The Renaissance in Florence conjures images of beautiful frescoes and elegant buildings―the dazzling handiwork of the city’s skilled artists and architects. But equally important for the centuries to follow were geniuses of a different sort: Florence’s manuscript hunters, scribes, scholars, and booksellers, who blew the dust off a thousand years of history and, through the discovery and diffusion of ancient knowledge, imagined a new and enlightened world.
At the heart of this activity, which bestselling author Ross King relates in his exhilarating new book, was a remarkable man: Vespasiano da Bisticci. Born in 1422, he became what a friend called “the king of the world’s booksellers.” At a time when all books were made by hand, over four decades Vespasiano produced and sold many hundreds of volumes from his bookshop, which also became a gathering spot for debate and discussion. Besides repositories of ancient wisdom by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, and Quintilian, his books were works of art in their own right, copied by talented scribes and illuminated by the finest miniaturists. His clients included a roll-call of popes, kings, and princes across Europe who wished to burnish their reputations by founding magnificent libraries.
Vespasiano reached the summit of his powers as Europe’s most prolific merchant of knowledge when a new invention appeared: the printed book. By 1480, the king of the world’s booksellers was swept away by this epic technological disruption, whereby cheaply produced books reached readers who never could have afforded one of Vespasiano’s elegant manuscripts.
A thrilling chronicle of intellectual ferment set against the dramatic political and religious turmoil of the era, Ross King’s brilliant The Bookseller of Florence is also an ode to books and bookmaking that charts the world-changing shift from script to print through the life of an extraordinary man long lost to history―one of the true titans of the Renaissance.
Praise for The Bookseller of Florence:
“If you want to celebrate the place that bookmaking and bookselling still have in our lives, notwithstanding all those hours captive to the digital glimmer, you could do a lot worse than immerse yourself in Ross King’s rich history of Vespasiano da Bisticci, ‘the king of the world’s booksellers,’ in 15th-century Florence . . . Though Vespasiano himself was the author of a collection of biographies of ‘illustrious men,’ the real pleasure of King’s book is its detailed evocation of the physical grind of bookmaking . . . What you will find in abundance here is a historical celebration of the Greek humanist Cardinal Bessarion’s belief that books ‘live, they converse and speak with us, they teach us, educate us, console us.’ Painfully deprived as we have been of the immediate joys of friendly chatter and animated argument, have we ever valued the company of books more dearly?”―Simon Schama, New York Times Book Review
“A marvel of storytelling and a master class in the history of the book, explaining sometimes arcane bookmaking processes in clear and coherent language while lending an easy touch to otherwise confounding historical turmoil . . . A dazzling, instructive and highly entertaining book, worthy of the great bookseller it celebrates.”―Ernest Hilbert, Wall Street Journal
“[A] delightful, immersive history of books and bookselling in the heart of the Renaissance . . . Engrossing and meticulously researched . . . As this is a book about books, Ross wrangles myriad details about their creation, including producing parchment, inks, illuminations, bindings, movable type and paper (sometimes from the wardrobes of Black Death victims!), as well as innovations in typography and layout. And for bibliophiles who are also word nerds, there's lots of juicy etymology.”―Cory Oldweiler, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“The scope of King’s knowledge is staggering and his book bulges with facts. They are at their most enticing when they relate to physical processes such as the details of Vespasiano’s manuscript production . . . The author is equally circumstantial when describing the rival process of printing. Anyone who has set up a page using moveable metal type will be impressed by the vividness and precision of his account . . . Remarkable as these feats of factual exposition are, King’s supreme ability is to imagine himself into the past . . . Spectacular.”―John Carey, Times (UK)
“Excellent . . . The difficulties of the 15th-century book trade, though, are precisely what make The Bookseller of Florence such a fascinating read: they link pursuits as seemingly minor as sheep farming to plague, politics, and papal crusades. Though ostensibly a biography of Vespasiano, he is less the book’s subject than its method: a window on to the intellectual, political and technological developments of a time in radical ferment. It is an astute choice by King, just as King―entertaining, witty and expert―is a fortunate fate for Vespasiano. It is a book I will be keeping on my shelves, despite the crowding.”―Tim Smith-Laing, Telegraph (UK)
“The life of Vespasiano runs through [The Bookseller of Florence], but the life functions more as a bowl than a dome―a vessel filled with stories, digressions, tradecraft, statistics.”―Cullen Murphy, Air Mail
“King effectively contrasts the drive to improve and learn to the frequently extreme violence in society at the time in the age of the Medici . . . As King illustrates, Vespasiano was an expert networker who sometimes sold his books to both sides of warring parties, somehow keeping his own head from going on one of those stakes . . . Vespasiano’s story is remarkable, and King does a meritorious job of telling it, along with many interesting detours.”―Jim Patterson, Chapter 16
“Magnificent . . . King’s meticulous research provides an immersive reading experience as he expertly weaves the political intrigue of families vying for power and currying favor with the pope into a riveting intellectual history covering the evolution of books, Renaissance Italy, classical philosophy and literature, and the invention of the printing press. A profoundly engaging study of a time when books were considered essential to a meaningful life, and knowledge and wisdom were cherished as ends in themselves. For readers of Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve.”―Booklist (starred review)
“In this fascinating biography, Canadian author King weaves Vespasiano’s story into the fabric of the tumultuous times in which he lived. Although the details about the history and mechanics of early Renaissance book production, such as ink manufacture and distribution supply chains, might be tedious in another work, here they add to the depth and enjoyment of the story. The result is a narrative about a man and his books, and so much more, including the origins and history of the Frankfurt Book Fair and the influence of Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press on the arc of history. Standout narrative nonfiction that will engage bibliophiles and readers who enjoy historical nonfiction.”―Library Journal (starred review)
“A richly detailed portrait of 15th-century Florence and the important role booksellers played in disseminating ancient Greek and Latin texts that were vital to the Renaissance . . . This expert account shines a new light on the Renaissance.”―Publishers Weekly
Praise for Ross King:
“King has made a career elucidating crucial episodes in the history of art and architecture.”―TIME
“Ross King has a track record when it comes to turning such art stories into gripping narratives . . . His method is expansive, including personal, political, social and cultural context.”―Sunday Times (UK)
“King has the gift of clear, unpretentious exposition, and an instinctive narrative flair.”―Guardian
“King gives us a gripping account of how that painting was created . . . [and] deftly situates the painting in a historical context―against political events in Italy at the time, religious attitudes of the day and contemporaneous developments in art―and also places it in the context of Leonardo’s career . . . A fascinating volume.”―New York Times, on Leonardo and the Last Supper
“One of architecture’s great tales.”―Newsweek, on Brunelleschi’s Dome
“Ross King expertly wipes away such smudges from the story of this great painting, only to uncover a truth even exciting and improbable . . . Now that art lovers can see the painting as it was originally conceived, this fabulous and eminently readable history will help them appreciate that it was no immaculate conception.”―San Francisco Chronicle, on Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling
“Sensitive, deeply researched and altogether delightful.”―Newsday, on Mad Enchantment
“A tour de force.”―New York Times Book Review, on The Judgment of Paris
“So thorough is King’s grasp of the Second Empire’s cultural politics, so ironic his wit and choice of detail, his text remains a page-turner throughout.”―Los Angeles Times Book Review, on The Judgment of Paris
Ross King is the award-winning and bestselling author of Brunelleschi’s Dome, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, The Judgment of Paris, Mad Enchantment, Leonardo and the Last Supper, and Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power, among other books. He and his wife live in Woodstock, Great Britain.