Rosa Salzberg: ‘Print saturated the lives of ordinary people’

Rosa Salzberg is an expert on the dissemination and performance of early printed texts in Italian cities. Here she discusses how recent work on cheap print and street singers is starting to expand our sense of the discourse of the piazza, the places and mediators of community, and the shaping of urban publics in the 16th century (30-6-2011)

David Rosenthal: I want to start by asking you to situate what you do. It seems to me you’re operating within a tradition of talking about print culture and what people who look at humanists would call the republic of letters. But that’s just one level of it, and in certain ways the easiest to investigate. You’re saying that there is another layer of communication in early modern towns that hasn’t been given a great deal of attention, a much wider arena to do with the dissemination, and oral performance, of cheap print.

Rosa Salzberg: I started off studying the famous scholarly printer in Venice, Aldus Manutius, and exactly that idea of the republic of letters, of scholarly workshops and literary circles. Then, coming to London and working in the British Library and starting to dig through the early modern Italian printed stuff there, I started finding all of these fantastic pamphlets that just don’t appear in the classic big histories of Venetian or even, to a certain extent, Italian print. In fact, people like Peter Burke and Ottavia Niccoli had pointed to this material, and obviously the likes of Roger Chartier and Natalie Zemon Davies had begun to look at this for other countries. Now there is heaps of work, particularly on England, on this kind of material – but when I started working on it I felt like I didn’t really know where this fitted into the picture at all. I thought, probably somewhat naively: by using this material can we actually find out what the expansion of print really meant to a much wider group of people, beyond the scholars and patrician collectors? There is some very good targeted work looking at particular examples of popular printed pamphlets, but, in terms of our view of Italian Renaissance culture – which still tends to be rather top-down and elite, and focused on these big eminent works – this is still just starting to be taken on board.

DR: And part of your argument is that these big eminent works are actually appropriated from below, which among other things makes the question of authorship interesting. In a sense the idea of authorship is exploded at a certain level because texts are taken up by cantastorie [street singers] or peddlers and reworked, like a mash-up almost. I wonder what this does to perceptions of so-called popular and elite culture.

RS: There has been a tendency for these kinds of work to be studied in a bit of a bibliographic ghetto, and not, as has happened in England and to a certain degree in France, connected in with socio-political history, as they should be. People may have looked at how the works of Ariosto, for example, were disseminated, but they haven’t come at it from the bottom up. There’s also been a tendency to try to “take the cultural temperature” of a text and  place it on the scale between elite and popular culture, rather than watching where it moves. I’ve tried to show that this makes no sense at all. I started off by taking on board ideas from the [Carlo] Ginzburg, Chartier and [Robert] Scribner generation of circularity and interchange, and I guess I can’t think of a better way to formulate it than that. Some texts might seem to originate from an elite literary circle but were in fact first inspired by street culture and street literature. Through the publishers and peddlers that I have looked at, you see that print helps texts to move in every direction, not only through different media but through different kinds of social spaces and groups, without the kind of barriers that you would expect. I focus on the first 50 to 100 years of print, where there seems to be a real opening up of opportunity in this way, because it’s new and people are experimenting, mainly driven by profit. What this suggests is that we really need to be careful about assuming that a certain social group would not have read a certain kind of text – or if not read, perhaps heard or seen performed.

DR: One of the things that interests me is how this affects the culture of the piazza. Because it’s often in the piazza or in particular places in cities where either pamphlets or cheap print are disseminated or sold and also, correct me if I’m wrong, it’s the same places in which cantastorie are performing some version of the same kinds of text. I’m wondering how this creates experiences of community, as it were, through a sense that familiar texts and familiar tropes are connected to particular places.

RS: That brings up the whole question of continuity versus change and the effect of print. There is an aspect of continuity because there is a well-established culture of performance and circulation of texts in cities like Venice and Florence. And not just via oral performance. I’m thinking of Dale Kent’s work on 15th-century Florentine chapbooks [D. Kent, Cosimo de’ Medici and the Florentine Renaissance, Yale UP, 2000]. Particular texts are circulated and get written down, people were very familiar with them. The thing that’s clear is that those same kinds of performers who worked in the medieval piazza are incredibly quick in getting in on the act after print arrives in Italy in the 1460s and seeing it as a new sort of entrepreneurial opportunity. There is this precious logbook of the Ripoli press in Florence. It shows that from the 1480s peddlers and performers are coming in and commissioning works that were obviously tied to the performances they were giving, so things like an oration to San Rocco commissioned just before the feast day of San Rocco. There’s an argument in this article by Susan Noakes from 1981 that these people were in a position to know the interests and taste of the public better than most, and they provided this incredibly useful connection between the piazza and the people and the print shop, because the printers are experimenting and trying to work out what there was a public for – it’s all very new [S. Noakes, “The Development of the Book Market in Late Quattrocento Italy: Printers’ Failures and the Role of the Middleman”, Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 11, 1, 1981]. The work that I did on Venice shows that there is a strong continuity, that these kinds of performers keep being associated with print throughout the 16th century, working to bring these texts out and presumably also performing them –  therefore, being able to communicate to people who couldn’t have read or couldn’t afford to buy the text.

DR: In this context, does the literacy rate – often put at about 30 per cent overall – matter?

RS: I don’t think it does very much. Many “readers” couldn’t actually read but they encountered and absorbed texts in other ways Also, historians increasingly argue for higher degrees of some kind of “functional literacy” in this period than was previously thought. Trying to find out how cheap printed works actually made their way to readers is one of the problems that I came up against very quickly, because what I found was that the traditional sources for book history, that you use to try to find out who bought and read these things, aren’t very helpful here. There are very few inventories that record the ownership of cheap print. There aren’t bookshop registers to show what was sold. There is rarely marginalia on cheap pamphlets saying who bought them or read them. Instead, the way I went about it was to focus on the figures who disseminated cheap print, where they worked and as much as possible how they worked. They are certainly elusive, but not as elusive as the readers and consumers, and they help I think to lead us to the readers and consumers. Being able to establish the fact that these sellers were prevalent in the piazzas and on the bridges and in the streets of cities like Venice is crucial. Say you cannot read or you cannot find anyone to read something for you. But if there’s someone on the Rialto who was advertising something verbally and reading it out, or singing the first lines, you are at least aware of the text and something of what was being circulated. Your interest is probably piqued by the fact that the seller might be saying, ‘I’ve got the latest news about the war in Brescia on the mainland’, or whatever. So the fact of selling in public spaces and the fact that texts were advertised verbally, if not performed in their entirety, is crucial.
And again, I think those barriers that we tend to erect between the literate and the illiterate meant much less than we tend to think. Somewhere like Venice, even by the end of the 15th century, is saturated with texts. There are books being advertised and laid out all the way down the main shopping thoroughfares, and there are stalls in the piazzas advertising these things. Obviously we can’t document the fact that people who were exposed to printed words then bought them or read them, but accessing texts was certainly much easier than in the era of manuscripts. The other important factor from the bits of evidence we have is that pamphlets were really, really cheap. A pamphlet of a couple of pages in the early 16th century cost something like the same as a mackerel, or two eggs or a loaf of bread. So we can’t document the moment of buying the text and keeping it, but we can put all of these other contextual elements in play. And then there’s the fact that the economy of cheap print does not work unless you print a lot of copies, which means that very large numbers of these texts would have circulated even if only one copy might now survive. Again, the Ripoli press logbook, from the 1480s, is one of the few sources we have for this: the charlatans and performers who go in there order 500 copies of pamphlets or fliers, or 1,000 in some cases. Our attention tends to get distracted by what survives, which grossly misrepresents what was originally printed, and we tend to forget to leave mental space for the things that haven’t survived. There are also things that were printed on commission and stuck up or handed out for the purpose of public information: for example papal bulls, excommunications and laws seem to have been printed in big quantities. Factoring these back in adds to our picture of the way in which print was saturating the life of ordinary people, even if they couldn’t read.

DR: Which makes the figures who disseminate these works cultural mediators, as you call them. And I guess agents as well. To what extent do your findings extend our view of the politics of civic life? I’ve got in mind something like the recent book of Filippo de Vivo, who makes a case for the expansion of what constituted the ‘political’ sphere in the early modern city  [F. de Vivo, Information and Communication in Venice: Rethinking Early Modern Politics, OUP, 2007]

RS: What De Vivo shows was that by the early 17th century there’s this fully fledged genuinely popular print culture in Venice discussing intense political issues. I think what we have from the more fragmentary evidence 100 years earlier is that print is already being used for some of the same purposes. The best examples are things like news poems and songs that were disseminated particularly by cantastorie. Transmitting news was part of the traditional role of these figures, but they very quickly become involved in also publishing and selling these kinds of news accounts. For me that’s significant. For example, this ballad singer I’ve studied, Ippolito Ferrarese, publishes a  “Lament of Florence” soon after the city had been besieged in 1530, and he definitely worked in Venice in these years so he probably performed it there as well as other places. And you think, OK, we know that the Venetian people never revolted against their patrician government but if they’re hearing an account of something like the fall of the Florentine Republic, at least they were aware of and heard about different kind of political arrangements, changes, upheavals. There is a lot of evidence that a lot of people were interested in hearing news of politics and wars and so on, which suggests that there was much more popular knowledge of current events than we often assume, not just in Venice but outside.

DR: The question then becomes, I suppose, to what extent that has an effect or feedback into the official world of politics, which of course is very difficult to show.

RS: Yes, I started to get into this in the article that I’ve written with Massimo Rospocher about Venice during the League of Cambrai, which essentially tried to show that the government and members of the patriciate were intensely conscious and very concerned that people of all classes in Venice were talking about what was going on in the war, to the point where the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, who had his armies in the Veneto, tries to disseminate printed letters in Venice appealing to various segments of the population to revolt against the government. [M. Rospocher  and R. Salzberg, ‘“El vulgo zanza”: spazi, pubblici, voci a Venezia durante le Guerre d’Italia’, Storica, 48, 2010]. They don’t do it, but print is used in that way. It’s disseminated in churches and around the city. We know from some diarists that people were talking about this on the piazzas and in the streets, and there was some fear that it could lead to revolt. It seems that the government was watching and trying to make sure that it was kept from the point of boiling over. The circulation of these kind of texts and ideas, particularly cheap printed media and by people like cantastorie, is important in feeding that discussion. It increases the reverberation of voices and opinions that the government had to take account of if it wanted to keep the population peaceful. In the article, we propose the idea of an “evanescent public sphere”. We were trying to find a way not to just say that the public sphere existed 200 years before Habermas’s but rather that ephemeral forms of public debate were emerging at times of crisis like the early 16th century in Venice. Not just “bourgeois” and not just in places like coffeehouses and salons, but much more socially diverse publics in places like the piazza. And this is where it comes back to community. If these people are coming together around the bench of the cantastorie to listen and then perhaps buy a text, then we know that they would continue to sing the songs, which would get stuck up in various places and recited. In a way they were small publics.

DR: This makes me think of artisan chronicles of the 16th century that historians have been using for decades. When you look at edited editions of these, what’s striking, despite the slight corrections of facts or dates, is just how informed people were. What this current generation of scholarship on print culture seems to be showing is the detail of how that’s happening.

RS: I think that also comes back to figures such as cantastorie. The ones I have studied, who you can trace by their editions that survive, moved around Italy and often reprinted the same text in different cities, slightly adjusted perhaps, and I think helped to move texts between different printers. Just as preachers did, these kind of figures would have had to use a kind of pan-Italian language and adapt their performances to a certain degree. There was just much more trans-local communication and information than is often thought, because they’re essentially recycling the same kind of texts, whether it’s a news item or a funny poem or a religious oration. It suggests that these urban artisan publics – and we know more of northern Italy but the same was probably true in the south – had certain shared interests, shared concerns, and shared knowledge about particular stories. There are times when performers refer to characters from ancient history, for example, assuming that any person in the piazza would have a certain amount of knowledge about, say, Julius Caesar.

DR: There seems, then, to be more than one public, or community, being created here, and I wonder how easy is it to differentiate them. On one hand street singers as you say could attract very mixed audiences. On the other hand, some of your findings suggest that cantastorie also speak particularly to the anxieties and problems of essentially impoverished people, in other words, to artisans or the working poor. It seems as if this specific audience, or if you like community, is being identified, or indeed shaped to some extent, through these kinds of text.

RS: If you look back at the history of cantastorie before print, they did speak to different groups and concerns. Some of them were trying to appeal to elite audiences for patronage or whatever, but on the other hand, even in the 14th century, there are examples of songs that talk about poverty, and to a certain extent there are at least hints of social and political critique against the rich and the powerful. You have to be really careful, because it’s certainly not that cantastorie were always speaking for the poor to the poor, but there are examples – and I think increasingly as the 16th century goes on – of a literature of poverty that is published and performed by these people that might refer to the performer’s own experiences, such as being a blind singer sitting and begging on the Rialto bridge and being ignored, or to the fact that the grain taxes are being raised and the rent’s really high. Someone like the Bolognese cantastorie Giulio Cesare Croce could genuinely sing songs about living through a difficult time, saying to his audience, ‘I understand this, I am experiencing it as well’.

DR: Is that one of the reasons that there’s increasing surveillance and suspicion of cantastorie?

RS: There’s a good article by Giorgio Caravale where he argues that there is increasing surveillance and censorship of these kinds of text because they go against the Counter-Reformation idea of accepting poverty as part of the social order. [G. Caravale, ‘Censura e pauperismo tra Cinque e Seicento. Controriforma e cultura dei “senza lettere”’, Rivista di storia e letteratura religiosa, 38, 2002]. But sometimes you get cantastorie themselves playing it safe. They’re not Bob Dylan, singing protest songs. The commercial imperative was always there, and the awareness that they are performing often under the noses of the authorities, in a space like Piazza San Marco in Venice. They were obviously aware that they walked a fine line and aware of testing the limits. On the other hand, there’s this case from 1545 – we only have a few lines about it – from the blasphemy magistrates in Venice about a cantastorie who has been selling a pamphlet about the god Priapus and presumably performing it with gestures. We don’t know what the text was, but the printer and publisher and the peddler-performer get fined. And we don’t know exactly where in the city, but it says he was working on his bench, so probably somewhere pretty prominent because otherwise he wouldn’t attract an audience. So, they found these moments to get away with this sort of thing, to be subversive – though in that case he didn’t get away with it.

DR: Papal bulls, laws, orations, stories, what else was out there?

RS: Chivalric literature was one of the biggest sellers. There’s tons of it. This genre seems to be perennially popular, because you find the same texts being printed and performed in Italy in the early 20th century, which is amazing.

DR: If we’re thinking about creating textual communities of shared references and tropes, why is that so resonant do you think?

RS: More knowledgeable people than me have spent time thinking about this. But it has something to do with the fantasy and glamour of the chivalric tales. The first line of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso talks about tales of battle and of love. There’s magic, exotic lands, great feats of heroism. If you look at the way these stories are advertised on the title page, the printers sometimes pick out in red ink or in bold the words: love, war, new, exiting, delightful. And also they put woodcut images on the title page, generic images of knights at battle, which they reuse in different kinds of texts because it’s much cheaper to do that. They tend to focus on the images of the knight, a damsel in distress, images of a dragon, which suggests that printers thought these were the elements with the most appeal.

DR: In the kinds of carnivalesque or inversional performances that I and many others have written about, chivalric ideas are in fact being played out, and played with, manipulated parodically. Most of us, though, probably haven’t given enough thought to the extent to which these words were saturating the piazza. It makes better sense of the roles that artisans seem to be taking on almost as second nature, as knights and so on.

RS: That’s what’s so interesting about it. There’s been a tendency to see the trajectory as, for example, Ariosto being inspired by medieval troubadors and cantastorie singing about these things and then turning it into this classic text. And in fact you find straight away that the performers are taking the text back, cutting it up into small bits and performing and selling it in the piazza. So it very quickly ends up back where it began. A lot of other things are printed in cheap formats which had close ties to street performance, for example, all kinds of funny dialogues. One of the things that comes up again and again in ottava rima, the rhyme form that so many of these texts appears in, is the story of  the battle between a  blond and a brunette over the love of one man, which is in some ways a parody of chivalric tropes. These kinds of texts were probably performed as well as printed. They often start off with invocations to the muses or God or the Virgin, or a call to gather round and listen, so there are obvious clues to oral performance. Then there’s all sorts of scurrilous tales, such as the one about the priest who cuckolds a peasant and ends up in a pile of shit – Boccaccio-esque stories – again written in verse in a way that would lend itself to performance. There are also prophecies, tales of monstrous births, and I found a lot of anti-courtesan poems, and invective, which were popular in elite circles at this time but also in popular literature and performance. Again there might be an element of social critique in that. The ballad singer Ippolito Ferrarese published an interesting verse text in the 1530s called the Trionfo della lussuria [The Triumph of lust] in which he describes a parade of courtesans and clergy and the luxurious and dissolute life in Rome.

DR: That seems to feed into the image of 16th-century Catholic reform that’s emerged in recent years, one that is not as top-down as was once assumed – and where moral invective encoded wider political or social points.

RS: Definitely, and that’s shown really well in Ottavia Niccoli’s Rinascimento anticlericale [Laterza, 2005]. Another thing that appears and is related to this is the Pasquino character as a voice of social critique and often critique of the clergy and the Roman Curia. This starts out in Rome in the ambit of the Curia, with slanderous manuscript verses posted on the Pasquino statue, but it transfers to a certain degree into cheap print, though in a slightly watered down way – so using the character of Pasquino to voice subversive criticisms, for example against courtesans.

DR: That takes us more generally to the changes occurring towards the end of the 16th century. You suggest that to a certain extent the battle of the piazza is won by ‘official culture’. Niall Atkinson, in his interview for this project, argued that ideas and experiences of community clung to particular places partly because of the texts being read or sung there and because of the audiences that attracted and shaped. If that’s right, one wonders to what extent spaces and communities were changing.

RS: My sense is that the piazza is this space of enormous cultural mixing in the late 15th and early 16th century, but as you go on to a certain degree the elites withdraw from the piazza. We know that in the early 16th century the cantastorie were still being invited to perform for the Doge or the court, and it seems by the late 16th century this is happening less, that the elite has moved on to other forms of entertainment. There is the building of secular theaters and then the development of opera. Even if  people can pay to get into a theatre, it’s not as inclusive a space as a piazza, and more often elites are engaged in entertainments and cultural activities that take place in restricted spaces, like the salons and the academies and courts, and are leaving the piazza to the plebs. In Tommaso Garzoni’s description of the piazza, from 1585, he’s describing charlatans all over the piazza performing and crowds seeing them – he’s not necessarily saying that this is something only for the plebs but I think he marks a change; this kind of entertainment is becoming more clearly designated as ‘popular culture’ for the unwashed masses [T. Garzoni, La piazza universale di tutte le professioni del mondo]. Garzoni is part of a trend that you get increasingly in the 16th century to want to taxonomise everything, the need to categorise things and put them in their place. In the realm of print, I see that as being a reaction to this explosion of print and the uncontrolled movement of texts that had happened earlier in the 16th century. Later in the 1500s there’s this need to bring order to the universe of texts, by things like the Index of Prohibited Books but also by catalogues and libraries, a need to clearly designate what is a canonical text, what is popular literature, what is elite literature. The commedia dell’arte is a related example, because they come out of the same matrix as the cantastorie, out of the piazza performances, but they increasingly try and differentiate themselves from them and even though they do continue to perform in public spaces, they increasingly try to associate themselves with theatres and with the court and more elite spaces.

DR: Anxieties about taxonomy are in effect anxieties about identity, then.

RS: That’s exactly how I see it. I think it’s very much related to wanting to clarify social status, to make sure that you know who’s a cittadino, who has never worked with their hands, and who’s an artisan. That’s why cantastorie are quite troubling because they trample over boundaries. They’re tolerated and they continue because they are put in their place in the piazza. It’s very hard to survey the kind of literature performed and sold in the piazza and say how it changed, but my sense is that they continue to produce a lot of the same texts from the early 16th century, but the safer ones, the chivalric tales, acceptable religious works and not so much works about contemporary politics and society. So the performers are allowed to stay in the piazza and perform as long as they stay in relatively safe territory. That’s probably mostly a result of censorship, and I also think they started censoring themselves. One of the things I try to show in my forthcoming book is this increasingly ambivalent or anguished discourse as the 16th century goes on about the way in which many different people are starting to read because of print, and so a shoemaker can think himself a learned person because he can suddenly get his hands on texts. [R. Salzberg, Printshop to Piazza: Cheap Print and Urban Culture in Renaissance Venice, Manchester UP, 2013] Sixteenth-century writers often talk in these terms, about tradesmen and artisans getting above themselves because of a sudden access to books and standards of scholarship slipping. It’s very clear to me that print was one of the important factors in raising this sense of anxiety about the divisions of society being eroded, and this despite the fact that there’s incredibly high rates of illiteracy in Italy through to the 18th and 19th century. I have a sense that in Italy, more than anywhere else, there was potential for huge social change because of printing, but that the lid to a certain extent was put back on.

DR: Where do you think historians need to be going with this now, with this examination of the links between print culture, identity and community?

RS: Just on a very practical level there are a lot of obstacles to studying this topic: the accessibility of the texts and the fact that they’re scattered through numerous libraries. There still isn’t a comprehensive catalogue – there’s no Eebo for early Italian print [Early English Books Online] – but then there’s also vastly more printed material produced in Italy compared to England in this period. Huge amounts will be able to be done once there is more stuff online and these texts are more easily searchable, because I think that they’re an incredible and underused resource for this kind of history. This is already starting to happen with the orality/print/manuscript project taking off at the University of Leeds, which is about moving beyond the history of print culture and  thinking about the various communication media –  which might be manuscript, oral or print – which people used and which interacted with each other. We cannot ignore how important oral culture was for the majority of people in this period; we can not assume that because we don’t have written texts by ordinary people about their role in the state and political processes, for example, that these issues weren’t being discussed. The spatial aspect is crucial to all of these questions, in terms of defining communities and thinking about the physical and material conditions under which certain kind of exchanges took place.

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