Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 11, 2022
Lorenz Böninger Niccolò di Lorenzo della Magna and the Social World of Florentine Printing, ca. 1470–1493 I Tatti Studies in Italian Renaissance History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2021. 224 pp. Cloth $49.95 (9780674251137)

The title of this study of early Florentine book printing calls to mind two classic texts: Martin Wackernagel’s The World of the Florentine Renaissance Artist: Projects and Patrons, Workshop and Art Market (1938) and Lauro Martines’s The Social World of the Florentine Humanists, 1390–1460 (1963). All three books describe the conditions of cultural production in quattrocento Florence in the context of government structures, family ties, trade alliances, innovation, and patronage. Artisans, merchants, and humanists emerge as members of social groups that shaped their lives and professions. Lorenz Böninger’s study contextualizes early book printing in Florence as an investment opportunity that artisans, clerics, nobles, and merchants entered into in a sequence of fluid associations. Publishing investments proceeded much like financial speculation and artisanal practices in the fuller economy. The author’s research in archives, particularly that of the Mercanzia, a merchant tribunal that adjudicated disputes among artisans and tradesmen, has uncovered many instances of agreements that reveal how book printing entered Florentine economic life. Frustratingly, documents specifying dates, amounts, and names of people involved often omit the titles of the books that these associations were formed to enable.

The artistic aspects of this social world are less central here than they were for Wackernagel. The economic, legal, and technological struggles of the German immigrant printer Niccolò di Lorenzo della Magna resulted in publications important for art historians, including Leon Battista Alberti’s De re aedificatoria (On the Art of Building, 1485) and several landmarks of engraved book illustration: Antonio Bettini da Siena’s Monte Sancto di Dio (The Holy Mountain of God, 1477); Francesco Berlinghieri’s Le septe giornate della geographia (The Seven Days of Geography, 1481–82); and the Comento di Cristoforo Landino sopra la Comedia (Cristoforo Landino’s Commentary on Dante’s Commedia, 1481, oddly absent from an appendix with a checklist of Niccolò’s publications). Böninger discovered the contract for Landino’s Comento, which was the subject of his 2019 publication with Paolo Procaccioli, and it is republished here in a hefty appendix of otherwise unpublished relevant documents. The illustrations in the Bettini (54–55), considered the first instance of engravings printed onto the same page as letterpress text, initiated the format later envisioned for Landino’s magisterial Comento. Ultimately, the extreme difficulty of the combined processes meant that only nineteen of the one-hundred planned engravings for the Comento were completed, all but two of them hand pasted into empty spaces left on the text pages (80). (Readers interested in what including engraved illustrations meant for Landino and his readers should consult Anne Dunlop’s “‘El Vostro Poeta’: The First Florentine Printing of Dante’s Commedia,” in RACAR: Revue d’art canadienne/Canadian Art Review 20, no. 1/2, 1993: 29–42.) There is no discussion of associations between book printers and engravers or of printers equipped with presses for printing copperplates. Böninger’s local, archive-driven narrative avoids engaging with the field that has become known as print culture, relying almost solely on economic and contractual practices to lay the groundwork for the ensuing discussion of the earliest adopters of printing in Florence. 

The book begins with the institutional framework for trade that supported the arrival of printing. Goldsmiths, important for typefounding and engraving, incorporated printing history into the city’s artistic narrative through the typographer Bernardo Cennini, who worked at the mint after training, as did so many metalworkers, with Lorenzo Ghiberti. Publishers, generally of a high social rank, were allied with no particular occupation, unlike booksellers and stationers who were grouped with painters, doctors, and pharmacists by being included in Florentine trade guild of the Arte dei medici e speziali. Paper, drugs, and pigments were traded through apothecaries; the manufacture and sale of paper provide an important archival trail throughout the book for alliances formed by joint interests.

A discussion of the circumstances under which the first typefounders and printers in Florence practiced their new trade precedes a chapter on the appearance of incunables (the earliest printed books) in the 1470s with the stationer Giorgio di Niccolò Baldesi and the printing enterprise of Giovanni di Piero da Magonza. Information from notarial acts and the catasto (tax surveys) round out the professional and religious affiliations of stationers and goldsmiths in their preprinting occupations. We see familiar names, such as Landino’s student Francesco Berlinghieri and the painter Pietro del Massaio, who collaborated on a workshop for the “new art of ‘formatting scriptures’” (23). Documents recording sales unrelated to printing show that publishers and printers participated in a variety of speculative activities, as in the case of the goldsmith Banco. According to Böninger, he was capable of designing and casting fonts, certainly part of a goldsmith’s remit, although never mentioned in the suggestive documents showing his varied associations with publishers and typographers (26). The author describes networks formed through the common use of materials like hemp for papermaking and also through professional associations such as Banco’s with typographers to shed light on the deals that brought people together to turn their collective assets toward publication projects. One such asset was wool, which assumes an unexpected role when printers invest in it to fund their typographic activities. Woolen cloth purchases were backed by collateral in the form of books, and the cloth called panni di garbo could substitute for money in transactions financing printing projects that took years to return a profit (30–31). The most specific such documentation comes from the well-known records of the press at the convent of San Jacopo di Ripoli.

Niccolò di Lorenzo coheres as a figure through Böninger’s sleuthing, which explains how the different forms of his name caused his output to be confusingly attributed to several imaginary printers. We follow his arrival in Florence, his employment as a clerk at the Mercanzia, and his probable training with Magonza, and then learn about his first house and workshop near the convent of Le Murate. We see how the practice of trading fonts makes it difficult to identify incunable printers without documentation. Böninger identifies the fonts Niccolò used by their numbers in the Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke (i.e., the online Union Catalogue of Incunabula maintained by the Berlin State Library) and also the British Museum Catalogue of Printed Books; but he does not provide visual examples or discussion of the inflections of their styles for printers or readers. As Niccolò wins the confidence of authors and investors, we see him entering into partnerships with Cappone di Bartolomeo Capponi, the Jesuati, the Convent of Santo Spirito, and the Ripoli convent, resulting in the publication of secular, devotional, and humanist volumes. We arrive at the heart of the book: Landino’s commentary on Dante, initiating Niccolò’s golden period. The author’s discussion of the Comento, Landino’s Disputationes calmaldulenses, and Berlinghieri’s Geographia includes the most fully described associations with humanist bankers and high-placed patrons.

Böninger makes up for the lack of extant Florentine guild documents by using those of neighboring localities to understand how guilds interacted with other institutional bodies, particularly the legal system, to produce financing conventions of Italian book printing. Florence being central to studies in Italian culture for a long time, the author has access to many publications about the guilds, the legal system, and the personages involved, and makes use of print histories by Albinia de la Mare, Dennis Rhodes, Brian Richardson, and others to realize the promise of the title and integrate the story of Niccolò di Lorenzo into wider Florentine histories. Among the rewards of the narrative is a reminder, as Anthony Grafton vividly describes for Northern European printing, of the extent to which, in the course of preparing texts we today find sequestered in special collections, humanist scholars and crusty clerics engaged in marketing, financial speculation, and solving material problems of artisanal production.

This book focuses more on the contractual associations of printers than on how printshops became, as Pamela O. Long would term them, trading zones of skills. The author mentions the problems inherent in fashioning a narrative out of surviving legal documents, wishing to avoid the “tunnel vision” that he sees as an occupational hazard of such studies. For the most part, these perils are sidestepped, but this social world ultimately remains homosocial. Missing are the wives and daughters who populate Grafton’s printshops or the female plate-washers we find on Netherlandish payrolls. This is partly due to the sources, as female family members rarely appear in Italian contracts or legal documents. Because the book is concerned with production, there is little chance to access women’s literacy through patronage or reception, either. We hear, tantalizingly, of a lawsuit brought by a printer’s wife (27) and a devotional book belonging to the wife of a converted merchant (55), leading us to speculate about how women were present in the social world of printers or readers. We know that printing took place early in Florentine convents, notably in Le Murate, close to Niccolò’s house, which was the destination of the first copy of Landino’s Comento (77). The Ripoli convent also housed a press operated by nuns. The social world of Niccolò di Lorenzo as described by Böninger therefore comprises the familiar historical landscape of male authors, lawyers, traders, priests, and aristocrats working alongside male goldsmiths, printers, and papermakers. The story of female literacy or labor as it might intersect with incunable printing must arise from other sources.

What this study does do is put old books before our eyes replete with their complex financial arrangements, the engagement of wool, leather, and paper merchants, humanist authors and clerical proofreaders, notaries, judges, and typographers, taking us into the debates in courtrooms, churches, stationer’s stalls, and printshops where the financing and execution of print projects occurred in the interest of getting those first Florentine books out into the world.

Evelyn Lincoln
History of Art & Architecture and Italian Studies, Brown University