2/17/10 - the printing press

In today's excerpt - without the invention of the printing press Columbus would not have discovered America:

"Johannes Gutenberg produced his first Bible in Mainz, Germany, in 1454 or 1455, and word soon spread beyond Germany about the potential of the printing press. Leon Battista Alberti, for example, wrote admiringly of 'the German inventor who has recently made it possible, by making certain imprints of letters, for three men to make more than two hundred copies of a given original text in one hundred days.' By the early 1460s, printing presses had begun to spread to many of Europe's important cities, although not everybody understood what they were. In 1465 the secretary of the Vatican Library still felt it necessary to describe the advantages of the new invention to Pope Paul II. 'Every poor scholar can purchase for himself a library for a small sum,' he explained. 'Those volumes that heretofore could scarce be bought for a hundred crowns may now be procured for less than twenty, very well-printed and free from those faults with which manuscripts used to abound, for such is the art of our printers and letter makers that no ancient or modern discovery is comparable to it.'

"Columbus belonged to the first lay generation to benefit from the spread of printing, and he made the most of the opportunity that this offered him. After arriving in Spain he acquired a number of newly printed books, almost all of which concerned geography, and for the rest of his life he kept them at his side as trusted companions. He didn't just read his books; he engaged them in conversation, scribbling notes to himself in the margins, calling out statements he agreed with, testily objecting to others. Several of his books survive, and together they provide invaluable information about how Columbus tried to build his case in Spain—and, later, after he had finally crossed the ocean, how he struggled to make sense of what it was that he had found on the other side.

"One of Columbus's favorite books, published in 1477, was the Historia rerum ubique gestarum, or History of Matters Conducted Everywhere—one of the earliest of all printed guides to geography. Written in the aftermath of the Council of Florence by the Italian humanist Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, who would go on to reign as Pope Pius II from 1458 to 1464, the work surveyed traditional medieval ideas about the world, and updated them with references to Ptolemy, Strabo, and even Niccolo Conti. Its quintessentially humanist aim, Piccolomini wrote, was matching modern with ancient geography. The book consists of two parts, one devoted to Asia, the other to Europe. Columbus, naturally, read the former with great avidity, making a total of 861 different notes in the margins."


Toby Lester


The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map that Gave America its Name


Free Press a division of Simon & Schuster


Copyright 2009 by Toby Lester


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