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Printing a Mediterranean World: Florence, Constantinople, and the Renaissance of Geography.

Printing a Mediterranean World: Florence, Constantinople, and the Renaissance of Geography, by Sean Roberts. I Tatti Studies in Italian Renaissance History. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2013. xiii, 293 pp. $49.95 US (cloth).

Renaissance geographies were not straightforward books. Descriptions of the known world in text and image, they embraced geography and history, described the contents of the natural world and the designs of men, constituting a vast warehouse of knowledge, which might be shaped and then shared for many purposes. Some such works embodied the aspirations of empire, others were essentially pious in their architecture: the 1482 Septe giornate della geographia of Francesco Berlinghieri gave expression to a Classical Antiquity consciously reanimated by Florentine humanism, and sought to form intellectual communities through the conventions of patronage and practice of diplomatic gift-giving.

In his Printing a Mediterranean World, Sean Roberts explores Berlinghieri's Geographia in great detail, attending to both the work's content and its materiality: both were extraordinary. The text of the Geographia was a verse reimagining of Ptolemy's second-century text, written in the Tuscan vernacular, which described the journey of its author around the known world in seven days, guided by Ptolemy, as Dante had been by Virgil. No less remarkable were the thirty-one engraved double-folio maps which accompanied Berlinghieri's text, or the degree of craftsmanship involved in the customization of copies for individual recipients: it was, Roberts tells us, among the most ambitious printing projects of the fifteenth century.

The analysis of the Geographia is divided into four chapters. Roberts considers first the fifteenth century's fascination with Ptolemy's text, which had been lost to the Christian West throughout the Middle Ages. He considers the significance of Ptolemy's Geographia for Florentine humanism, but also the extent to which this interest provided a point of intellectual contact between Christian Italy and the Islamic Ottoman court. This diplomatic connection between Berlinghieri's Florence and the princes Bayezid and Cem is a subject revisited throughout this book: they had been sent copies of the Geographia as carefully-crafted diplomatic gifts. Why choose this book, of all the opulent material goods available to the city of Florence? Why printed, rather than manuscript copies? Roberts shows that the Renaissance was transnational in that the scholars of Italy and the Levant drew upon a shared classical heritage. The second chapter's discussion of the nature of fifteenth-century geography and the status of the geographer considers a discipline which strove to reanimate ancient authorities, to glory in a living past, rather than one recognizable as the embryo of modem scientific geography. Berlinghieri's text draws upon the places, myths, events, flora and fauna of a vivid classical and medieval canon; it sought to fashion "a living geography on the ancient model--a poem about the world not just as it was, but as it is" (p. 64). Renaissance geography should not be compared to the modem mathematics of physical space, but understood as a complex tapestry of values and meaning woven from all knowledge, ancient and modem, by the geographer.

The relationship of manuscript and print, a "chaotic push and pull" rather than an orderly succession, is considered in the third chapter. Especially striking here is Roberts' examination of many of the surviving copies of the Geographia, which allows him to analyze the 'individuation' of these books. Manuscript and print techniques evolved to compensate for each other's flaws (p. 109), and we should be attentive to the modifications made to individual copies as they were enhanced as magnificent bespoke gifts for a community of prominent individuals. Of particular significance are the lavishly customized copies sent to Bayezid and Cem: they were appropriate gifts because of a common intellectual investment in the classical past, in the compliment represented by the gift of maps, signifying dominion, and because of the novelty of printed works in the Ottoman world. This should not suggest an entirely harmonious affinity, however, as the final chapter reflects. Renaissance geography was also heir to Christian notions of pilgrimage and crusade: Roberts discusses how far the anti-Ottoman literary tropes and visual stereotypes of comparable printed material are discernable in Berlinghieri's Geographia.

This is an illuminating book: Renaissance geographies, cosmographies, offer the historian unusually translucent windows into the ways in which fifteenth- and sixteenth-century people understood and interacted with their worlds, and Roberts is a subtle guide through that of Berlinghieri. The book itself is written in an immediately accessible and involving manner, and the extensive scholarly notes are no less fluently readable and erudite. Printing a Renaissance World engages with the appropriate current debates from the research literature--print and progress, materiality, readerships and communities, tolerance, intercultural exchange in the Renaissance--and, cautious of "pat rubrics" (p. 170) Roberts offers delicately considered analysis on each issue.

Although this book is overwhelmingly about Berlinghieri and Florence, their relationship with their intellectual past and diplomatic connections to the present Ottoman court, much that Roberts writes holds true for the geographies and cosmographies which were produced in the following century, both in Italy and north of the Alps. This book is overwhelmingly about Berlinghieri and Florence, and about their relationship with their intellectual past and their diplomatic connections to the Ottoman court of the present; however much that Roberts writes holds true for the geographies and cosmographies which were produced in the following century, both in Italy and also north of the Alps.

There is a sense of wonder in travelling while in place, experiencing the distant past and remote places and the fruits of all forms of learning, vividly summoned in both text and image--a "resurrection" of past knowledge but "vibrant, active and ultimately incorruptible in the present" (p. 181). Berlinghieri's magnificent Geographia is shown to be an expression of several strands of Florentine intellectual and material culture, and also a diplomatic bridge between adversaries, the "connective tissue" of communities of readers. Renaissance geographies may not be straightforward books; they range widely and fold together many layers of meaning. For Berlinghieri's Geographia, Sean Roberts makes a fine guide.

Matthew McLean

University of St Andrews
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Author:McLean, Matthew
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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