The Italian history of bookbinding

The Italian history of bookbinding

Bookbinding: the Italian history


The Italian history of bookbinding goes a bit back in time, up ‘till the 15th Century, when Venice gained her position as the leader of this expanding trade, but the history of bookbinding itself goes way more back than we all might thought. Therefore, what actually is this ancient technique and how did it improved so much? Let’s give it a look.


Bookbinding: the origins

The history of the craft of bookbinding starts in India, apparently around 100 BCE, where religious “sutras” (ancient text, manuals) were bound in book using palm leaves which were first split down the middle and then dried and rubbed with ink. The book vision was then given by threading two long twines through each of the leaves and through wooden boards. Apparently the buddhist monks were the ones spreading the art around Afghanistan and China in the first Century BCE. However, Asia was not the only one using those kinds of techniques, similar crafts could also be found in ancient Egypt (where sacred text were written on scrolls and books of papyrus) and in the Maya Codex (only four appear to have survived to the Spanish invasion of Latin America).


Bookbinding: the greatest expansion

To understand the major transformation in the European book trade we need to go back to the 15th Century. Many things happened during those years, first of all the invention of a movable type around the 1450 which allowed multiple and exact copies of a text to be printed. This and the lowering of the price of paper (which meanwhile had become cheaper and available in larger scales) developed in an extremely fast evolution in the book industry,resulting in more accurate texts and exponentially greater production capability than ever before. Yes, because before the fifteenth century each book was handmade and made by the selling. Books were expensive and precious, treasures only for monasteries and some wealthy families rich enough to buy them. All those changes had an huge impact on the evolution of the book trade: the new materials and technologies were adapted to the traditional aesthetics transforming the book making from a small local business into an international trade network. 


Bookbinding: the Venetian role

We said the 15th Century was when the major historical transformation in the bookbinding field happened. This is well the case and it also when Venice, and so Italy, to its decisive role into what was at that time becoming the most expanding international trade ever. This is the time we mostly refer to when setting the beginning of our bookbinding cultural tradition. 


The geographical position of Venice has always been a strategic point for the city and for Italy itself, we all know this. So her geographical position, plus her reputation as center of knowledge and exchange and craftsmanship made Venice (at that time was Republic, the Venetian Republic) the perfect place for a massive book production to take root. Studies confirm many “legatorie” were opened in Venice at that time and with the innovations of the 15th century they just increased so as to be able to print and bind books for schools and universities throughout all Europe. Venice was the only place where this new kind of art form could have taken root, this mostly because: first, Venetians were already skilled at working leather, pigment and gold leaf; second, Venice houses the knowledge of paper-making which she got from Asia in the Middle Ages. The history on bookbinding was made.


Bookbinding at nowadays and the role of Florence. 

Being Venice the headquarter of the most significant historical revolution-evolution of the bookbinding craft, it was impossible for that new art-form not to spread toward Florence too. It did indeed and that is why we hold a quite strong tradition in bookbinding too, with honorable artisans families such as the Giannini family, bookbinders since 1856. 


Even though at nowadays the bookbinding production is mostly industrially made (because obviously the industry kept evolving since then), still there are not so few people around who still love to book bind manually. A beautiful tradition which almost got lost with the coming of the digital era and that is kept alive by the work of the artisans and by culture programs and courses in book restoration.

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