In 1584, Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici founded one of the world’s first Arabic printing presses in Rome, an enterprise with a clear missionary purpose: to provide a vehicle for spreading the Catholic faith to the Arabic speaking peoples – Christian and Muslim – of the Near East, and for training native clergy in Rome.
Over the following decades, under the guidance of Giovanni Battista Raimondi, a traveller and student of Eastern languages, the press became a center for the collection, editing, and publication of a range of Arabic and Syriac texts, including a famous edition of the New Testament replete with illustrations of the life of Christ.
Many of the remaining texts and artifacts of this extraordinary moment in the history of the printed book are currently on display in a new exhibit at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, entitled Le Vie delle Lettere: La Tipografia Medicea tra Roma e Oriente. Visitors move through three rooms where the curators, Sara Fani and Margherita Farina, have skillfully intertwined displays of and explanations about the texts collected and produced by the press with narratives of the lives and travels of the men who participated in its activities. As a result, the history of these editions and their cultural significance is brought to life even for the many visitors who have no knowledge of the languages in which they were written.
On display are editions of religious texts composed by and for members of the Eastern churches, such as a missal written for the Maronite college in Rome, and grammatical texts on the Turkish, Arabic, and Syriac languages. But the range of the press stretched beyond religion: Raimondi and his circle also collected medical, astronomical, geographic, and mathematical works, including a version of Euclid, making them participants in the final stages of the great translatio studiorum of Greek and Islamic knowledge to the west.
Alongside the books, the exhibit introduces personages like the Maronite Patriarch Na’matallah, who emigrated to Rome and participated in the commission that developed the Gregorian calendar, the papal emissary Giovanni Battista Britti, who was sent to the Persian Gulf in search of the mythical Prester John and subsequently put his knowledge of the region and its languages at the service of the press, and the Florentine merchants Orazio and Pierantonio Bandini, who saw a commercial opportunity in the sale of printed books in Arabic, and engaged in lengthy negotiations with Ottoman authorities in order to obtain permission to put the editions of the Medici press onto the market in the cities of the Levant.
Le Vie delle Lettere is open until June 22. More information is available at the library’s website: http://www.bmlonline.it/it/le_vie_delle_lettere.htm.