In the 19th and 20th centuries, consideration of books from the early modern period has tended to set up a fairly strict dichotomy between “manuscript culture” and “print culture”. This dichotomy can be seen both in treatments of the intellectual history of the period, and also in the way in which materials from the period are housed and retrieved, with manuscripts stored in archives and looked after by archivists, and printed books housed in special collections rooms and looked after by librarians. There is also a tendency to view the early modern period as the story of the triumph of “print culture” over “manuscript culture”.
At the sixth session in the 2011 series of the Oxford Seminar on the History of the Book, Dr. Warren Boutcher of Queen Mary, University of London, spoke on the subject of “Cultural changes in book-collecting in the late Renaissance: Naudé on manuscript and print”. The session aimed to show that, while there were distinct differences between the two cultures, the relationship between them during the early modern period was in fact more complex than this traditionally accepted dichotomy would tend to suggest, and that in order to gain a complete understanding of scholarship in the late Renaissance, it is necessary to consider script, print, and orality together.
Much of the session was devoted to considering the collections belonging to the Dukes of Urbino, with particular reference to the collection of manuscripts established in the 15th century by Federico III da Montefeltro and the collection of chiefly printed books established between 1582 and 1621 by his successor Francesco Maria II della Rovere. This latter collection was begun in 1582, when Francesco Maria II managed to acquire an expurgated copy of Gesner’s banned Bibliotheca universalis. Francesco Maria then began to collect works listed in Gesner, and by 1584 his household accounts are showing a regular expenditure on printed books, constituting about 4% of his total annual expenditure. It is only fair to note, however, that Francesco Maria was also spending regular and significant sums on manuscript material. It is perhaps not surprising that a collection which took Gesner, who lists printed and manuscript material together, as its starting point, should continue to accrue both printed and manuscript materials. The first attempt completely to segregate a printed from a manuscript collection (both the old library of Federico, and the new library contained both printed and manuscript books) was not made until 1631, on the death of Francesco Maria. Under the terms of Francesco Maria’s will, his collection of manuscripts was left to the town of Urbino, and his collection of printed books to the Order of the Minims, while the archival material in the collection followed Francesco Maria’s daughter to Florence, where it still remains. Within 30 years of Francesco Maria’s death, however, the papacy had managed to appropriate both the collection of manuscripts and the collection of printed books, and both were transferred to Rome. The manuscripts are currently in the Vatican Library, and the printed books in the Biblioteca Alessandrina.
The period during which Francesco Maria was collecting was a time of great activity in terms of book-collecting, and also saw the foundation of the Escorial Library in Madrid and the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It was also a time of great interest in the principles of book-collecting and of managing and providing access to collections of books. An important expression of this interest is Gabriel Naudé’s “Advis pour dresser une bibliothèque” of 1627. Naudé advocates a shift away from collecting books for their material features, such as lavish bindings or illustrations, and promotes the idea of the working scholarly library, with easy access to, and retrieval of, up-to-date information for the scholarly community as its primary objective. He recommends that manuscripts should be housed close to the printed collection, if not necessarily integrated with it, and that they should be freely available to be copied. Any potentially inflammatory material should be stored high up, with no spine labels, so that access to it could be strictly controlled by the librarian.
There is therefore a distinction made between the library of lavish, luxurious commodities, designed to glorify its owner through a display of his wealth, and the working, scholarly library, aimed at the efficient retrieval of relevant information and designed to glorify its owner through a display of his erudition in the judicious selection of relevant materials. With reference to the example of the ducal libraries in Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro’s library was seen as an example of the “prestige” library, and Francesco Maria della Rovere’s collection as an example of the working, scholarly library, which operated very much on the principles advocated by Naudé. This distinction also seems to have been observed in practice; Francesco Maria, as well as developing his own collection, continued to add to the manuscript collection of his predecessor Federico, keeping it up to date with carefully selected and commissioned items. These items, however, were required to have some connection to the ducal family. There are also examples of manuscripts being transferred from Federico’s collection to Francesco Maria’s, so that they could be worked on by scholars.
The final discussion considered issues such as different levels of censorship, and also looked at other examples of similar book collections of the period.