20.1 Printing with movable type
In Mainz, immediately after the mid-15th century, the goldsmith Johann Gutenberg developed a new and revolutionary technique for the production of books. It was a movable type print, effected matrices of molten metal that were shaped in the negative form of the necessary signs (letters of the alphabet, punctuation marks, decorative signs). Each sign created with the same matrix was therefore always the same, and after use, the characters were reusable. The characters were neatly aligned according to the size of the page that was intended to be reproduced, they were then inked and printed with a press onto the sheets. The system made it possible to make many copies of the same page in a way that was radically faster and cheaper than copying the page by hand.
The first whole book printed by Gutenberg was a two-volume Bible (known as the “42-line Bible”), first produced in 1453. 180 copies were produced in less than three years, a time when a good copyist could have made a maximum of two. For the making of the bible, Gothic characters were used, which constituted the most widespread script in Germany at the time. The first printed books were made in imitation of the manuscripts from which they derived the texts to be reproduced.
42-line Bible (Stamp.Barb.AAA.IV.16)
The new typographic technique immediately aroused great interest and much praise but also some criticism. For example, Vespasiano da Bisticci narrates that Federico da Montefeltro refused to have printed books in his library, as he considered them cheap, uglier than manuscripts, and not worthy of a prince (but modern research has identified three illuminated incunabula in his library). The diffusion of movable type printing was very rapid, first in Germany, and then in Italy, where a typography was founded in Subiaco in 1464 by the two prototypographers Konrad Schweynheym and Arnold Pannartz, two clerics of the diocese of Mainz. Schweynheym, who was German and Pannartz, a Bohemian, began to produce books with characters very similar to antiqua. This form will be called ANTIQUA TONDA, which had evolved above all in the centers less directly influenced by the Florentine antiqua. In contrast to the latter, the round humanistic script that evolved in the Roman area had a layout in which the fundamental element was not the word but the letter, traced separately, and it was thus a script particularly suited to being applied to the new printing technique.
The spread of printed books did not mean the end of the production of manuscripts, and there are many reciprocal developments to be found in the last decades of the 15th century. In Italian typographies, which were especially numerous and very active in Venice, antiqua rotonda became more and more fine-tuned. At the end of the 15th century the printer Aldus Manutius launched another script for his books, an elegant script in italics with the characters written separately from one another, called ITALIC. This script adopted its elegant forms from Humanistic cursive and was used for example in Vat. lat. 10228 copied by Bartolomeo Sanvito, which conveys the Sylloge epigraphica of Fra’ Giocondo.
Another interesting phenomenon was the copying of manuscripts from printed books, an operation that in some respects is now incomprehensible but came about on account of two simultaneous factors: these were texts that did not exist in manuscript form (for example, new translations from Greek or contemporary books) or intended for a precise context, such as the Urbino court of Federico da Montefeltro or the Roman curia at the time of Sixtus IV, which had libraries comprised exclusively of manuscripts. See for example ms. Urb. lat. 151, with works by Sixtus IV, a faithful copy (even in the reproduction of the typographic register) of the printed version published in Rome by the typographer J. P. de Lignamine after 10 August 1471, and Vat. lat. 408, with the Sermones morales by John Chrysostom, a copy of the printed version produced in Rome by the typographer G. Lauer in 1470.
The Vat. lat. 408, with Sermones morales by Johannes Chrysostomus, is a copy of the printed book by G. Lauer (Rome 1470, this copy comes from Munich, Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek )
In the middle of the 16th century, thus a century after the Gutenberg Bible, the printed book definitively replaced the manuscripts in the transmission of the written culture, and used various scripts among which the main ones included Gothic, antiqua and italica. Thus ends this pathway of the history of Latin writing, even if it continued to be written by hand (and which still continues today). The function of handwritten products changed, however, and assumed a more private and personal character (such as notes, diaries, correspondence); they were not made with the aim of being publicly disseminated in their manuscript form, but when appropriate, they were composed typographically in view of being printed.