Notes on the first Books Printed in Italy

In my recent article on The First Book Printed in Italy, I introduce the first books printed by Sweynheym and Pannartz in the Subiaco monastery complex in the Sabine hills to the west of Rome from 1465.

On Twitter, in a great deal more than 140 characters, I received this enthusiastic barrage of Tweets:


I have no problem with those who might disagree with widely accepted facts, but to be accused of dishonesty AND factual inaccuracy, demands a response. And, as I mentioned in the introduction above, will reveal that — where an edition is undated — many other strands of evidence are exhausted before that undated edition is (tentatively) dated.

So, I will ignore the accusation of dishonesty, but must add that even in 2015 the Internet is never my first port of call when it comes to the history of typography and the printed book. I always begin with Peer reviewed journals and printed books. With that out of the way, let us begin with our complainant’s principal gripe:

That Sweynheym and Pannartz’s edition of Lactantius was printed before their edition of Cicero.

Whereas my article claims that the Cicero was printed prior to the Lactantius.

The Facts:

The Lactantius of Sweynheym and Pannartz is dated in the colophon: 29 October 1465, and that date is accepted. No problem.

Colophon from Sweynheym & Pannartz’s Lactantius, 29 October 1465. Image courtesy of Die Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (BSB), Munich.

The Cicero of Sweynheym and Pannartz is undated (as are many other incunabula). If then it is undated, how can we claim that it was printed before the Lactantius of October 1465? Why is it dated to “before 30 September 1465” in the British Library’s Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC)?

Because in one surviving copy of this edition (formerly in Leipzig; now in Moscow) there is a handwritten annotation in the margin dated 30 September 1465, indicating that the book was printed before 30 September 1465.

I should add that I know of no scholar of incunabula who imagines the Lactantius to be printed before the Cicero. In fact, when the otherwise incisive and erudite Massimo Miglio (inadvertently?) wrote that the Lactantius is earlier than the Cicero, Martin Davies, in his review of Miglio’s book, is quick to point out:

“Miglio does not believe, and nobody else should, that the Subiaco Cicero followed the Lactantius of 29 October 1465.”[1]

This error has been repeated a number of times on the Internet and in print — likely by those unfamiliar with the annotations in the Moscow copy.

Is it possible that some other book printed in Italy predates any of those by Sweynheym and Pannartz? Yes, anything is possible. In fact, there exists a fragment that has been tentatively dated to ca. 1462 or 1470 and tentatively attributed to either Ulrich Han (by Haebler) or to Damianus de Moyllis in Parma, or even perhaps ca. 1470; or it may even belong to Southern Germany. As yet it has been impossible to ascertain with absolute certainly who printed it, when it was printed, or where this fragment of an edition of Passione di Cristo (ISTC: ip00147000) was printed. The evidence (especially Felix de Marez Oyens’ attribution of the watermark to a North Italian paper mill) for this edition being earlier than any edition of Sweynheym and Pannartz’s is, however, rather compelling. For an overview of the arguments see Chritie’s Lot Details; A. Hind, An Introduction to a History of Woodcut (London: 1935), pp. 193–194 (same page reference in the Dover 1965 reprint); K. Haebler, Die italienischen Fragmente vom Leiden Christi, das älteste Druckwerk Italiens (Munich: 1927); and The Woodcut in Fifteenth-Century Europe, Ed. P. Parshall (2009), pp. 69–70.

Perhaps in a future article I will discuss in more detail how undated incunabula are assigned dates. There are numerous strands of evidence that aid in identifying the printer, place of printing, and date of an undated and unsigned edition: the type, woodcuts, layout, paper and watermarks, binding, provenance, annotations, and the text itself. For example, a book that recounts the election of, say, Pope Sixtus IV on August 9, 1471, could only have been published after August 9, 1471 — unless our printer is a psychic or a time traveler.

1. Massimo Miglio. Saggi di stampa: Tipografi e cultura a Roma nel Quattrocento. Ed. Anna Modigliani. (Rome: 2002). Reviewed by M. Davies in Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 57, No. 3 (Autumn, 2004), pp. 1002-1004.