Printing

Venice became a hub of cultural growth in the Cinquecento, owing to its liberal attitude toward the Reformation, its wealth from the population growth, and its prolific printing industry. As previously suggested, Venice’s motive was to defy Rome, thereby declaring their spiritual and political autonomy from the Vatican and Italy, and to profit.

Venice frequently sough to undermine Rome. A supporter of Luther, Melanchthon worked with the Venetians closely, trying to encourage Venice to be the gateway for Lutheranism to spread into the west of Europe and throughout the peninsula and played “upon the Venetian penchant for independence from the Roman Curia, suggesting, for an objective overview his own Loci Communes[i] in which he compares the saints, the ceremonies, and the holidays of the Catholic Church with the practices of pagan cults and the worship of false gods. While Melanchthon never succeeded in creating a Protestant Italy, his works were produced and diffused throughout the north of Italy, even though they was banned, because Venice did not establish Rome’s Index of Banned Books. When, in 1542, Pope Paul III created a Holy Office to deal with heretical documents and ideas to in Rome and used the Venice Inquisition to root out heresy in Venice, Venice formed the Tre Savii Sopra Eresia, made up of laymen to do monitor the religious climate of Venice[ii] and to make sure it was known that Venice was not under the jurisdiction of the Roman courts. The Doge responded to pressure from Rome to persecute heretics by saying: “When we see anyone who disturbs the state here, everyman is indignant against him; but now that it is a question of those who make war of God, it seems we do not care. We must not behave like this but take vigorous action, and let it not be forgotten. I promise to deal with the matter quickly and properly.”[iii] While the Doge addresses the issue of heresy within the Republic, however he clearly states that it will be Venice that deals with Venetian heretics and not a Roman organization. A few years following, in 1549, Venice overrode an updated banned books list when the printers of the city appealed to the government; the government repealed the “Catalogue of Heretical Books” allowing the printers to continue to defy Rome and turn a profit. Ten years later, in 1559, Pope Paul IV issued his own Index, but as soon as Pope Paul IV died (in the same year) Venice created its own Index, allowing many of the Venetian works that had been forbidden by Rome and ignoring Rome’s complaints.[iv] The two powers did finally come to a compromise in March 1562 when Venice decreed that in deference to the Index any manuscript to be printed in Venice had to be approved by a panel consisting of one cleric and two laymen.[v] While Venetian editors were much more liberal than their Roman counterparts would have been it did pacify Rome, so that Venice did not have to follow the Roman Index. While Venice’s printing was less prolific “the clergy or prelate class was to lose its place as the intellectual authority over all matters within the state. The progress of printing […] as well as the spread of renaissance humanism raised literacy rates”[vi] which crippled the power of the church. Once scripture was available for scholars to consider for themselves criticism and skepticism arose about some of the teachings of the Catholic Church. The Venetian government certainly aided the anti-papal movement, despite this compromise. Papal Bulls were forbidden to be posted in St. Mark’s and pamphlets rose in popularity during the 1606 Interdiction, which were not on the Index. Further, “the government described the censures [interdiction] as politically motivated and therefore unjust, prohibited their publication, and prepared an appeal, secretly posted on the doors of St. Peter’s in Rome, to a future general council. Venice also sponsored the preparation of a body of literature attacking the pope as a fomenter of war.”[vii] In this way, Venice manipulated the printing press to be an agent of propaganda and not simply profit. “The Venetians did not hesitate to publicly circulate historical documents as propaganda in their quest to expose the political motivations of the papacy,”[viii] and used their domestic resources to supplant papal propaganda with more liberal Venetian views, particularly concerning spiritual autonomy. The printing press was a very powerful political tool in the Venetian arsenal to fight the tyranny of Rome during the Cinquecento, which the state used to communicate ideas not just domestically, but abroad as well.

From early in the printing revolution “[p]rinters had learned from their daily experience that time was money and that profits and piety went together […] they were capitalists”[ix] and took advantage of the Venetian market for religious and political works. For instance, between 1517, when Luther posted his 95 Theses, and 1520 it is probable that over 300,000 copies of Luther’s thirty different publications were sold across Europe.[x] Although it is not known if Venice printed and distributed any of these works, the profit of 300,000 publications for printers is exorbitant and a powerful motive for printing heretical works, and since “the city was centre [sic] whence Protestant literature circulated throughout the north of Italy”[xi] it can be assumed that Venice did share in the publication of the works of Luther. Publishing had further economic advantages. Printing led to new careers, for example, it was not uncommon to see peddlers going door to door selling banned books,[xii] the editor became a common post, and with the 1562 agreement with Rome, there had to be a review panel to approve manuscripts before publication. The printers in Venice were mercantilists trying to turn a profit with little concern for Rome’s response. It just so happened that in the mid Cinquecento the demand turned from vernacular folklore and romances to religious and spiritual texts. In general, commercial printing “reflected how arts of persuasion […] could be turned to new ends […] printing opened new careers […] helped to launch new genres of science and writing and to popularize the quadrivium in print.”[xiii]


[i] Salvatore Caponetto, The Protestant Reformation in Sixteenth Century Italy, translated

by Anne C. Tedeschi and John Tedeschi, volume XLIII of Sixteenth Century

Essays & Studies, Kirksville: Thomas Jefferon University Press, 1999, page 109.

[ii] Brian Richardson, Print Culture in Renaissance Italy: The Editor and the Vernacular

Text, 1470-1600, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, page 141.

[iii] Doge of Venice, quoted in Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty, by William J. Bouwsma, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968, page 116.

[iv] Brian Richardson, Print Culture in Renaissance Italy: The Editor and the Vernacular

Text, 1470-1600, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, page 141.

[v] Brian Richardson, Print Culture in Renaissance Italy: The Editor and the Vernacular

Text, 1470-1600, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

[vi] “Social Classes in 16th Holy Roman Empire.” German Notes History. No date. < http://www.germannotes.com/

archive/article.php?products_id=568 >. Accessed 18 October 2008.

[vii] William J. Bouwsma, Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty, Berkeley:

University of California Press, 1968, page 100.

[viii] Jacob Soll, Publishing The Prince, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 2005, page 62.

[ix] Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications

and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe, volume I, Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1979, page 385.

[x] Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications

and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe, volume I, Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1979, page 303.

[xi] Philip Hughes, A Popular History of the Reformation Garden City: Hanover House,

1957, page 72.

[xii] Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications

and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe, volume I, Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1979, page 309.

[xiii] Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications

and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe, volume I, Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1979, page 384.

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