Game box designed for backgammon, bone and wood inlays, Italian, 14th century (from the Nicolas M. Salgo collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).


The Printer’s Wine-Dark Sea: Venetian Book Trading and the Greek Diaspora

The study of the book trade in the early modern period has been dominated by the concept of cut throat competition. As it is currently practiced, this trend fails to properly account for both the personal and business interactions that surrounded the assembling of the classical past in the printing shop, and it provides an insufficient contextualization of the Venetian book industry as a whole. Moreover, despite the long historical and cultural association of Greek and Byzantine intellectuals with printing and publishing activities in the West, which has been reclaimed by such diverse intellectuals as Deno Geanakoplos, John Monfasani, and Konstantinos Staikos, the former world is poorly served by the latter, at least in terms of general attitude and depth of learning, rather than curiosity, and I think it is fair to say that the historiography of the ‘Gutenberg revolution‘ (to use a misleading but wide-spread formula) is still Eurocentric.

Naturally, reinventing and inverting this pattern would require years of academic cooperation, workshops, and assessments that are beyond what a discrete scholarly project can achieve; however, by focusing on lesser-known works currently housed in California (at the Huntington Library, where I am a reader, and at the Tsakopoulos Collection, where I won a fellowship), I hope I can bring a minor, salutary correction to some aspects specifically related to the city culture of early modern Venice (e.g., why would it matter at all that Nikodemos Metaxas, who printed the first Greek book in Constantinople in 1627, was simultaneously an Orthodox monk and a Venetian subject). In this field of knowledge, as in many others, change has been slow yet significant, and punctuated by important monographs like Asaph Ben-Tov's Lutheran Humanists and Greek Antiquity (2009), Sean Roberts' Printing a Mediterranean World (2013), and Han Lamers' Greece Reinvented (2016).

This project is in close dialogue with all the studies mentioned above but differs from them thematically and methodologically since it concentrates on Venetian book-selling and not on the contested transformations of Hellenism (or primarily on maps and geography), and since it uses social network analysis to propose a history of print culture as a world-system. In fact, I really wish to describe printing shops at a micro-level and from the vantage point of moving goods, and connecting ideas and technologies within the Mediterranean, and to bring to fruition in my framework Kostas Vlassopoulos' discussion of koinoniai, or forms of association, as a correct historical unit of analysis.

Printing enterprises are built on scholarly networks and mobility of labor. This is the assumption that my project takes as its starting point to compare the intellectual histories of the Greek diaspora and the Venetian trade empire in the Mediterranean between 1450 and 1650. It is a premise whose paradoxical appearance can be tempered by elaborating that such an ‘archaeology of the sea’ is necessary to bring out the extent of the Venetian book world and to understand the lasting coherence of its historical records as the interaction between ‘local’ or ‘small’ worlds, to use Irad Malkin’s parlance. Indeed, by studying print-events as endemic to coastal seafaring, not only am I suggesting that boats and vessels are the workhorse in Venetian publishing but I also take the environmentalist view that for Venetian entrepreneurs the sea is normal and the land is the fringe (which, incidentally, explains why the city printers avoided the rugged interior of the Balkans). For example, Braudel’s notion of insularity does poor justice to the emergence of Crete and Cyprus as the funnel for interaction between Venice and Istanbul.

If we assume that the editions or commonplacing of the Greek classical corpus in Venice and the industrial organization of commercial charters in the lagoon were beginning to run parallel courses by the end of the fifteenth century, one may, perhaps, begin to speculate on how this proximity proved mutually reinforcing; we must also remember that, of all activities in early modern print culture, distribution is by far the least studied. In turn, by adapting a “bottom up” approach concerning social storage to the fractal zones of book trading, my argument historicizes a plea for humanist emancipation, which, as Ann Moss observed, Politian already envisaged as a leap into swimming without support (‘sine cortice’).

A whole branch of historiography on “empire and science” has developed that focuses on the aims, infrastructure, and impacts of knowledge accumulation; such historiography, however, has had little to no influence on the study of print culture. By asking different questions on stagnation and innovation I intend to assert the importance of that research to my purposes and to move away from antiquated models such as ‘center v. periphery’ or ‘cut throat competition’, which applies to the Venetian book industry an anachronistic view of publish or perish. The point made here is to shift focus to the other side of the circulation of Greek knowledge in Venice—management, not revival—and therefore to the enduring relationship between printing and its journeymen. Such a change of perspective also implies that the very category of “heroic printer” takes second place. I concentrate instead on the relevant Mediterranean actors who worked for or under the protection of a Venetian printing house: the copyists, translators, collectors and travelers on the one hand; and the involved official personnel on the other, from the chaplains and ambassadors to the experts and advisors in commercial and cultural affairs.

My project aims to investigate the mechanisms of the diffusion of knowledge innovations and of accumulation in the frame of an evolving Mediterranen system of book trading. Innovations in the form of new subjects, treatises, or commentaries were mostly adopted by different Venetian printed editions, subsequently disseminated in wide geographic areas of Europe, from Cracow to Lisbon, and possibly by means of translations from Greek to vernacular. In this frantic production of new editions, publishers and printers were extremely engaged in maintaining their publications up to date and were all absorbing the same knowledge system. Within this historical context, therefore, the accumulation of the Greek imagination marks also the mechanisms of the formation of a shared scientific identity in Europe, during the early modern period. In the frame of this project, these mechanisms are explored by means of methods appropriated from network theory. According to a recently developed approach (by Jürgen Renn and Matteo Valleriani), a corpus of Greek texts printed in Venice is explored on three different levels: the epistemic production of the books, concerned with textual content and its innovations; the material one, concerned with the externalization of knowledge (including both prefaces and paratextual adversaria); and the social one, which represents the structure of the network. Within this structure, actors help in determining network dynamics of diffusion and accumulation.

The nodes that connect the three mentioned network layers are the print-events, that is, the finishing of the books, which then spread over the network. The transaction costs to keep this knowledge network alive and eventually growing were carried out by publishers and printers. The nodes of the social network are therefore the social micro-regions constituted around the printers’ workshops: besides publishers and printers, there were authors, credit givers, sellers, translators, copy-editors, proof-readers, engravers, and representatives of educational or other institutions. To understand the network’s social structure and the invocation of its readership of studiosi (or spoudaioi in Greek), it is therefore necessary to investigate the business model of early modern publishers, in this case with a focus on Venetian firms and their mutual Greek relations.

Since the Greek tradition taken into consideration amounts to hundreds of books printed in the first decades of the sixteenth century alone, a systematic archive research that is able to throw light on each single print-event is simply unrealistic. Much more promising is therefore an approach that tends to reconstruct how the great early modern publishers led their activities: their business model. The number of reconstructions of the business model of early modern printers is to this day very low and has mainly focused on single printers instead of investigating the relations among them, despite the fact that economic history has already begun delivering the necessary figures to undertake such research (especially with the recent work of Baten, Buringh and van Zanden, among others).

During the preliminary stages of this research, I will work on two main tasks:

  • construct a historical argument for the prominence of scholarly networks on the edges of the Byzantine world, using Crete as a prime example of Greek culture under Venetian domination. In this section, I propose (a) a comparative analysis on insulation and insularity in the textual transmission and interpretation of Thucydides; (b) a new study of the important Commentary on Homer by Eustathius, printed by Froben (1559-60), which traces what was known of this work in the Veneto at the time of Erasmus’ stay in Venice; and (c) an account of the Italian and European fortune of the Grammaticae Compendium of Constantine Lascaris.
  • reconstruct the role and evaluate the impact of Aldus Manutius in Greek studies in light of this project’s general overview and after thorough consideration of such editions as Arriani De expeditione (1539), Demosthenes’ Logoi (1532), and Poetae Graeci (1566). My assumption is that Aldus offers little besides a sustained reception of the Byzantine approach and that, as a result, he is better understood as a point of arrival, not of departure—a vast delta built by accretion—despite how his contemporaries chose to eulogize him.