The first book printed in Italy

the DECK

The First Book Printed in Italy

During my research for an upcoming book* on the life and work of German Renaissance typographer Erhard Ratdolt, I spent quite some time looking at the introduction of printing to Italy (Ratdolt worked in Venice from 1476 to 1486, thereafter returning to his native Augsburg). The first printers in Italy were, unsurprisingly, from Germany, and they likely were associated with Gutenberg, Fust and Schoeffer. I won’t go into the details about the introduction of printing to Italy. Suffice to say, by 1465 Sweynheym and Pannartz had arrived at the Benedictine monastery of Subiaco, about 60 km east of Rome. The same year they printed a Latin Grammar (a schoolbook that had been incredibly popular throughout the Middle Ages) by the fourth-century tutor of Jerome, the Roman Grammarian Aelius Donatus, of which, sadly, no copy has survived.

Some time before the end of September 1465**, they printed Cicero’s De oratore, the first extant book printed on Italian soil. Lastly, before moving their press to Rome, they printed their first dated book (29 October, 1465), Opera by the third-century author, Lactantius.

The page below is from their De oratore of 1465:


Photo credit: University of Barcelona. [For a larger version of the same type (but used in the Lactantius).]

This is the first Roman type. More accurately it is a semi-Roman or semi-Gothic, the letterforms modeled on contemporary Italian bookhands. The capitals are clearly roman; the N is unusual in that its diagonal stroke meets the right stem quite high — like I have seen in some Rustic capitals in later Medieval manuscript books (though Rustic capitals are, of course, more condensed). The G looks almost like a sans serif and has a tiny aperture. In the lowercase there are more than traces of the uncial letter, especially in the form of the h with its toes turned in. The lowercase still retains some of the angularity and lateral compression of the Gothic letter. Though the type is quite dark (and has low contrast), it is tightly spaced and rather condensed, but appears much lighter than a page of Gothic type owing to the relatively long descenders, creating more interlinear white space. Relatively few contractions and ligatures — a t + i ligature and a nice disconnected c + t ligature. Note the spur on the I, a remnant of the Gothic letter. The squat ampersand is quite beautiful too.


Sweynheym & Pannartz Subiaco type [GfT0549]. Image courtesy of Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin.

I think it’s quite incredible that this book and its type has survived, and that just about all of the type we read today owes a debt to prototypographers like Sweynheym and Pannartz.

*Erhard Ratdolt — Renaissance Typographer, to be published later this year — fingers crossed!

**The Leipzig copy, now in Moscow, contains annotations dated 30 September, 1465.