Sunday 23 February 2014

'Bound in Venice' by Alessandro Marzo Magno (Review)

I'm very much a lover of novels, and there's not an awful lot of non-fiction on my reading list.  However, when Europa Editions sent me a copy of today's book, it piqued my interest immediately.  The main reason for this is that it has to do with publishing, and let's face it - I'm nothing if not interested in books ;)

Bound in Venice - The Serene Republic and the Dawn of the Book (by Alessandro Marzo Magno, translated by Gregory Conti) is a look at a golden era, both for Venice and the fledgling art of publishing.  We find ourselves in the early 16th century, where the author paints a picture of a Venice which has become the world centre of the publishing trade, a city with books for everyone in a wide range of fields.

The aim of the book is clear from the start - Marzo Magno shows us life in the Serene Republic and explains why and how Venice became a publishing powerhouse.  Thanks to a mix of intellectuals and astute businessmen, available capital and a cosmopolitan clientele, all set against a background of relative liberty and (most importantly) no censorship, the scene was set for the birth of a major publishing industry, the New York or London of the day.

Of course it wasn't just in publishing that Venice was ahead of its time.  It was a fabulous city, a cosmopolitan metropolis with Armenians, Jews, Arabs, Germans and Greeks milling around the streets and piazzas.  There were:
"...books in foreign or remote languages, but spoken by many visitors to the city, which as a melting pot is perhaps rivaled only by present-day New York."
p.17 (Europa Editions, 2013)
In fact, Venice was not just a city, but a powerful empire, with lands in eastern Europe, all throughout the Mediterranean and even reaching far into mainland Italy.  Little wonder then that it became a centre of learning - and literature.

Chapter by chapter, Bound in Venice looks at a different area of the publishing industry, covering topics such as maps, music and medicine.  The recent voyages of discovery had led to a boom in the field of cartography, and maps of new lands were followed closely by newly-made maps of the human body.  Of course, in a volatile political environment, with the Ottoman Empire desperate to make Venice bleed, books on war are also rather popular...

The work is most interesting though when it focuses its gaze on a single topic.  The chapter on the Hebrew publishing industry looks at the creation of the first printed Talmud in the language, appearing (naturally) in the city with the first Jewish 'ghetto' (back when the word didn't quite have the same connotations as it does today...).  Venetian publishers didn't discriminate though; another section looks at the fairly recent discovery, by researcher Angela Nuovo, of a legendary lost Koran.  Printed in Arabic for the first time in Venice in the early 16th century, the book turns up unexpectedly in the library of San Michele monastery (uncovered in a delightful literary detective story!)

Marzo Magno also introduces some of the stars of the renaissance publishing era.  The first is Aldus Manutius, super publisher, father of the semi-colon and italics, as well as a man the writer credits with inventing the first paperbacks (or libelli portatiles).  Small in size, with no academic commentary, these were cheap, portable books allowing the masses to enjoy a hobby previously restricted to the rich:
"Aldus Romanus (as he was fond of signing his name to honor his Roman origins) is the first to conceive of the book as entertainment.  He is the inventor of reading for pleasure, and this invention brings about a bona fide intellectual revolution that transforms what was an instrument used for praying or learning into a pleasant pastime." (pp.43/4)
OK, everyone - say thanks to Uncle Aldus ;)

Renaissance Venice also saw the rise of Pietro Aretino, the first star writer.  He came to public attention with his Sonnetti Lussuriosi (Salacious Sonnets) in 1527 and became notorious as a scandalous writer, a man loved by the masses.  Aretino was also a master of self-promotion (nothing changes...), raising his profile above that of other writers.  Of course, he had the city to thank for his success:
"The symbiosis of writer and city is total.  In no other place in sixteenth century Europe could Pietro have become the Aretino, in almost no other place could he have written such things without landing in jail, in no other place could he have found a publishing network able to guarantee him the press-runs and distribution." (p.202)
As Marzo Magno makes clear on several occasions, Aretino's success was only possible in a free Venice...

There's a lot to like about Bound in Venice, but be warned - it is a bit dry at times.  This is particularly true of the long first chapter, which is full of 'interesting' statistics.  Despite the pictures painted of 16th-century bookshops, this section is rather dull and a poor introduction to what lies ahead.  Another aspect of the book which might split readers is the writer's style as his rambling, comma-filled sentences where tangents (and tense switches) abound may not be to all tastes.

So, will you like it?  Well, it's very much a book for book lovers.  If the hunt for a rare error-filled Koran in a monastery library has you nodding off, then no.  If, on the other hand, you can't wait to get on to Wikipedia and find out what Glagolitic script looks like, this might be one for you.  Come and visit the Serene Republic - and don't forget your reading glasses :)