The Venetian Book-trade in the 15th Century: material evidence for the economic and social history of the Renaissance

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Project Description:

The book trade differs from other trades established and operating in the medieval and early modern periods in that the goods traded survive in considerable numbers. Not only do they survive, but many of them bear stratified evidence of their history in the form of marks of ownership, prices, manuscript annotations, bindings and decoration styles. This project proposes for the first time to use the traded objects themselves, 15th-century books which still survive in their thousands, as evidence of the book trade, to substantially complement current research based almost solely on scattered documentary evidence (printers contracts, litigations, booksellers stock lists, wills etc.). The project will investigate, analyse and contextualise the material evidence, also known as copy specific, or provenance information (ownership notes, purchasing prices, binding, decoration, manuscripts notes) of thousands of surviving 15th-century books printed in Venice and exported and used everywhere in Europe to assess how their distribution took place, so to advance our knowledge of the trade network, as well as of the response of different publics to the introduction of printing, of purchasing and of reading habits. Data will be partly extracted from published catalogues of incunabula which contain such information in varying degrees of completeness, partly collected by the Researcher first hand (in Venice and Seville in particular) in a newly designed database: Material Evidence in Incunabula (MEI), funded by the BA, produced by Alex Jahnke of DCG Univ. of Goettingen, and maintained by CERL. MEI offers a central repository on the copy-specific data on incunabula not yet described in any paper or electronic catalogue – the majority. It is linked to the Incunabula Short-Title Catalogue (ISTC), from which it derives the bibliographic records, it allows for the recording of any aspect of the material evidence of incunabula, it also allows for sophisticated integrated searches of the material: every piece of evidence, not just names of owners, but also a certain style of decoration or the period of a manuscript note, is treated as valuable clue for provenance, therefore it can be geographically located and chronologically dated. This enables the tracking of the movement of books across Europe and throughout the centuries. Explicit ownership notes are further categorised as private or institutional, religious or lay, female or male, and by profession. A number of libraries have started to catalogue the provenance of their incunabula in MEI, among which the British Library and Rome, National Central Library (full list on the website). The result will detail how the Venetian trade in printed books, the largest in 15th-century Europe, developed and expanded, at the same time offering a substantial contribution, based on solid and extensive evidence, to the economic and social history of the Renaissance.