It’s always amazing to me to consider what was going on at the same time that Gutenberg was developing his system of moveable type and bringing in Fust and Schoeffer to help him fund and execute his big idea. Recently I was in Florence, and had the opportunity to visit the San Marco Monastery, which in addition to having the most dazzling paintings by Fra Angelico, also happens to have one of the world’s most beautiful libraries. It’s mostly a museum space now, displaying some of the incredible manuscript choir-books used by the monks. When you hear publishers nowadays talk about “big books” you might instead consider one like this.
It’s a “Gradual”, lettered in 1451-1452 by two of the monastery’s monks. 1451-1452–the very same year that, in Mainz, the Gutenberg workshop was beginning work on the monumental printed Vulgate Bible. I wanted to show you the size of it, along with the side view of the massive brass bosses that protected the cover in an original 15th century binding. The midpoint of the 15th century was a big year, it seems: it’s also the date the architect Michelozzo built the library itself for Cosimo de’ Medici, who had a cell of his own in the monastery upstairs. The artist-scribes for several of these large choir books were Zanobi Strozzi, a famous pupil of Fra Angelico, and Filippo di Matteo Torelli. Here’s an open page from a different book to show you how sumptuous and impressive they were inside, as well as out.