On the trail of the first printed books, the beginning of the knowledge economy
20 December 2018

Until the middle of the 15th century, books were copied by hand. After the printing of the Gutenberg Bible, in Mainz, printed books started to circulate in Europe marking the start of a new era. But what do we know about the first modern books? What were they about? Who wrote them, bought them, read them? Prof. Cristina Dondi is chasing these answers, following the breadcrumbs left by these incredible volumes.

Cover image of On the trail of the first printed books, the beginning of the knowledge economy

In the second half of the 15th century, printing presses started to be used all over Europe, and millions of books, known as incunabula, were printed and sold. It was in the leading maritime power of Venice, however, that international trade really caught fire: Venetian books reached every part of Europe and knowledge began to spread at a fast pace.

Half a million incunabula, mainly in Latin, the language of international communication, have survived through the centuries. Very large collections are kept at famous libraries such as the British Library, the Bavarian State Library in Munich, the National Library of France and Harvard. But, as a testimony to their success, many are dispersed among 4 000 libraries all over the world, each one telling a different story.

It was in one of these libraries, the Bodleian Library at Oxford, that Cristina Dondi, an Italian historian, realised that a new way to catalogue and study books printed between 1450 and 1500 was essential, to use them as historical sources. After an Erasmus fellowship and a PhD in the UK, Cristina was employed to work on the Bodleian Library’s Catalogue of incunabula. In 2010 she launched the MEI database, with the aim of offering a central repository with detailed information on every surviving one of these volumes: ownership, decoration, binding, manuscript annotations, stamps, prices.

But her work was still at the beginning and, supported by an ERC grant, Cristina led a project which coordinated the collaboration of over 400 European and American libraries and 160 editors, and which focused on 50 000 volumes, 10% of what survives today. Tracking the sale, circulation and use of these books, the project is assessing the impact of printing on the economic and social development of modern Europe and on the creation of a common cultural heritage.

Applying digital technologies to historical sources

Thanks to the development of novel web-based visualization techniques and other tools, today we are able to follow these 50 000 books throughout their 500 years of life. The combination of geographical and chronological visualization has enabled the research team to represent the circulation of books through the centuries, as well as the formation and dispersal of library collections.

Not only, the project’s digital resources are opening up to graduate and early career scholarship a discipline which has traditionally been regarded as very specialised. Cristina’s efforts have been rewarded by her recent appointment as Professor of Early European Book Heritage at the University of Oxford.

Listen to Cristina Dondi talking about the most surprising discovery about the cost of books:


An exhibition in Venice to show results

With the results of this vast project, Cristina set up an exhibition currently ongoing at the well-known Museo Correr in Venice, the city where the journey of many of these books started.

Visitors can admire impressive incunabula from Venetian collections including the Donatus grammar book Ars minor and Filippo Calandri's arithmetic manuals. More than 150 high-definition digital images are accompanied by animated maps, graphs, infographics and videos. Printing presses and old printing material from the famous Italian typography museum, Tipoteca, are also displayed.

Walking around the different sections of the exhibition, visitors can focus on Venice as the main centre of production and distribution of books, the price of books in comparison with the cost of living (that is what else could be bought with the same amount), the increase in literacy and the circulation of books (and the ideas they spread) over time and space.

For Cristina, it is essential to raise awareness among the public of the importance of book heritage and libraries: I thought the most effective way of doing so would be a very large exhibition, in the most important place for European printing in the 15th century, Venice. These collections are part of our shared European cultural legacy and we should be proud.

Cristina Dondi is a writer and a scholar currently working at the University of Oxford (UK). She holds a degree in Medieval History from Università Cattolica of Milan, and a PhD, also in Medieval History, from King's College, London. She is the Secretary of the Consortium of European Research Libraries.

The digital material (videos, maps, and graphs) produced for the exhibition Printing R-Evolution 1450-1500. Fifty Years that Changed Europe, held in Venice in 2018-2019 is now available to the public here.  

See also this video on the exhibition (in Italian)

Project information

The 15th-century Book Trade: An Evidence-based Assessment and Visualization of the Distribution, Sale, and Reception of Books in the Renaissance
Cristina Dondi
Host institution:
The Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Oxford
United Kingdom
Call details
ERC-2013-CoG, SH6
ERC Funding
1 999 172 €