By hand and by print

The space in a venn diagram where both a fading and a new technology overlap is most fascinating.

One that went under my radar is the time between hand-copied books and mass-printed books. This dichotomy came to mind in one figure – the 15th century printer and bookseller Vespasiano dè Bisticci. One of Vespasiano's jobs intersects nicely with this shift. Nicholas Basbanes particularly highlights it in A Gentle Madness:

Most telling of all is the work Vespasiano performed for Federico Montefeltro (1422-1482), duke of Urbino, a collector of exquisite tastes separated him from the seismic changes then afoot in Europe.

Those seismic changes? Mass-produced books coming from the printing press. Instead of using a private or public printing press, Montefeltro put his resources into a private scriptorium with Vespasiano at the head of its operations. Basbanes further highlights the details of this work:

[Vespasiano] spent fourteen years building a collection of all the Greek and Latin authors who had recently been discovered and had them all bound in crimson and silver. The duke insisted that each be in perfect condition and that each be unique. None of the printed books then coming into fashion was allowed in his library. All of his books had to be 'written with the pen,' Vespasiano recalled years later; anything else would have made the collector feel 'ashamed.' Florentine bibliophiles were fiercely proud of their calligraphic traditions, and did not warm immediately to the idea of books that were mass-produced.

There is more at stake here than producing more books at a quicker rate. It took Vespasiano fourteen years to build Montefeltro's library. Who knows how much sooner he could have got them with a private printer than by a private scriptorium. What strikes me about this historical anecdote is the tension between printed books and hand copied books. Why did Montefeltro not want mass-produced, printed books in his library? What was it about them that made him feel ashamed?

Embedded in technology are traditions and values that fly in the face of the increased utility of newer technologies.