It must have been a very exciting time in Florence in the fifteenth century. The Humanists favoured Greek and Roman texts, rather than religious ones, and wanted them written out in luxury books. But who could procure the fine vellum needed, or the scribes to write the books in the new/old style of Humanistic Minuscule, artists to decorate them with white vine-scroll ornament, and skilled craftspeople to bind them in velvet or supple leather? Enter one Vespasiano da Bisticci (1421–1498) as shown here. He started working at a libreria along a street of similar shops when he was only 11 years of age but he learnt quickly and, when still a young man, became a member of the stationers’ guild and thus a fully fledged ‘cartolaio’.
The Humanists wanted their ancient texts written in an ancient script. They thought Gothic scripts were too modern (though they look very old-fashioned to us!), and called them lettera/littera antica/antiqua. Looking back in history at various writing styles they were keen to get as close to the scripts of Rome and Greece, but they didn’t go back quite far enough. They settled instead on the clear and precise style developed during the reign of Charlemagne, another lover of all things classical. Charlemagne wanted a clear, easily readable script, that could be used throughout his empire, and this was it.
The Humanists adapted it – they made the script more upright, they added feet to the minims (sometimes emphasised too much!) and used classical Roman Capitals to complete the impressive look. The appearance on the page is almost of printed text when it is written as clearly and precisely as this. It is extremely difficult to justify text when it is hand-written – it is certainly not as simple and easy as highlighting a paragraph and clicking on a button to align left and right margins! Yet in this manuscript now in the British Library, written by Rodolpho Brancalupo, it is precisely what he has achieved.
Many of the pages of books at this time also reflected Classical influences. Those associated with the great Paduan scribe Bartolomeo San Vito and others often had decorations of swags and foliage, cherubs and acanthus leaves, vases and jewels, sea creatures and pearls – as can be seen in the manuscript page in the second paragraph. Others were decorated with bianchi girari (white twists), which worked well with the lighter and more delicate script. This is shown in this manuscript from the Fitzwilliam Museum which was supervised by Vespasiano da Bisticci and produced in about two months – an amazing feat!
Vespasiano’s shop can still be seen in Florence. It was on the corner of the Via del Proconsolo and Via de’ Pandolfini. Close by is another shop as here. This is a magnificent building with a most impressive doorway.
Above the rounded and decorated arch, between two horizontal swags of leaves and foliage, is a small carved open book. Those a little carried away by the romance of the bookshop of the famous bookseller thought that a book carved above the entrance indicated that this is the very shop.
This ‘book’ shop, though, is on the wrong corner, and in some ways sadly, although amazing that it’s still there, Vespasiano’s old shop is much more mundane now – at the time of writing it was a pizzeria. This is on here the correct corner and it was from where the bookseller traded.
There is much more about the Humanists, their manuscripts, and Vespasiano and his clients in ‘The Art of the Scribe’, published by the British Library, summer 2024.