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, 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 as we understand it, that is printing with movable type, was first developed commercially in Mainz in the late 1440s.
Venice 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 city, which was still in the sixteenth century a huge trading power in the Mediterranean, though it was losing out militarily to the Ottomans, offered a climate of relative spiritual freedom and tolerance which encouraged business and exchange; Venice’s publishing industry also benefited from the proximity of Padua, a centre of humanist studies in the Renaissance.
Germans arrived to work and became Venetians (thus Wendelin von Speyer, Speyer being a city on the Rhine, became Vendelin da Spira), bringing their skills with them. Frenchmen too: Nicolas Jenson from Champagne went first to Mainz (Gutenberg’s city) to learn his trade, but he practised it mostly in Venice.
The greatest of all Venetian printers, however, was Aldus Manutius (Aldo Manuzio), who was not just a printer but a scholar. Aldus established reliable editions of Greek and Roman classics, free of mistakes, and also printed them in pleasing fonts, some of them the work of pioneering punchcutters and type designers like the Bolognese Francesco Griffo. Aldus is also credited with inventing the modern use of the semi-colon; this alone should surely earn for him a lasting place in cultural history.
The wealth of Venice’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 was in England called Grub Street. Peter Burke writes (in the first volume of his A Social History of Knowledge):
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.