Gutenberg got the printing press ball rolling with his Bible, and Aldine family and others pushed along the revival of classical learning by publishing the Greek and Latin texts that had been moldering in monastic libraries across Europe. Scholarship flourished, academies grew, and the Western World kicked off the Renaissance.
Noble stuff, and the appetite for these books and various religious volumes made for steady work at the printing shops. The market was decent, but limited, given the large population that had finally cracked the literacy thing but had little Latin, less Greek, and probably no serious interest in the classics. You can imagine a lot of nouveau riche merchant heads cracking open the fresh copy of the Aeneid and nodding off at about book three. Granted, the books did indeed furnish a room and proved your wealth and taste, but really, was that all there was?
Someone had to have noticed the discrepancy, to have realized you could print in languages other than Latin and Greek, and that there was more money in the rising middle class than among the intellectuals and the churchmen. If only you could get a reliable supply of suitable middle brow content.
It was nature and that abhorred vacuum all over again, and the space did not remain empty for long. Suddenly, there was a new position for the otherwise marginally unemployable, that is to say, the hack writer.
Men like Eustachio Celebrino
Celebrino was born and began his work in Udine, close to Venice, a major center of printing. He started out as a carver of woodcuts, illustrating worthy books for worthy writers. Nice work if you can get it, but it’s still piece work and he would have had to share proceeds with both author and publisher.
The market was decent, but limited relative to the large population that had finally cracked the literacy thing but had little Latin, less Greek and probably no real interest in the classics. Practical people who could agree that books did indeed furnish a room and proved your wealth and taste, but who also wanted something genuinely interesting or practical out of the it.
Who came up with the idea is lost to history, but it’s agreed fact that Celebrino was first out the gate with the 1525 classic Dificio delle recette, which was effectively a self-help and household recipe book. In it, Celebrino uncovered a world of interesting and useful facts taken from the finest minds and practitioners of the learned arts. Read this book, Celebrino promised, and you would learn how to snag a mate in twenty days (or, if you had already succeeded, how to cure “the French Illness” in ten, with recipes Celebrino assured the reader he could personally vouch for).
The book was a hit, so popular that there was a second edition in 1528 Opera nova intitolata dificio de ricette (1528). It also inspired competitors and translations and controversy. Upright Citizens being as thick on the ground then as now, there followed other books deriding pure womanhood from filling their virtuous heads with such wicked nonsense.
Those books didn’t sell as well.
Celebrino soldiered on, more than willing to turn his hand to whatever the market would bear, from how to write a business letter to a love letter (“The Key to Love”), to how to avoid plague. He added novelty items (e.g. hot to make a candle burn under water and write on paper without ink). He also covered current events, publishing an account of the 1526 Sack of Rome (La Presa di Roma) in poetic form, and the Death of Pope Alexander the Sixth.
His trail fades as his titles wind down and its unknowable where he wound up in the end or how he died (French disease? Plague?). And these days, pretty much all his writing is of novelty interest only. It’s nice to think that he, like Shakespeare, managed to actually get paid for his work and perhaps retired someplace pleasant for his declining years.
No matter. He is still a pioneer in publishing and for that alone deserves a little low brow respect.
Stanley Morison, Estachio Celebrino da Udene – Calligrapher, Engraver, and Writer for the Venetian Printing Press (Paris, 1929)