Painted by Ghirlandaio in the 1480s, the frescoes decorating the main altar of Florence’s Santa Maria Novella church ostensibly tell the stories of the lives of the Virgin and John the Baptist. The decor and settings, however, are all contemporary Florence and you don’t need to look far to find portraits of notable citizens as witnesses to various scenes. In the bottom left corner of The Angel Appearing to Zacharias are four of the state’s most prominent thinkers and philosophers. Their appearance there is testament to the sophistication of the humanist culture that had flourished under the Medici in the preceding fifty years. There is, however, no public portrait of Vespasiano da Bisticci, the man whose talents as a publisher and seller of manuscripts made much of this possible. Ross King (of Brunelleschi’s Dome fame) sets out to address this in his latest work, The Bookseller of Florence.
Vespasiano was born in 1422 of humble background and learned the trade of a book binder as a teenager in a bookshop (the building is now a pizzeria). From there he rose to become a key figure in the cultural dissemination of Renaissance texts, both ancient and modern, with a client list that included popes, cardinals, kings, scholars, dukes and soldiers (the last two often the same).
The sense of adventure that accompanied the rediscovery of lost texts of Greece and Rome has already spawned two notable bestsellers: Umberto Eco’s erudite medieval thriller The Name of the Rose (1980) and Stephen Greenblatt’s brilliant The Swerve (2011), which tells the story of the rediscovery of Lucretius’s