Five Hundred Years Ago in Printing


This exhibition shows a selection of books that were printed five hundred years ago. The first book printed with moveable type was produced in Germany by Johann Gutenberg in 1455. Printing spread across Europe over the course of the fifteenth century, with most major centers of printing developing in the same cities that served as centers for trade and commerce. While the earliest printed books had been designed to imitate the manuscript books that had preceded them, the printed book gradually evolved into a distinctly different technology and art form. By 1515 the printed book was a well-established commercial product, with a sizeable industry behind it. The books on display show a sampling of the variety of works that were available in print five hundred years ago.

This edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy is a reprint of Aldus Manutius’ (1449/1450-1515) printing from 1502, and was published by Aldus’ successors just six months after his death. At a time when most books were printed as expensive folio-sized editions, Aldus was one of the first printers to popularize a smaller book format that was designed to be portable and less expensive. Aldus took an active editorial role in assembling his texts, usually traveling far and wide to consult the most accurate copies available in manuscript. Aldus’ Dante, as edited by Pietro Bembo (1470-1547), proved to be highly influential. Although Dante had already been printed many times since 1472, Aldus’ printing soon superseded its predecessors, and went on to provide the basis for all subsequent editions of the Divine Comedy well into the nineteenth century. The 1515 edition differs from the earlier printing in that it was augmented with illustrations, which were printed from woodcuts. The book contains two charts outlining the circles of Inferno and Purgatory, and, as shown here, a very detailed map depicting the rings of Hell and its inhabitants.

Divine Comedy

1. Dante Alighieri (1265-1321).

Dante Col Sito, Et Forma Dell'inferno Tratta Dalla Istessa Descrittione Del Poeta. Vinegia: nelle case d'Aldo et d'Andrea di Asola suo suocero, 1515.

Johannes Trithemius was a Benedectine abbot who wrote on lexicography, history, cryptography, and occultism. His Liber Octo Questionum (“Book of Eight Questions”), shown here in its first edition, was a religious treatise written to answer eight topical questions that the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I (1459-1519), had asked at the Diet of Cologne in 1505. The questions range from “is faith necessary for salvation?” to “what powers do witches possess?” All in all, about half of the questions relate to witchcraft and demonology. Trithemius, like many other authorities of the day, argued that witchcraft was a real and serious threat to society. He claimed that witches consort with demons to wreak havoc: they upset the atmosphere, cause storms, ruin crops, and cast malevolent spells. (He also said that sometimes demons use their powers for more mundane purposes, such as playing practical jokes on people). Witchcraft persecutions were already occurring across Europe, and had been growing increasingly common since the latter half of the fifteenth century. Although Trithemius did not actually call for the execution of suspected witches (he thought that exorcisms and purification rituals would suffice), Liber Octo Questionum soon became one of many texts cited in favor of the continuing witch-hunts. (Interestingly, Trithemius himself was accused of performing black magic, partially because some of his works on cryptography had been couched in the language of ceremonial magic).

Liber Octo Questionum

2. Trithemius, Johannes (1462-1516).

Ioannis Tritemii Abbatis Sancti Iacobi Apud Herbipolim, Quondam Vero Spanhemensis, Liber Octo Questionu[m] Ad Maximilianum Cesarem. Impressum Oppenheym: Impensis Ioha[n]nis Hasselbergen[sis] de Augia Consta[n]tiensis dyocesis, 1515.

Albertus Magnus was a German Dominican friar and bishop. He wrote prolifically on theology, philosophy, and the sciences, and was lauded as “magnus” (“the great”) in his own lifetime. His De Natura Locorum (“Concerning the Nature of Places”) was probably composed between 1248 and 1252. It represents the first attempt to write a comparative geography, and was also the first work to present geography as a distinct discipline. Albertus’ work was particularly notable for being one of the first to theorize the extent to which climate is effected by factors such as elevation, the presence of mountains, the proximity of the sea, and the level of vegetation and soil in a given area. The volume shown here is the second printed edition, which was produced by Matthias Schurer (1470-1519), an Alsatian printer who specialized in humanist texts. (The very first printed edition had appeared the previous year, in Vienna). The printed editions of De Natura Locorum are particularly interesting in that they include a contemporary reference to Amerigo Vespucci and his voyages. Where Albertus wrote that the Southern hemisphere is habitable, the sixteenth century editor added: “Behold he concludes that it is habitable at 50º beyond the equator, as Vespucci has discovered and described by his voyages in previous years.”

De natura locurum

3. Albertus, Magnus, Saint (1193?-1280).

Habes in Hac Pagina: Amice Lector, Alberti Magni Germani Pri[n]cipis Philosophi, De Natura Locorum Librum Mira Eruditione, & Singulari Fruge Refertu[m], & Iam Primum Summa Dilige[n]tia Reuisum, in Luce[m] Æditum, Quem Leges Dilige[n]tius, Vel Si Cosmographia Vel Physica Profecisse Te Volueris. Argentorati: Ex Aedibus Matthiæ Schurerij, 1515.

Aulus Gellius was a second century Latin grammarian. His Noctes Atticae (“Attic Nights”) was a compilation of extracts from Greek and Roman writers. It was intended as a distillation of great literature, particularly aimed at those who lacked the time or the inclination to read the great works in their entirety. (The title derives from the fact that Gellius compiled it during winter nights, while he was staying in a country house near Athens). Many of the works quoted in the Noctes Atticae are themselves no longer extant; the fragments collected by Gellius are thus all that we have left. The edition on display was printed in Venice by the House of Aldus. Unlike the other books on display, this one retains its original binding, which is stamped with elaborate decorative designs. Five hundred years ago, there was no such thing as a uniform publishers’ binding. Books were usually bound at the purchaser’s discretion, using a variety of materials and styles. In this way, no two copies of a book were ever entirely the same. Over the years, if a book became worn or damaged, an owner might opt to rebind it and discard the original. Additionally, it was once common practice for collectors to discard the contemporary binding as worthless regardless of its condition, preferring to have their books rebound in whatever style seemed more aesthetically appealing to them. Consequently, a great deal of early printed books exist in bindings that are several centuries’ younger than the pages that they contain.

Noctes Atticae

4. Gellius, Aulus. (fl. 2nd century CE).

Avli Gellii Noctivm Atticarvm Libri Vndeviginti. Venetiis: in aedibvs Aldi, et Andreae soceri, 1515.

Curated by Alexander C. Johnston