CHEAP PRINT IN RENAISSANCE VENICE
Salzberg, Rosa. Ephemeral City: Cheap Print and Urban Culture in Renaissance Venice. Manchester (UK), Manchester University Press, 2014. ISBN: 9780719087035; 240pp.; $110.00.
Salzberg’s study, building on much new research by Salzberg and other historians into the documentary evidence from the period, greatly expands the conventional picture of early printing and its cultural impact, to include the large and lively business of “cheap print,” and that business’s large and lively audience, which was apparent in Venice from the late 1400s. Salzberg describes the printers and performers, and their typical backgrounds, along with the social, physical, political, and professional setting of the business, and its role in the culture of the time.
Cheap print includes pamphlets, broadsides, and flyers (fogli volanti) of all sorts—popular songs, bawdy poetry, religious images and writings, poetic treatments of current events, plays, political tracts, folk medicine, popular instruction on common practical topics, almanacs, etc.—as well as cheap books, especially of vernacular Italian literature (such as Aretino and, perhaps especially, Ariosto, generally in the form of abridgments or extracts). Some of the pamphlets were a hodgepodge of material of very different kinds.
This merchandise was commonly sold in the streets, often in conjunction with street performance. The same peddlers were also likely to sell soaps, perfumes, personal ornaments, and remedies, along with the printed items.
Street performers would hire printers to produce their printed matter, printers would produce printed items on their own initiative for sale to peddlers, and at least one or two street performers did their own printing. Many of the printers who produced such items were inexperienced newcomers taking advantage of the fact that printing, unlike other trades, was not controlled by a guild until the late 1500s. But there were often many and close connections between the street trade and some, at least, of the more august printing houses.
Cheap print was the medium for the transferral of much popular culture from oral media to print in a time of increasingly widespread literacy. The increased availability of texts increased the opportunities to learn and improve reading skills and the incentive to do so.
Cheap print was also the medium of a great deal of popular religious literature. This included much reformist and religious humanist literature, including extracts from Luther and Erasmus. This literature, heretical in Italy, often, but not always, passed successfully under the radar of the various censors. There was also a large volume of orthodox or counter-reformist literature, often printed with official stamps of approval. As with religious writings in other eras, the printed religious texts were often treated as amulets, folded up and kept about the person.
Ephemeral print helped to establish the vernacular in print alongside the Latin of the educated classes. It also, partly by virtue of the mobility of many of the peddlers, helped to establish a standard vernacular Italian as the language of print and national popular culture alongside the many spoken dialects that were not fully intelligible outside their home regions.
Popular print was popular at all levels of society. Much of it was debased information for an ignorant and undiscriminating audience; for some in this audience reading would improve their understandings, for others it would merely lend the authority of print to their ignorance. But other works became popular not because their content was debased, but because quality content was, for the first time, made available in an affordable and accessible format.
In the early Renaissance, content and perspectives of all kinds found their way into cheap print. This began to change in the 1500s, as authority exerted greater control. The impulse was increased with the Reformation, in which print was clearly important as a vector for the diffusion of heretical ideas in Italy (as elsewhere). This brought the interests of Venice in line with those of the Church of Rome. Venice tended to preserve its own independence and initiative, but the goals of the two powers were increasingly the same. One medium of control was the establishment of the printers’ and booksellers’ guild, the last guild to be formed in Venice, in 1549.
Cheap print often escaped efforts at control, but only insofar as it was too debased to matter, or because its producers and their products were too hard to pin down. Religiously-oriented authorities tended to increase their control beyond matters of political and doctrinal content, to cover general morality as well, and to enforce the doctrinal minutiae of Counter-Reformation orthodoxy. The role of the Church in Venetian censorship increased from the early 1560s, but it remained impossible to police the entire output. The brunt of the censorship was borne by well-established printers and books, and to a lesser extent by those who cried their works most prominently in the streets. Through the 1500s at least, manuscript remained an important vehicle for the circulation of sensitive political works (and also pornography, as moral censorship clamped down).
The newly-formed guild could be an instrument of resistance to authority as well as one of control. It depended on where the interests of the guild members lay. The guild was active in restricting its membership, to reduce competition and also to maintain standards of professional competence, notably through an apprenticeship system. The participants in the cheap print industry were too numerous for complete control, much less elimination. But by the end of the 1500s, they had become increasingly marginalized and hemmed in, and to some degree increasingly tamed.
In addition to political factors, there was also the establishment of commercially relevant product categories through trial and error in the marketplace.
The result of the first 130 years of the evolution of printing in Venice was that the interaction between different specialties and between different levels of learning decreased, and “a more circumscribed, distinct corpus of ‘popular’ literature intended for the masses emerged.” By the end of the 1500s (p. 163), “a clearer division was emerging between printed works”—mostly religious—“sanctioned for reading by the general public and those that could be handled only by the more educated.”
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