Though the history of printing in Europe started in Germany, more books were made in the fifteenth century in Venice than in any other city, according to cultural historian Peter Burke (A Social History of Knowledge), who estimates the figure to have been about four and a half thousand editions, which could mean up to two million copies. The names of one hundred and fifty Venetian printers active before the turn of the century survive.
Printing with moveable type was first developed commercially in Mainz in the 1440s but by the turn of the century the centre of gravity had moved to the Adriatic. Venice, still a huge trading power in the Mediterranean though increasingly challenged by the Turkish Ottomans, printed liturgical works, Greek and Latin classics, Jewish religious texts, sheet music, chiefly for religious use, maps, atlases and scientific books; and it employed Latin, Greek, Aramaic, Arab, Hebrew and Glagolitic (early Slavic) alphabets.
The wealth of the city’s book trade supported not just printers and their ancillary staff but freelance “men of letters” and the beginnings of that shifting population of poor scholars, translators, editors, transcribers, writers and correctors of the press who would later go on in various European cities to occupy that insecure place of employment which in England came to be called Grub Street. Burke writes:
The large number of printers in Venice was one of the attractions of the city for men of letters, since the market allowed them to make a living independent of patrons. Pietro Aretino was the most famous of a group of such men of letters, nicknamed poligrafi because they wrote so much and on such a wide variety of topics in order to survive – prose and verse, translations, adaptations from other writers, and especially works offering practical information, including a guide to Venice for visitors, conduct books and a treatise explaining how to write letters on different topics such as love and money. Some of the poligrafi served particular publishers … as editors and proof-readers, new occupations which came into existence as the result of printing. They had equivalents in other places such as Paris and London, but Venice was the principal centre of professional writers in the sixteenth century.
And yet Venice was on the whole a commercial rather than an intellectual city, and certainly not one that looked kindly on useless speculation. Its university, in nearby Padua, was known for its faculties of law, medicine, agriculture and veterinary medicine, which drew many students from abroad. In words which might be pleasing to the ears of some contemporary university presidents, the English traveller Thomas Coryat called the city “a sweet emporium and mart town of learning”, while a sixteenth century Venetian wrote: “We despise knowledge of things of which we have no need.”
One visitor to Venice who did not despise cultural goods for which there was no obvious need was George Gordon, Lord Byron. Arriving in Venice in late 1816, Byron almost immediately became fascinated by the way of life and study of a community of exiled Armenian monks who had been installed for about a century on the tiny island of San Lazzaro in the Venetian lagoon. His biographer Fiona MacCarthy writes:
For his first few months in Venice, Byron rowed over in his gondola from the mainland to the Isola San Lazzaro almost every day. His choice of Armenian as a subject of study was characteristically perverse. He had found that his mind “wanted something craggy to break upon”. The difficulty of Armenian, with its “Waterloo of an alphabet”, was notorious. To add to the complexity he studied the language in two versions: modern-colloquial and ancient liturgical Armenian. As an antidote to Venice’s lazy sensualities this was the hardest task he could devise.
Byron’s enthusiasm for the language, however, did not last. He was reclaimed by the lazy, or frenetic, sensualities of the city as carnival season approached. He promised himself he would return when his head ached a little less, but it seemed he never did. Instead he enthusiastically embraced the opportunities for debauch afforded by Venice en fête – right up to the final all-night masked ball at the Fenice theatre ‑ until they too wore him out as surely as his intellectual struggles with Armenian had a number of weeks earlier. It was in this mood of bittersweet exhaustion that he wrote these verses:
So we’ll go no more a roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.
For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe
And love itself have rest.
Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns to soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a roving
By the light of the moon.