The Bookseller of Florence: The Story of the Manuscripts That Illuminated the Renaissance

‘a spectacular book’ (Sunday Times)
‘a superb biography … a fascinating read’ (Daily Telegraph)
‘a marvel of storytelling … a dazzling, instructive and highly entertaining book’ (Wall Street Journal)
The Bookseller of Florence by Ross King
U.S. & Canada cover

The Renaissance in Florence conjures images of beautiful frescoes and elegant buildings—the dazzling handiwork of the city’s artists and architects. But equally important were geniuses of another kind: Florence’s manuscript hunters, scribes, scholars and booksellers, who blew the dust off a thousand years of history and, through the discovery and diffusion of ancient knowledge, imagined a new and enlightened world.

At the heart of this activity was a remarkable bookseller: Vespasiano da Bisticci, known as ‘the king of the world’s booksellers’. Besides repositories of wisdom by the likes of Plato, Aristotle and Cicero, his books were works of art in their own right, copied by talented scribes and illuminated by the finest miniaturists. His clients included popes, kings and princes from all across Europe who wished to burnish their reputations by founding magnificent libraries.

Vespasiano reached the summit of his powers as Europe’s most prolific merchant of knowledge when a new invention appeared—the printing press—that forever changed how books were produced and knowledge transmitted. By 1480, after almost fifty years in business, Vespasiano closed his shop in Florence’s Street of Booksellers and retired to the country to write his gossipy memoirs of everyone he had known.

A thrilling chronicle of intellectual ferment set against the dramatic political and religious turmoil of the era, The Bookseller of Florence is also an ode to books and bookmaking that charts the world-changing shift from script to print through the life of an extraordinary man—one of the true titans of the Renaissance.

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The Bookseller of Florence by Ross King
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Praise for The Bookseller of Florence

‘Magnificent … King’s meticulous research provides an immersive reading experience as he expertly weaves the political intrigue of families vying for power and currying favor with the pope into a riveting intellectual history covering the evolution of books, Renaissance Italy, classical philosophy and literature, and the invention of the printing press. A profoundly engaging study of a time when books were considered essential to a meaningful life, and knowledge and wisdom were cherished as ends in themselves.’
Booklist (starred review)

‘In this fascinating biography, Canadian author King (Brunelleschi’s Dome) weaves Vespasiano’s story into the fabric of the tumultuous times in which he lived … The result is a narrative about a man and his books, and so much more, including the origins and history of the Frankfurt Book Fair and the influence of Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press on the arc of history. Standout narrative nonfiction that will engage bibliophiles and readers who enjoy historical nonfiction.’
Library Journal (starred review)

‘A fascinating read … Though ostensibly a biography of Vespasiano, he is less the book’s subject than its method: a window on to the intellectual, political and technological developments of a time in radical ferment. It is an astute choice by King, just as King – entertaining, witty and expert – is a fortunate fate for Vespasiano’
—Tim Smith-Laing, Daily Telegraph (5-star review)

‘A marvel of storytelling and a master class in the history of the book, explaining sometimes arcane bookmaking process in clear and coherent language while lending an easy touch to otherwise confounding historical turmoil. The Bookseller of Florence is a dazzling, instructive and highly entertaining book, worthy of the great bookseller it celebrates’
—Ernest Hilbert, Wall Street Journal

‘The scope of King’s knowledge is staggering and his book bulges with facts. They are at their most enticing when they relate to physical processes such as the details of Vespasiano’s manuscript production … Remarkable as these feats of factual exposition are, King’s supreme ability is to imagine himself into the past … As King’s spectacular book shows, Vespasiano deserves to be remembered.’
—John Carey, The Sunday Times

‘The real pleasure of King’s book is its detailed evocation of the physical grind of bookmaking … The true heroes of this book are less the mouthy showboaters of humanism than the hard grafters like Ser Antonio, one of Vespasiano’s master scribes … What you will find in abundance here is a historical celebration of the Greek humanist Cardinal Bessarion’s belief that books “live, they converse and speak with us, they teach us, educate us, console us.”’
—Simon Schama, New York Times

‘Art historian King delivers a richly detailed portrait of 15th-century Florence and the important role booksellers played in disseminating ancient Greek and Latin texts that were vital to the Renaissance … [T]his expert account shines a new light on the Renaissance.’
Publishers Weekly

‘King deftly navigates Florence’s rich cultural and political history, painting intimate portraits of Vespasiano and others involved in the book world during these incredible times, including the man who would revolutionize it all, Johannes Gutenberg.’
Kirkus Reviews

‘A terrific and utterly absorbing read, full of narrative pace and remarkable breadth and depth of scholarship. It deserves to make the bestseller lists. How ingenious to find a way to tell such a compelling and important story, that of the epochal shift from script to print, through the experience of a single individual. I haven’t enjoyed a history book as much for years.’
—John Guy, author of My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots and Tudor England

‘A brilliant narrative that seamlessly weaves together intellectual debate, technological exploration and the excitement of new ways of thinking about ethics, politics and human capability as they evolved in one of the liveliest cultural environments in European history. It conveys a rare sense of immersion in the daily sights and sounds (and even smells) of fifteenth-century Italy.”
—Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, 2003-2012, and author of The Way of St. Benedict

The Bookseller of Florence does for books what Ross King did for the art of Brunelleschi, Leonardo and Michelangelo: it conjures a vivid, lost world of manuscripts and learning. Written with an exquisite touch and enviable flair, King has written a book in defence of the pursuit of knowledge that’s needed today more than ever.’
—Jerry Brotton, author of A History of the World in Twelve Maps

‘A beautifully constructed work of popular scholarship, at once celebratory and elegiac. Ross King skilfully illuminates the career, interests and connections of a fifteenth-century maker of manuscript books, and in the process paints a compelling picture of Florence in the age of the Medici, and of the fascinating, fractured world of the European Renaissance, in the decades witnessing the final fall of the Byzantine Empire and the fateful appearance of the new technology of print.’
—Peter Marshall, author of Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation

‘In the mid-fifteenth-century it must have seemed as if all the wisdom of the world was distilled into a single street in Florence. In this deft, sparkling book, Ross King reanimates the Street of Booksellers and the life of its most fascinating figure: Vespasiano da Bisticci.’
—Peter Moore, author of Endeavour

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