by Mary Robinson, Special Collections and Archives
Found among the rare book collection in the Russell Library is the 1517 Italian printed Biblia Vulgare (RB65). Translated into Italian by the Camaldolese monk of the order of Benedictines, Niccolo Malermi, it is based on the Latin Vulgate. The Vulgate, a 4th century Latin translation of the Bible by St Jerome, became the Catholic Church’s official published version of the Bible. It was used as the basis for many translations. Malermi’s Biblia Vulgare was the first translation into Italian and was completed over an eight month period. It first appeared in 1471 and is considered his greatest accomplishment.
The publication in Italian reflects the rise of the vernacular and the demand for religious texts to be available in common languages. However, the Catholic Church tried to suppress this growing demand for change and what they saw as the questioning of authority. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs states that in 1517, ‘seven people were burned at the stake by the Roman Catholic Church for the crime of teaching their children to say the Lord’s Prayer in English rather than Latin.’ 1517 is also the year Martin Luther posted his 95 theses to the doors of Wittenberg Castle Church. This ignited the Protestant Reformation. Luther went on to publish his German translation of the Bible which aided the development of standards for the German language. According to some scholars St Jerome’s Vulgate was ‘corrupt’. The Vulgate was based on old Latin texts found in North Africa, which were thought to be ‘simple’, ‘rude’ and ‘provincial’. These texts were mainly ‘independent and unauthorized or anonymous translations…aided by the gross carelessness of scribes’. It was believed that Latin had become so corrupt it no longer even preserved the message of the Gospel. After initial publication, St Jerome undertook a number of revisions however the earliest printed Vulgates were already spreading the inferior text.
A number of attempts were later made to produce a superior translation. Desiderius Erasmus published his New Testament in 1516. This was based on a Latin he ‘polished’ after critically analysing all the Vulgate manuscripts he could collect. The Catholic Church refused to accept the accusations of a ‘corrupt text’ and in 1546 the Council of Trent ruled that St Jerome’s original translation would remain the standard text (Jenkins and Preston, 2007).
Published in Venice in 1517, Biblia Vulgare was published at a time when Venice was the centre of the Italian book trade. Biblia Vugare’s publisher Georgio de Rusconi was one of Venice’s most prolific editors and typesetters. His printing shop flourished continuously from 1500 to 1527 with his sons and later his wife running the business after his death in 1522. His wife, Elizabeth Baffo was one of the first women to work in printing. The Russell Library’s edition includes a prologue and an epilogue of the life of Joseph. The unique title page is written in red ink with a large woodcut of St George slaying the dragon.
Woodcuts, which are a technique of relief printing, are visible throughout the book with 423 small woodcuts adorning the pages. Aside from the title page there are two other full page woodcuts: King Solomon holding court and one depicting the creation. Both of these have decorative detail around the border. All the woodcuts appear anonymous, which is not unusual for publications at the time. The identity of the designer or cutter is rarely known and in some cases authorship appears as just a monogram. The title woodcut in Biblia Vulgare has the initials F.V. which could refer to Florio Valvassore who was a productive cutter and artist around this time. However, the publisher Georgio de Rusconi was also known to produce his own woodcuts for some publications (Witcombe, 2004).
Biblia Vulgare is an excellent example of an early printed text. Research on the book reveals aspects of 16th century Italy such as the authority, teaching and history of the Catholic Church, their views on language and translations, the history of print, the history and function if woodcuts as well as printing houses and printing families.
Biblical scholarship and the church: a sixteenth-century crisis of authority by Allan K. Jenkins and Patrick Preston
Copyright in the Renaissance: Prints and the ‘Privilegio’ in Sixteenth-Century Venice and Rome by Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe