Chatto & Windus, 2021
Best known for his books Brunelleschi’s Dome, Leonardo and the Last Supper and Michaelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, Ross King has made a name as a popular historian of Renaissance Florence. The blockbuster subjects of his previous titles can't fail to engage, but his latest, a biography of the bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci, is potentially a trickier sell.
Brought up just outside Florence, Vespasiano was apprenticed to a Florentine bookseller on the famous Street of Booksellers in 1433, at the age of eleven and in the early years of the Renaissance.
The role of a “bookseller” at that time consisted chiefly in commissioning manuscripts for wealthy collectors, most often translations of the Classics which, as we emerged from the Dark Ages, had been popularised because of their practical application to political and social problems.
A bookseller would also find buyers for existing manuscripts, and would be hired by the rich and powerful to curate and assemble entire libraries.
Vespasiano eventually took over the business, and by the end of his career had developed a reputation as the world’s most sought-after bookseller, with clients all over Europe, including popes and royalty (and, of course, the Medici family).
King's book doesn’t leave us much the wiser concerning Vespasiano as a person, which I suspect is chiefly down to lack of source material. A lot of time is devoted to the mechanics of manuscript production and also to endless feuds between powerful families and states, much of which I found myself glossing over in pursuit of what made Vespasiano tick.
What emerges is that he was first and foremost a great networker; curious about other people, socially ambitious and keen to garner influence by facilitating introductions.
His social trajectory is more interesting than his intellectual or business trajectory – no bad thing in the creative and luxury industries, where ideas and curated serendipity are everything; particularly so in an age of debate and rhetoric, which, as King points out, is a key skill peculiar to free societies with democratically elected leaders.
In this way, Vespasiano’s story provides a valuable insight into the mechanics of Renaissance Florence. Intellectual debate took place at salons, supper parties and gatherings in Vespasiano’s shop. Discussion mostly centred on new interpretations of Christian texts, which could lead to some viscious culture wars, chiefly centred around whether Platonic or Aristotlean thinking fitted best with the holy scriptures.
The beginnings of the creative industries can be pinpointed, with both Vespasiano and Bartolomeo Serragli, who King identifies as the world’s first art dealer, acting as agents between creators and buyers; and in Bartolomeo’s case, commissioning artworks on spec to sell on.
Previously, manuscripts and artworks would have been located in the countryside, sequestered away in monasteries and other institutions, but now they became a commodity which could be traded. The Renaissance marked the beginning of the market in intellectual property.
Technological change is another key theme of the book, as it is with any fast-moving market economy. The switch from parchment-to-paper at the beginning of the fifteenth century spurred Vespasiano’s career. And the printing press ended it.
Interestingly, Italy – and Florence in particular – was one of the last places in Europe to adopt the press. Its popularity exploded over northern Europe, but the manuscript trade in Italy was robust enough to hold out. One also gets the impression that the Florentine elites were resistant to such democratisation of literature and information. When the press did take hold in Italy, delightfully it was often adapted from old wine presses – and the first commercially successful press in Florence was operated by the San Jacopo di Ripoli order of nuns.
Vespasiano objected vehemently to the printed book, on ideological as much as competitive grounds. As this point, we truly see that his stock in trade was his networks, connections and ideas. Commercialisation of a product held no appeal.
Instead of onboarding the new technology, he retired to the country and becomes a rather reactionary writer, railing against modernity and the general decline of Italy.
What also becomes clear is that Vespasiano didn’t actually make much money out of his trade. As was common to the time and place, he lived in a large house with his extended family, including his brother who was a well-known doctor. When the brother died, so did the source of funds.
Vespasiano wasn’t driven by money or commercial opportunity, and although a lover of ideas, he wasn’t a great thinker in his own right.
What spurred him was getting to know and serve the rich and powerful, introducing them to each other and always being in the know. As King comments at one point, “It was a mark of Vespasiano’s eminence and influence that an ambassador should find the political convictions of a bookseller worth reporting to his masters.”
And it’s this which made him ahead of his time. A free world governed by ideas rather than warlords needs skills in public affairs, intelligence gathering, ambassadorship, trend-setting and marketing. Vespasiano’s value proposition was his people skills, facilitated by the freedom of democracy.
Ironically, as we move through mechanisation and towards automation, it’s these skills which will move further to the top of the value chain. In this respect, Vespasiano was way ahead of his time.