This is a book about books.

Ross King has brought us a densely detailed and layered history of the history of writing, printing and books generally. It is divided into 27 chapters with a table of contents at the front, an extensive bibliography, a collection of footnotes and a well coordinated index. Illustrations are scattered throughout with the major illustrations in the middle. The book is of small to medium size.

Set in Renaissance Florence, King’s book is a biography of Vespasiano da Bisticci, ‘ the king of the world’s booksellers’. He learnt his profession beginning as a book binder and then he opened a bookshop that became one of, if not the intellectual hub of Florence, and, to a degree, Europe – a meeting and discussion place said to ‘contain all the wisdom of the world’.

Vespasiano had a hard working team of scribes and illuminators. (This is the era of exquisite illuminated manuscripts, all produced by hand, which made them very time consuming and expensive). We learn of the history of paper (think ancient papyrus and parchment), the making and the development of clearer easier to read calligraphy, and there are some fascinating digressions into the history of certain words. Before Gutenburg, hand produced manuscripts were treasured sought after rarities, the Urbino Bible produced for the count of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro, is often regarded as Vespasiano’s masterpiece.

Much is made throughout of the debate between Plato and Plutarch especially over Plato’s ‘Republic’ and the search for lost segments of those and other classical works. The writings of both Plinys are also important as is that of Aristotle, Cicero and Boccacio.

Florentines and other Italian intellectuals published their own interpretations of the various works, creating more demands for output from Vespasiano . His many agents travelled throughout Europe, hiking from abbey to abbey and various private collections in search of lost treasures for his various clients (who included the Medici, the Count of Urbino and assorted Popes – quite a few of his books ended up in the Vatican library).There was also the issue of correct translation from the Greek or Latin.

King’s book puts Vespasiano and the history of Florence in historical context too, – artistically, for instance, with Michaelangelo, Brunelleschi ,Gilberti and the dome, but also plague, wars, the Frankfurt Book Fair, political and Papal in-fighting and the conquering of Constantinople (now Istanbul) by the Turks – which led to a planned Crusade that fizzled out. Vespasiano even worked undercover as a spy during one of the wars between feuding cities.

Of crucial importance to Vespasiano was the emergence of Gutenburg and the printing press from Germany with movable type that changed everything in 1476.  We follow the spread of the printing press throughout Europe and Italy. King tells us how the convent of San Jacopo di Ripoli, a community of Dominican nuns on the other side of Florence, became a rival to Vespasiano, working for the Ripoli Press, which made books cheaper and more easily available.

The nuns churned out assorted books and pamphlets from 1477 that led to a flood of development in thought about philosophy, religion and politics. All of which led to the development of what we now call the Renaissance and the Reformation, and eventually The Age of Enlightenment and modern books (one wonders what Vespasiano would think of e-books).

By 1480 Vespasiano had retired into the countryside where he wrote a biographical series on his famous friends, clients and patrons, including Popes, the Duke of Urbino and Lorenzo and Cosimo de ‘Medici .

His shop is now a pizza parlour! This book is a tale of how technology changed the world of books and thought.

A captivating book for book lovers.