Wednesday, February 17, 2010 2/17/10 - the printing press

In today s excerpt without the invention of
the printing press, Columbus would not have
discovered America:

"Johannes Gutenberg produced his first Bible
in Mainz, Germany, in
1454 or 1455, and word soon spread beyond
Germany about the potential
of the printing press. Leon Battista Alberti,
for example, wrote admiringly
of 'the German inventor who has recently made
it possible, by making certain imprints of
letters, for three men to make more than two
hundred copies of a given original text in
one hundred days.' By the early 1460s printing
presses had begun to spread to many of
Europe's important cities, although
not everybody understood what they were. In
1465 the secretary of the
Vatican Library still felt it necessary to
describe the advantages of the new
invention to Pope Paul II. 'Every poor
scholar can purchase for himself
a library for a small sum,' he explained.
'Those volumes that heretofore
could scarce be bought for a hundred crowns
may now be procured for less
than twenty, very well-printed and free from
those faults with which manuscripts used to
abound, for such is the art of our printers
and letter makers
that no ancient or modern discovery is
comparable to it.'

"Columbus belonged to the first lay
generation to benefit from the spread
of printing, and he made the most of the
opportunity that this offered him.
After arriving in Spain he acquired a number
of newly printed books,
almost all of which concerned geography, and
for the rest of his life he kept
them at his side as trusted companions. He
didn't just read his books; he
engaged them in conversation, scribbling
notes to himself in the margins,
calling out statements he agreed with,
testily objecting to others. Several of
his books survive, and together they provide
invaluable information about
how Columbus tried to build his case in Spain
- and, later, after he had
finally crossed the ocean, how he struggled
to make sense of what it was that
he had found on the other side.

"One of Columbus's favorite books, published
in 1477, was the Historia
rerum ubique gestarum, or History of
Matters Conducted Everywhere - one
of the earliest of all printed guides to
geography. Written in the aftermath
of the Council of Florence by the Italian
humanist Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, who
would go on to reign as Pope Pius II from
1458 to 1464, the
work surveyed traditional medieval ideas
about the world, and updated
them with references to Ptolemy, Strabo, and
even Niccolo Conti. Its quintessentially
humanist aim, Piccolomini wrote, was
matching modern with
ancient geography. The book consists of two
parts, one devoted to Asia, the
other to Europe. Columbus, naturally, read
the former with great avidity,
making a total of 861 different notes in the

Toby Lester, The Fourth Part of the
World, Free Press, Copyright 2009 by Toby
Lester, pp. 249-250.


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