In praise of crimson velvet

We moderns have a habit of assuming that major historical transitions are often painless and always unidirectional, with the forces of “progress” clearly identified and arrayed against the forces of “reaction”. The printing press, for example, is universally acknowledged to be a Good Thing in history, while its failed opponents are dismissed as a dour set of anti-intellectual clerics in the Catholic Church. Yet as Jacob Burckhardt pointed out in his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, the reaction against the printing press also sprang from some of the most literate and urbane people in Europe, including the bibliophile and pro-Humanist Pope Nicholas V. In founding the Vatican Library, Nicholas sent agents to scour the monasteries and palaces of Europe for classical and religious manuscripts, collecting 1,500 volumes in total. Where originals could not be obtained, cardinals and princes commissioned copyists — the Florentine librarian Vespasiano da Bisticci assembled a team of twenty-five to copy two hundred books for Cosimo de’ Medici’s Laurentian Library. And the books thus produced, writes Burckhardt, were works of art:

The handwriting was that beautiful modern Italian which was already in use in the preceding century, and which makes the sight of one of the books of that time a pleasure. Pope Nicholas V, Poggio, Gianozzo Manetti, Niccolo Niccoli, and other distinguished scholars, themselves wrote a beautiful hand, and desired and tolerated none other. The decorative adjuncts, even when miniatures formed no part of them, were full of taste, as may be seen especially in the Laurentian manuscripts, with the light and graceful scrolls which begin and end the lines. The material used to write on, when the work was ordered by great or wealthy people, was always parchment; the binding, both in the Vatican and at Urbino, was a uniform crimson velvet with silver clasps. Where there was so much care to show honour to the contents of a book by the beauty of its outward form, it is intelligible that the sudden appearance of printed books was greeted at first with anything but favour. Federigo of Urbino ‘would have been ashamed to own a printed book.’

Nicholas V’s relationship with books was both personal and aesthetic. According to 19th-century German historian George Voigt, “It was his greatest joy to walk about his library arranging the books and glancing through their pages, admiring the handsome bindings, and taking pleasure in contemplating his own arms stamped on those that had been dedicated to him, and dwelling in thought on the gratitude that future generations of scholars would entertain towards their benefactor. Thus he is to be seen depicted in one of the halls of the Vatican library, employed in settling his books.”

In the most obvious sense, what this depicts is the attitude of an elite who were able to afford the commissioning of such beautiful volumes, while the masses wallowed in illiteracy. But in another sense, which should not be forgotten, it depicts a love of learning and a reverence toward books — a reverence encompassing both their literary and their physical natures. So while we have gained immeasurably and indisputably from the diffusion of literature enabled by the printing press, we have also altered our relationship to books. Perhaps that too has been generally for the better, but surely not completely so. In their easy availability and their cheapness, how precious do our books seem now?


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