In 1590 and 1591 the Tipografia Medicea Orientale (Medici Oriental Press) in Rome published its two much-advertised illustrated versions of the Gospels in Arabic. The Evangelium sanctum Domini nostri Iesu Christi conscriptum a quatuor Evangelistis Sanctis, idest, Matthaeo, Marco, Luca, et Iohanne was printed first in Arabic only, then in Arabic with corresponding Latin text between every line (Fig. 1). Sixty-seven woodblock prints of the Gospel scenes appeared in both versions of these luxurious books, illustrating the Life of Christ as told by the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Many of the blocks appear multiple times in each book, illustrating the same story as told by the different evangelists. The registering of identical illustrations to these slightly different narratives reinforced the documentary plausibility of the material.1 The pictures also helped readers who knew the stories, but were unfamiliar with the languages, navigate the Gospels.
The Arabic Gospels were designed to carry out the evangelical mission at the heart of the press. The Tipografia Medicea Orientale was founded in 1584 at the request of Gregory XIII (1502–1585), who dedicated his papacy (1572–1585) to attempting to restore the Eastern Church to Roman orthodoxy. Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici (1549–1609), soon to become Grand Duke of Tuscany, provided financial support for the venture, and Giovanni Battista Raimondi (ca. 1536–1614), one of the century’s most erudite Arabists, was brought in as director. Twenty-six years after the press was founded, Raimondi wrote a letter to Phillip III of Spain about the power of the printed books and papal ambitions for them, in what would turn out to be a fruitless effort to sell the king copies of the beautiful Gospels that still remained in his storeroom:
He [Gregory XIII] also desired that there be erected in Rome a print shop for foreign languages, so that all the books pertinent to refuting schisms and heresies might be printed, and to introduce the Gospels in those countries and among those people where preachers cannot penetrate without great danger to their lives, and where they would not meet with any success. He ordered therefore that there be printed 18,000 volumes of the Gospels in Arabic, with Latin translation between the lines, and that they begin to be sent with merchants, or by any other means possible, to all the countries where Arabic was spoken or understood. In these countries they should be exchanged or sold at a very low price, and even deftly given away at any opportunity, lest we not attain our goals. And said Gospels would only have to have been read by the infidel Muslims and by others who understand that language to have this effect, having personally seen the experience of many who were converted from the sect of Mohammed to the true Christian faith, without argument and without preaching, but with only a single reading of the Gospel in whatever language into which it was translated.2
While the circumstances surrounding the foundation of the press were recorded in briefs and letters, there is no written documentation on the woodblock illustrations.3 When the woodblocks, which miraculously survive, came up for sale a few years ago, Richard S. Field noted that the illustrations were made with great legibility and simplicity.4 At the same time, they were sophisticated enough to act as ambassadors of modern papal style, with brilliant effects of light and shade. Their visual clarity directly reinforced the scriptural lessons in the accompanying texts.
The designs for all the illustrations seem to have originated with the painter and printmaker Antonio Tempesta (1555–1630). Several of the blocks in the last two Gospels bear his monogram and that of the printer, publisher and woodblock carver, Leonardo Parasole (ca. 1552–1612).5 Field points out stylistic differences in the blocks, showing a transition from a more descriptive and literal style of cutting, visible in several unused blocks and in some of the images of the first Gospel books, to a more abstract cutting style in the images that appear in the last two books.6 Some blocks, cut in the more literal style appearing in the early books, were eventually discarded in favor of blocks cut like the later ones, suggesting that a standardized cutting style was implemented at some point in the printing process. We can see this in the case of The Sermon on the Mount, for example, which was cut twice before the printers arrived at the preferred solution, which was in the style of the blocks like those used in the later books of the Arabic text and in the whole interlinear edition. All three blocks still exist, cut from the same design, but exhibiting different conceptions of how Tempesta’s wash drawings might be effectively translated into woodcut hatching (Figs. 2 and 3).
The abstraction Field observes in the later blocks results from changes in the method of cutting.7 The woodcutter subordinated individual shapes to an overall graphic system from which the image emerges through the use of sinuous outlines as well as dots and dashes for facial features and other details. Anonymous figures intended to provide necessary witness are rendered as barely distinguishable shapes in passages of parallel hatching. This abstract chiaroscuro characterizes, for example, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, creating drama in the backlit scene of the bystanders who are reduced to vertical lines in the resulting shadow (Fig. 4). An even grayness in the form of a curving screen unifies this crowd of astonished figures; against it, a sharp diagonal shadow throws Christ’s important judgment, written on the ground, into spotlight. The Visitation, told only in Luke, needs fewer figures to carry the story (Fig. 5), but here too, broad swathes of parallel lines establish the background that is easily read as hills and a city wall, before which Elizabeth and Mary reach to clasp hands and embrace. The joyful meeting is bracketed by the women’s inclining haloes, their faces modeled in complementary shading as the old dispensation strides forward without hesitation to greet the new one. The strong, angular hatching lines of varying width and unvarying boldness proclaim the momentous nature of the occasion as forcefully as Tempesta’s traditional iconography and his lively and decorative figures. Some blocks, like these, bear both monograms, while some show only that of Parasole or Tempesta. Parasole’s workshop consisted of several possible cutters familiar with Tempesta’s style, including Parasole’s wife, Geronima (ca. 1567–1622).8
The organization of such an ambitious publishing project required the expert coordination of specialists in languages, international commerce and every aspect of printing and censorship. The copious diaries and correspondence of travelers sent to India and Africa to evaluate the market for the books reveal the many fronts on which Raimondi worked to keep the press afloat and under the radar of both the Medici, who tended to micromanage with an eye to maximum financial profit, and of the papal Inquisition, which was excessively concerned about the inadvertent spread, through Arabic materials, of precisely the sorts of heresies it was trying to extinguish. Among the problems with printing in Arabic in Italy (a process that was not undertaken in Arabic-speaking countries until the 18th century) was the limited availability of credible manuscript exemplars for content and calligraphy, the founding of the difficult type so that it retained the dignity appropriate to a sacred text, and finding compositors fluent enough in the language to proofread the letters backward and forward.9 Medici financing was essential to the operation of the press, as was the presence in Rome of Jewish converts and Arabic-speaking Christians who could read, translate and set type in Hebrew and Arabic.10 Ferdinando de’ Medici not only expected Raimondi to supervise the scholarly and missionary aspects of the press, but also to run it as a profitable business.11 For this reason, and because it was a major interest of Raimondi’s, the press also published Arabic works of geography, medicine and mathematics, all of which proved commercially successful.
There was an avid (although limited) market for books in Oriental languages in Italy and in Northern European universities where scholars lacked the grammars and dictionaries, much less other publications of scholarly interest,indispensable for pursuing their studies.12 The financial support of the Medici, as well as the scholarly presence of Raimondi, meant that European scholars eagerly anticipated the first publications of the Tipografia Medicea. Unlike Latin or Ancient Greek, Arabic was a living language, still spoken by merchants, diplomats and doctors in their professional transactions.13 The major drive for learning such languages among humanist scholars in Europe was to allow them to acquire better knowledge about the oriental roots of Christian religious learning; there was also new impetus, in the wake of failed military actions, to find peaceful ways of converting Muslims and Jews.14 To learn this language well enough to read and interpret difficult texts required books of exceptional clarity or potentially problematic association with an infidel native speaker. The Flemish Latin teacher, Nicolas Clenardus (1495–1542), worked to establish Arabic learning in the Netherlands in order to fight the spread of Islam without resorting to military means, writing: “The Hebrew books which Bomberg prints in Venice go everywhere to find the Jews, to Egypt, to Africa, to India. It will be the same with the Arabic books that we will print in Louvain.”15 Clenardus failed to befriend people who could teach him Arabic; this eventually led him to purchase a slave in Granada for this purpose so he could print Arabic works in the Brabant. For European humanists like Clenardus, who had a real stake in learning Arabic in order to carry out peaceful conversions, or to uncover the mysteries they believed lay hidden in the Jewish and Islamic faiths, the luxurious volumes for which the Tipografia Medicea was founded were, however, to prove disappointing.
In spite of all the expense and care taken to provide illustrations for the Arabic Gospels, there is no evidence that the woodcuts were looked on favorably by readers, even those who otherwise noted the beauty of Robert Granjon’s Arabic type.16 Muslims, who forbade narrative images in sacred texts, would certainly not have wished to see them and European students of foreign languages did not need them. Scholars, therefore, have assumed that the inclusion of images in these books indicates they were actually intended for the European market in general and to bring Arabic-literate Christians into the Roman church, rather than to convert infidels. Unlike the text, the images were not translated into an Eastern idiom. Illuminated manuscripts of the Gospels were readily available in Byzantium and visualized the tales in a different style and iconography.
The Transfiguration, for example, an early unsigned block that is printed three times in the Medici Gospels, shows the Roman idiom used for the illustrations (Fig. 6). The story of the revelation of Christ’s divinity as he prays with three apostles on a high mountain is one of the more abstract subjects in the scriptures. In it,Christ and his robe suddenly turn brilliant white, followed by the arrival of a cloud at once bright and dark that overwhelms the apostles. From the cloud, the voice of God, as in the Baptism, identifies Christ as his beloved son.17 The woodcut, in which the artist emphasizes the apostles’ fear, shows Christ lofted into the sky with Moses and Elijah, the trio establishing a heaven-borne counterpart to the group of three cowering apostles below. Blinded by the radiant figure of Christ and terrified by the thundering cloud, they tumble over each other in the fog and dark in the lower section of the picture.
The airborne Christ, the graceful Moses cradling his tablets, Elijah, and the earthbound apostles are all modeled on those in the most successful pictorial version of the scene to that date, painted by Raphael for Clement VII (then Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici), and widely disseminated in the West by reproductive prints (Fig. 7).18 It would be easy for readers unfamiliar with the Roman iconographic tradition to misread this image—to think that the apostles had their hands to their heads because they were dreaming, or had fallen off a cliff, or were perhaps even the same men who appear in the sky, now cast to the ground. In Byzantine representations of this subject, the apostles are instead struck by rays emanating geometrically from the body of Christ, binding his electrified stillness to the turbulence in the souls of the frightened men and turning the whole into a symmetrical emblem (Fig. 8).19
Raimondi’s letter to Phillip III ended with a trope that often appeared in the Scriptures: the word of God, like a sword, can convert souls.20 The immediacy with which images entered the soul through the senses rendered them bloodless crusaders in the eyes of both Raimondi and the pope, transforming the books into effective “drones” that encouraged conversion, especially in regions that were otherwise too dangerous to send missionaries. The fact that they penetrated the hearts of men in the visual idiom of the Roman, rather than the Greek Church, further promoted the plan to encompass the older, Eastern Church in the rites of the younger, Western one. In their own way, the woodcuts proclaimed the Latinity of the Gospels: in whatever language the words were encountered, they referred to events that did not look as Easterners might have expected them to.
In spite of such subtleties, it is generally accepted that the Medici Gospels were a beautiful failure, neither selling well nor accomplishing the goal of mass conversion. Raimondi had trouble controlling the management of the press until he contracted in 1595 to buy it from Duke Ferdinando. In a letter written about that time, Raimondi outlined the major factors leading to the precarious financial condition of the business: delays in preparing copy for proofreading because employees were traveling or did not show up regularly; when they did come to work, their insufferable behavior ruined morale. Further, the bad air of the neighborhood in the Campo Marzio caused the death of many workers.21 Raimondi’s eventual deal with Ferdinando in 1596 included moving the press to the Medici villa at the top of the Pincian Hill, a healthier location.22
The images in these Gospels allow us to understand the technical and commercial challenges, as well as the opportunities, presented by this grand first project. Rather than dismiss it as a costly and misguided fiasco, we may more usefully consider it the training ground for a group of printers, publishers and patrons during the period of the Roman Inquisition and the Atlantic Conquest. The surviving unused blocks of the Gospels that had to be recut show the printers carefully readdressing the visual rhetoric of the books after a certain point in the printing. The desired unity of the Church would come to be represented by a uniformity of style throughout the book, introduced by astandardized system of cutting the images from the blocks.
The printers Raimondi finally kept in his employ used the lessons from printing the Gospels to organize related illustrated projects that promoted and enabled the regulation of church ritual, standardizing liturgical celebration wherever books in Latin could be read. The printer and typographer for the Tipografia Medicea, for example, a Lebanese Maronite whose Italian name was Giacomo Luna, teamed up with Leonardo Parasole to print two richly illustrated manuals that would be integral to codifying a standard, reformed celebration of Roman liturgical rites after the Council of Trent: The Pontificale Romanum Clementis VIII (1595) and the Caeremoniale episcoporum iussu Clementis VIII (1596; Fig. 9).23 These books describe and illustrate church ritual led by popes and bishops; they contain red and black text, musical notation and images remarkable for their clarity and uniformity of style across the weighty volumes. Some images were used for both volumes, discussing the same rites for different celebrants.24 Parasole had developed a method for cutting woodblocks to print music that he, Raimondi and Luna had hoped to use in the printing of a reformed Gradual undertaken by Palestrina.25
Like the Arabic Gospels, bringing church ritual into line with Tridentine recommendations began with Gregory XIII, was continued by Sixtus V with the cooperation of participating cardinals, and came to fruition with the aid of Cardinal Ippolito Aldobrandini. From the beginning Aldobrandini had helped supervise the evangelical work of the Tipografia Medicea; when he became Pope Clement VIII in 1592 he renewed his attention to the reform of ritual.26 The images, in both engraved and woodblock versions, prescribed the proper postures, gestures and dress for the celebrants of rituals performed by popes or bishops, from papal elections and imperial coronations to public ceremonies and festivities.27 Tempesta again provided models, and engravings were made by Francesco Villamena, Camillo Graffico and other printers active in Rome at the turn of the century. The publishing histories of these two books are complex, as different versions disappeared and reappeared with different plates and blocks—and are the material for another story. But the key point here is that publishing for the papacy in Rome in the era of reform required scholarly, courtly, commercial and technical mastery on an unprecedented scale, the coordination of which was effected by much hard work and ingenuity by Raimondi and his team. Science, religion, art and the study of languages came together from a variety of interests coalescing around the publication of a pair of Arabic Gospels that, while not a commercial success, established a fulcrum for inventions and associations in the world beyond the busy offices of the Tipografia Medicea Orientale.
- The interlinear text has 149 illustrations for which 67 blocks were used. Six other blocks were made but not used. See Richard S. Field, Antonio Tempesta’s Blocks and Woodcuts for the Medicean 1591 Arabic Gospels (Chicago: Les Eluminures, 2011) and the chart on pp. 22–25. Field kindly shared his observations with me as we examined the blocks together.
- Guglielmo Enrico Saltini, “Della Stamperia Orientale Medicea e di Giovan Battista Raimondi,” Giornale Storico degli Archivi ToscaniIV (1860): 259–60.
- In addition to Field, Antonio Tempesta’s Blocks and Woodcuts,see Sara Fani and Margherita Farina, eds., Le vie delle lettere. La Tipografia Medicea tra Roma e l’Oriente (Florence: Mandragora, 2012), for the most recent studies of the press and the Arabic Gospels, and with a comprehensive bibliography. Also indispensable in this context is Alberto Tinto, La Tipografia Medicea Orientale (Lucca: Fazzi Editore, 1987).
- Field, Antonio Tempesta’s Blocks and Woodcuts, 9–10.
- These are identified in the chart in Field (ibid., 22–25).
- Ibid., 3–9, 12–18.
- Field (ibid., 17) believes that the early blocks might have been cut by Paul Maupin, whose presence in these circles is recorded in 1594.
- Lia Markey, “The Female Printmaker and the Culture of the Reproductive Print Workshop,” in Paper Museums: The Reproductive Print in Europe 1500–1800, ed. Rebecca Zorach and Elizabeth Rodini (Chicago: University of Chicago Press for the Smart Museum of Art, 2005), 51–73; and Evelyn Lincoln, “Invention, Origin, and Dedication: Republishing Women’s Prints in Early Modern Italy,” in Making and Unmaking Intellectual Property: Creative Production in Legal and Cultural Perspective, ed. Mario Biagioli, Peter Jaszi and Martha Woodmansee (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 339–357. Geronima Parasole signed with the same image of a burin after her initials that her husband used in his monogram in Antonio Gallonio’s book, De Sanctorum martyrum cruciatibus liber (Rome: Congregationis Oratorii apud S. Maria in Vallicella, 1594), 44.
- Pier Giorgio Borbone, “Introduzione” in Fani and Farina, Le vie delle lettere, 34n18 and 35n24. See also Geoffrey Roper, The History of the Book in the Middle East (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2013).
- See Fani and Farina, Le vie delle lettere, especially p. 51 and pp. 57–60. See also Robert Jones, “Piracy, War, and the Acquisition of Arabic Manuscripts in Renaissance Europe,” in Manuscripts of the Middle East 2 (1987): 96–115; and Natalie Zemon Davis, Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds (New York: Hill & Wang, 2006).
- Fani and Farina, Le vie delle lettere, 46, 73–80. See also Robert Jones, “The Medici Oriental Press (Rome 1584–1614) and the Impact of its Arabic Publications in Northern Europe,” in The “Arabick” Interest of the Natural Philosophers in Seventeenth-Century England, ed. G.A. Russell (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1994), 97–100.
- Karl H. Dannenfeldt, “The Renaissance Humanists and the Knowledge of Arabic,” in Studies in the Renaissance 2 (1955): 113–15; and Jones, “Medici Oriental Press,” 96–100.
- Dannenfeldt, “Renaissance Humanists,” 117.
- Ibid., 96.
- Ibid., 114–15; and Robert Jones, “Learning Arabic in Renaissance Europe (1505–1624)” (PhD thesis, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1988), 146–48.
- An assessment of Granjon’s prestige and work in making characters for the Medici Press is found in Tinto, 22-56; for the non-success of the books see most recently Fani and Farina, particularly 204-209 and elsewhere.
- Matthew 17:1–13; Mark 9:2–13; Luke 9:28–36.
- See Field, Antonio Tempesta’s Blocks and Woodcuts, 10–11 for Raphael’s imagery in other prints in the Arabic Gospels.
- Jerzy Miziołek, “Transfiguratio Domini in the Apse at Mount Sinai and the Symbolism of Light,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 53 (1990): 42–60.
- Raimondi’s letter (as referenced in note 3) ends with the following persuasive quotations: “Dice il Salmista: Lex Domini immaculata convertens animas; et in altro loco: Et sermo Domini gladius acutus penetrans corda hominum” (The Psalmist says, “The Word of God converts souls cleanly,” and in another place, “And the Word of God is a sharp sword that penetrates the heart of man”).
- Fani and Farina, Le vie delle lettere, 78–9.
- Ibid., 79–80. Raimondi was not able to meet the payments required by that contract but was retained as custodian for life.
- Luna’s Arabic name was Ya‘qub ibn Hilal. See Tinto, Tipografia Medicea, 17. The books are: Pontificale Romanum Clementis VIII pont. max. iussu restitutum (Rome: Giacoma Luna at the expense of Leonardo Parasole, 1595) and Caeremoniale episcoporum iussu Clementis VIII pont. max. editum (Rome: Giacomo Luna, 1596). For Luna see Borbone “Introduzione,” in Fani and Farina, Le vie delle lettere, 29; and Tinto, Tipografia Medicea, 82–4, on the association between Luna and Parasole in the printing of the Pontifical and the Ceremonial (and note 23 here). See also Manlio Sodi and Achille Maria Triacca, eds., Pontificale Romanum, Editio Princeps [1595–1596] (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997) and Manlio Sodi and Achille Maria Triacca, eds., Caeremoniale Episcoporum, Editio Princeps (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000), xiv–xv.
- Sodi and Triacca, Caeremoniale, xxxv.
- Joshua Joel Veltman, “Prosody and Rhythm in the Post-Tridentine Reform of Plainchant” (PhD dissertation, The Ohio State University, 2004), 63–80.
- Sodi and Triacca, Caeremoniale, xxvii.
- Sodi and Triacca, Pontificale, xxxin35.