Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 22, 2022

The Bookseller of Florence (2021), by Ross King

No, this isn’t a review of an historical novel.

The Bookseller of Florence is a marvellous art history book about a hero of the Renaissance called Vespasiano da Bisticci (1421 – 1498) who was the preeminent book merchant of his era.  He contributed to the store of knowledge from which we still benefit today by hunting out manuscripts from the ancient world that were decaying in dusty monasteries all over Europe, and then he hired the most talented of scribes to copy the manuscripts and had them illuminated by the finest miniaturists so that the books were glorious works of art.  His clients were popes, kings and princes who proclaimed their status by founding magnificent libraries to outdo each other.

My favourite chapter explains the technicalities of making a book before the advent of the printed book.  As King says, in the chapter called ‘Antique Letters’:

The word ‘manuscript’ comes from the Latin manu scriptus, ‘written by hand’, but any manuscript was the product of much more work than simply the writing of a single hand. It was a months- or even years-long, multistep process calling for the expertise of a series of tradesmen and specialist craftsmen from parchment makers to scribes, miniaturists, goldbeaters, and even apothecaries, carpenters, and blacksmiths. (p.99)

It began with finding the manuscript, the search for which is detailed in a previous chapter, where it is shown how important it was to get hold of a quality exemplar.  In Chapter 6, King tells us that Petrarch complained that, so sloppy were the scribes of his day, and so full of errors were the manuscripts they produced, ‘an author would not recognise his own work.’  Vespasiano had a good eye for the best of texts, but he was also highly skilled in acquiring the best of materials.  Occasionally he used paper, but the most beautiful and expensive material on which to write was calfskin, or vellum.  Readers who are fond of animals are best advised not to read the details of the finest and whitest vellum available. Suffice to say that the supply of hides for parchment was always dependent on the dietary preferences of the local population, and in Italy the appetite was for goats, and that supply was impacted by Lent when people did not eat meat.

Benedictine Antiphonary (Wikimedia Commons)

For hundreds of years, the transmission of knowledge had depended on carnivorous appetites and good animal husbandry.  Large volumes with hundreds of pages required the skins of many animals.  One goat was often needed for each page of parchment in a large liturgical book such as an antiphonary, while a Bible might take the skins of more than two hundred animals — and entire herd of goats or flock of sheep. (p.100)

And why were the butchers of Florence required to move their operations into the shops on the Ponte Vecchio? So that they, like the tanners, fish sellers and beltmakers, for reasons of hygiene, could turf their blood and slops into the Arno instead of fouling the streets.

Clearly, from the description given of the processing (which I will spare you), parchment makers needed to have strong stomachs.  But they also needed to have considerable finesse in scraping the skins to 0.1mm (1/250 of an inch), because if they were careless it would be uneven, or tear.

For Vespasiano, his work was a labour of love.  He wasn’t just a bookseller and a librarian, he was a humanist who believed that resurrecting the wisdom of the ancients could ‘illuminate the world’, and it took some courage to work with some contentious texts.  There were religious debates about whether Plato’s abstract, utopian philosophy was compatible with Christianity — which was no minor matter in those days of severe penalties for heresy or apostasy — and the philosophical differences between Plato and Aristotle’s practical common sense had political import as well.  Florentine humanists were active in world affairs and looked to Aristotle to support their views on patriotism and civic affairs, while Platonists were interested in the pursuit of truth, free from distractions like war and making money.   At different times this intellectual divide impacted on Vespasiano and his commissions. (He had a comfortable living, but he was never wealthy.)

Inevitably, the printing press made its way to Italy, and Vespasiano faced competition from cheaper, mass produced books. Its arrival went ahead without the Luddite riots and sabotage of the Industrial Revolution, mainly because it didn’t put people out of work — it grew the market for books instead and created work for many people.  Besides that, the illuminators and other craftsmen were still used to decorate these early printed books, and though Vespasiano believed (quite rightly) that his books were better quality, for most of his lifetime the two forms coexisted in harmony because the wealthy still wanted beautiful books.

What was a problem was that the printing press made possible the publication of books in the vernacular.  Prior to the printing press there were hardly any books in the languages spoken by ordinary people, and the fear was that inaccuracy in any translations of the Bible would lead to heresy. (Hence the argy-bargy about Henry VIII’s Bible of 1539 in English.)

Vespasiano retired in 1480 at the age of 58, not so much because his business was being displaced by mechanisation, but because he was disillusioned about the state of the world. His idealism faltered along with his belief that Christian faith could bring salvation.  It had been a bad year: there was war, plague and incursions from the Ottomans under Mehmed II, who had conquered Constantinople; taken Negroponte, (a strategic port);  raped, pillaged and trashed Otranto; and attacked Venice though he did not conquer it.

In his retirement Vespasiano, took up writing, offering the benefit of his (unmarried) years in the form of didactic advice to women. To quote Wikipedia:

His accounts plunge the reader into the social world of Florence; they contain delicate pictures of manners, charming portraits, noble female figures, of which last point it is possible to judge by reading the biography of Alessandro Bardi (ed. Mai, 593). The general tone is that of a moralist, who shows the dangers of the Renaissance, especially for women, warns against the reading of the novels, and reproaches the Florentines with usury and illicit gains. Vespasiano is a panegyrist of Nicholas V, the great book-lover; he is severe to the point of injustice against Pope Callistus III, the indifferent lender of books, which, however, he did not give over to pillage, as Vespasiano accuses him of doing.

He would not have approved of me reading novels!

About the author:

Ross King’s website tells us that he is the bestselling author of books on Italian, French and Canadian art and history. Among his books are Brunelleschis Dome (2000), Michelangelo and the Popes Ceiling (2002), The Judgement of Paris (Governor General’s Award, 2006, [see my review], Leonardo and The Last Supper (Governor General’s Award, 2012), and Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies (Charles Taylor Prize, 2017). He has also published two novels (Domino and Ex-Libris), a biography of Niccolò Machiavelli, and a collection of Leonardo da Vinci’s fables, jokes and riddles. He is the co-author with Anja Grebe of Florence: The Paintings & Frescoes, 1250-1743 (2015), the most comprehensive book ever undertaken on the art of Florence.

Image credit: Benedictine Antiphonary (Wikimedia Commons

Author: Ross King
Title: The Bookseller of Florence
Publisher: Chatto & Windus, London, 2021
ISBN: 9781784742669, pbk.,481 pages including

  • a map of Florence, 8 pages of colour reproductions on glossy paper and numerous B&W images throughout the text; and
  • an Epilogue, Acknowledgments, Image credits, a Selected Bibliography, Notes and an Index.

Source: personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh $34.99



  1. Putting aside the gross animal bits, this does sound fascinating, Lisa! I guess I should thank every day the pioneering bookmakers and manuscript hunters for creating a culture of books!!


  2. I liked this as well. Very interesting.


    • It certainly #pun illuminates all those wonderful illuminated MS that I’ve seen at the SLV and overseas.


  3. A review that reminds me of the fact I am a Bookbinder by trade. It’s passing to be niche has left me with much sadness. I began my indentured apprenticeship in 1976 at the old Government Printing Office in George St Brisbane and learnt to bind account books by the plenty. It collapsed as a craft to but a mere handful a year within a decade.


    • Yes, that is sad. Only a few books are put together with the same craftsmanship these days. The UK Folio Society still make beautiful books, but there’s nothing like that here in Australia.
      I’m guessing that the movement of journals online would have been the death knell. My father used to get scientific journals of various kinds, and my mother used to get them bound at a bookbinders in Prahran. After a while she decided she could cut the cost by doing it herself and did a bookbinding course, enough to do simple covers with gold lettering on the spine. But institutions like universities and libraries must have been major customers in the days when journals were produced on paper…


      • I recall as a lad apprentice binding my battered paperback copy of The Hobbit into a case bound hardback. I still have it to this day, lol.


        • Well-made objects llast forever!


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