The Bookseller of Florence

The Bookseller of Florence

by Ross King

What a fine book! It filled a hole in my knowledge that I didn’t even know was there.

I had visited Florence and done some reading about it as the birthplace of the Renaissance and the home of a staggeringly gifted cast of characters during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, most of them artists: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Machiavelli, Brunelleschi, Raphael, and others. What I didn’t know about was the books.

Florence was a major crossroads in the production and trade of manuscripts, initially scrolls and then bound pages called codexes, and at the center of those activities was a man named Vespasiano da Bisticci. Vespasiano began in poverty and worked his way up to become the owner of a legendary bookshop that took orders, located, created, and sold handlettered and illustrated manuscripts in Europe and beyond.

The shop also served as a gathering place where Florentines discussed philosophy and theology, especially the ideas of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Discovery of their manuscripts sparked those discussions, which in turn helped to fuel the rebirth of classical ideas and values that became the Renaissance.

If Vespasiano’s work connected to the past on one side, it linked to the future on the other. During his lifetime, a revolutionary new technology was pioneered by Johannes Gutenberg less than five hundred miles away, and printed volumes began replacing handwritten manuscripts.

Reading this fascinating book, we come to realize that Vespasiano’s Florence—and his bookshop in particular—was the pivot on which, for the seventy-seven years of his life, the world turned.