by the inclusion of twenty-five black-and-white figures, the most interesting of which are those from the incipit of Book One which illustrate Berlinghieri’s insertion of himself, as author, into the trajectory of Ptolemaic imagery. Printing a Mediterranean World includes an index and expansive endnotes; inexplicably, it has no separate bibliography.

Chapter 1, “Ptolemy in Transit,” addresses the ways in which Ptolemy was known, used, and claimed as an authority in Berlinghieri’s time. It sets the stage for Roberts’s analysis of the later Geographia’s artful merging of “traditional” and “modern” maps and its anticipation of the “developing format of world atlases” (104). Chapter 2, “The Rebirth of Geography,” presents an account of Berlinghieri’s life, “circle,” sources, and vision of the world. This intellectual biography characterizes Berlinghieri as both poet and “cartographer,” who did more than reproduce a derivative set of maps. Roberts highlights Berlinghieri’s self-fashioning as “part of an interactive process combining verbal and visual representation” (83) in which he joined with Ptolemy as an “eyewitness” guiding readers on a tour of the world.

Chapter 3, “Making Books, Forging Communities,” addresses the processes and networks of the print industry, tracing the formulation of local and transnational communities. Roberts takes on a series of topics here including the nature of the book community, the technicalities of the movement from manuscript to print, the production of individualized copies of texts like the Geographia, and the use of hand-colored maps to illustrate print texts. A major segment of the chapter is devoted to attempting to explain the reasons for the appearance of the Geographia as “badly printed” (92). Roberts looks at the availability of technical knowledge, techniques, and tools involved in the process of crafting images. His main point, however, is that the “apparent anomalies” of the Geographia and other works, “especially their symbiotic use of hand-illumination, color, and print made them ideal anchors for communities of printers, readers, recipients, buyers, and authors,” because “early humanist books were often conceived by their printers and authors as projects for multiple, individuated books rather than as uniform editions” (89–90). Roberts makes a good case for individualized (customized) copies; indeed, illustrating that case is the major strength of this work. He notes that of nineteen copies of the “first variant” of Berlinghieri’s Geographia, fifteen included “hand-coloring of the maps, hand illumination of the frontispiece and text, [or] the addition of family coats of arms and individual mottos and devices,” all elements of a luxury text that buyers might demand (101). Art historians will be better placed than I to evaluate the technical aspects of craftsmanship (and their transmission) that Roberts invokes in this chapter (e.g., “the manifest flaws of the still experimental printing process and the rather suspect quality” of certain contemporary engravings), as well as the nature of the relationship between print and hand production. But I find the linkage of the mechanics of print to a broadly construed community and an “emerging material culture of the book” only partially accomplished (112).

Chapter 4, “Printing Tolerance and Intolerance,” relies on something of a straw man, the Renaissance rhetorics of the Turcophile vs. the Turcophobe, as it assesses Renaissance attitudes. Nonetheless, this chapter addresses several important questions: the motivations behind dedicatory passages; the existence, or not, of an Ottoman reader; and the historian’s access to the late medieval geographer’s levels of “tolerance.” The latter task is addressed through a compelling case study comparing the rhetorics and imagery of Berlinghieri’s Geographia to those of Guillaume Caoursin’s Description of the Siege of Rhodes (1496) and other contemporary texts. Roberts notes the selective deployment of classical allusions. He speculates on the intentions of those who decided to send to the exiled Ottoman prince Cem and his brother Bayezid I printed rather than handwritten copies of the Geographia. He assumes an Ottoman reader but does little to document him (the Ottoman reading community included females although the scholarship on that subject is still in its early stages) or his primary setting in Constantinople.

Roberts persuasively takes on the notion that the Geographia was produced specifically to secure Ottoman patronage. More generally, he suggests that scholars who have associated commercial exchange with “tolerance and an appreciation of cultural difference” have failed to understand both the nature of exchange and the enduring frameworks of cross-cultural suspicion or hatred (158). Here, I think, in a chapter with many strong points, he has tended to get carried away, conflating “tolerance” with the results of entrepreneurship, and equating the “notion that trade promoted tolerance” with “neoliberal fantasies of the positive effects of the twenty-first century’s increasingly global economy” (158). Readers thus arrive back at another straw man, even if some scholars have been guilty of such whitewashing. Roberts is, of course, right to question the meaning and deployment of the term “tolerance.” But in my mind there is no particular deception involved in accepting frameworks of hostile rhetoric, “ideological tensions” (159), and worse, while simultaneously admitting relationships (and motives) existing on a scale from friendship to exploitation that derive from processes of exchange, particularly long-term exchange (and its concomitant phenomena of partnership, intermarriage, conversion, etc.). I am thus inclined to a certain discontent with Roberts’s conclusion that the Geographia represents “apparent ambivalence” in its “amalgam of tolerance and intolerance, [which] arose in part from the multiple environments in which the book circulated and the divergent roles copies of the book played in those circumstances” (169). I would argue, rather, that the Geographia is emblematic of late medieval and early modern literatures emerging out of the Christian kingdoms of Europe which were framed (and more than framed) in terms of an indelible divide between “Turks” and “Christians,” but which transcended that rhetoric (and feeling) to take account of and happily participate in the transnational relationships and realpolitik that were engendered by the emergence of the Ottomans as a powerful, prosperous, expansive (and European) empire. Such works joined (wittingly or unwittingly) the networks of transnational and cross-communal exchange without ever losing sight, as Roberts points out, of the demands of audiences at home.

While Roberts attempts a good deal of theoretical wrapping-up at the end of chapter 4, the reader is better served by an eloquent presentation in “Conclusion: Resurrection and Necromancy.” The “necromancy” here is merely a conceit; but the practice of “resurrection” for Roberts is what both Berlinghieri and the modern historian are engaged in as they attempt to read and reanimate the past. This conclusion, a clear delineation of argument and implications, might just as easily have served as preface to the text. Roberts’s well-written chapters have a logic and flow to them, despite the occasional inclination to redundancy. An added advantage is that he is familiar with (and neatly integrates) relevant scholarship, not only on European cartography and the dissemination of print (for example), but on Ottomanist historiography. That familiarity facilitates his often nuanced commentary on subjects like Ottoman sources and the ways in which the Ottomans functioned in the Mediterranean world in the later fifteenth century (28). That said, the linkage of Renaissance text to Muslim empire in Roberts’s work only goes so far. It does not serve so much to illuminate the nature of cross-cultural interactions as to allow him to shed light on the mentalité of late medieval Florence, comment on the intentionality of (luxury) text as gift, and elaborate on the significance of individualized editions and hand illumination.

Palmira Brummett
Visiting Professor, Department of History, Brown University

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