The Bookseller of Florence: Vespasiano da Bisticci and the Manuscripts that Illuminated the Renaissance

by Dr Ross King

Hardcover, 2021



Call number



Chatto & Windus (2021), 496 pages


"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 chronicle of intellectual ferment set against the dramatic political and religious turmoil of the era, Ross King's 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"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member lilithcat
I'm torn about this book.

It's an interesting idea, tracing how certain books were influential in the Renaissance through the lens of a Florentine bookseller*, and how the coming of the printing press affected him.

The book is long, just over 400 pages, and it could and should have been shorter. The
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author (Ross King) did a tremendous amount of research, and it almost seems as though he could not bear to leave anything out. The book is full of digressions, as he wanders about the highways and byways of conspiracies, crusades, feuds, and Papal politics. He feels the need to give us the back story of everyone mentioned, however peripheral, and all the details of how things are made.

The book would have been better and more enjoyable if it had had a strong editorial hand.

* slightly inaccurate term, but we have today nothing equivalent to the person who not only sold books, but arranged for them to be made, hiring the scribes, binders, etc.
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LibraryThing member nancyadair
It was an age when scholars studied the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers in search of answers to contemporary concerns. Book collectors scoured monasteries and abbeys across Italy and Europe seeking rare and neglected books.

Golden Age Florence was a a republic, a literate city that educated
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boys and girls, a place where both wealthy and tradesmen ordered volumes for their personal libraries.

It was also an age of cruel acts of vengeance, political intrigue and family wars, a time of plague, while the Ottoman empire threatened from the East. The church was in turmoil, powerless girls were married off or sent to an abbey, either way locked away from the world.

While some sought truth in Plato and Aristotle, others rejected anything but the Holy Bible and traditional Christian beliefs.

As one bookseller in Florence wrote,"All evil is born from ignorance, Yet writers have illuminated the world, chasing away the darkness." He was Vespasiano da Bisticci. He started life as an eleven-year-old assistant in a book shop, a stationer and bookbinder, doing manual work that required great strength. He went on to be renowned as the "king of the world's booksellers", a trusted friend to the wealthy and powerful and the scholar.

The Bookseller of Florence is the story of Vespasiano's career, set against the story of bookmaking during the shift from hand written and illuminated manuscripts bound in velvet and jewels to the mass production of the printing press. And it is the history of Florence and Italy during the early Renaissance.

Saving ancient manuscripts, copying them, and distributing them for scholarly study did not protect the texts. Without libraries to store and protected them, many sat neglected or where destroyed by fire and warfare, or carried off to disappear.

King covers a lot of territory! I was only vaguely familiar with Italian and Catholic history previously---and found it fascinating. I will read more! (Such as King's Brunelleschi’s Dome, on my Kindle TBR shelf.) I learned about every aspect of book making, the switch from papyrus to parchment to paper, the advances in writing fonts, how printing presses work.

Yes, the book is filled with a huge cast of historic people and events, but my interest never flagged. I was swept up in this epic history.

I received a free egalley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.
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LibraryThing member pomo58
The Bookseller of Florence by Ross King is an excellent example of how a history book can both inform and, broadly speaking, entertain. If you like learning about people, places, cultures and technology of the past, there is a lot of information presented in these pages. If you enjoy the narrative
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of history, how things can progress (or digress) from moment to moment and person to person, there are several narrative arcs here to keep you turning pages. The wonderful part is that whichever of those readers you happen to be, you will be experiencing the other almost without knowing it. I love the story aspect of history and it was amazing how much I learned here, about an era and place I have read a fair bit about, without really realizing it. For those who sometimes find the facts of history tedious, this will be a painless way to learn facts and observe life at that time.

I highly recommend this to readers who enjoy history and want to read it in an engaging and thoughtful form.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
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LibraryThing member jetangen4571
Bibliophilia, European-history, bookseller, historical-places-events, historical-research, history-and-culture, nonfiction, obsession*****

I recognize that this is a personal interest Publish or Perish for Dr Ross King, but I really enjoyed it anyway. This is despite a few pages that I felt I was
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slogging through. This is because there was so much interesting stuff that was new to me or explained so much better than what I'd learned before. And I did learn a lot from his meticulous research and easy presentation. Just learning more about the development of the written and/or printed word made the whole zillion pages (of which 14% is acknowledgements and credits).
I requested and received a free temporary ebook copy from Kensington Books via NetGalley. Thank you!
Too bad that I missed the Zoom at the Cuyahoga Library yesterday!
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LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
This book is as much a history of book making and the rediscovery of ancient texts during the Italian Renaissance as it was the story of Vespasiano, a notable bookseller in fifteenth-century Florence. At times this book does get bogged down in the details - the author recounts much about how
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parchment was made and the printing process for manuscripts - but overall, I still found the content interesting and I appreciated the insight into these aspects of the Italian Renaissance. If you're interested in learning more about this period of history, this book makes for a great read.
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LibraryThing member jnwelch
GIven its subject of how a Florence bookseller helped bring about the Renaissance, I was looking forward to reading The Bookseller of Florence by Ross King. I'd even liked previous books by him, like Brunelleschi's Dome, Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, and The Judgment of Paris. What a
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disappointment this was. I was fine with learning about how classics from the Greek and Roman eras were found, often in monasteries, and then recopied with illumination by hand and sold by the bookseller, and how Gutenberg's printing press affected cost, dissemination and access (only the rich could afford the hand-copied ones), but King ot way off track with feuds and wars and the Medicis. There was way too much tedious detail to wade through to get to the promised story. He fell in love with his research and seemed to give us everything he came across. Frustrating. He never does really explain how artists and others in the Renaissance obtained and were inspired by these classics.
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LibraryThing member barlow304
Ross King is an author who has often written about Renaissance subjects. In this book, he returns to that era to illuminate the life of Vespasiano da Bisticci, the most prominent producer and seller of manuscripts in Renaissance Florence.

Although filled with details of Florentine intellectual
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life, for me the best parts of the book consisted of descriptions of manuscript production and decoration. Vespasiano himself did not write out the material, rather he served as a producer, finding the scribes and illuminators, buying the parchment of paper, and arranging the binding. His list of customers included popes, Medici, kings and scholars from as far away as England.

For someone interested in the transition from manuscript to printing, this book will prove illuminating. Ross also crams in details of many important intellects from the period.
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LibraryThing member Steve38
Supposedly the story of Vespasiano the Bookseller of Florence. He provides a threa for the book bur remains an empty shell of a character in what is a history of 15th century Florence and Italy. The manuscripts and the arrival of printing provide useful bookends but they are vehicles rather than
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passengers. Too much detail, too many digressions, too many fleeting characters.
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Original language


Original publication date

2021 (Engels)
2021 (Nederlands)

Physical description

9.53 inches


1784742651 / 9781784742652
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