Let Your Light Shine

Bible Printing in Venice During the High Renaissance

After 1455, the invention of printing spread like wild fire from Mainz across Europe and by the end of the century some 250 cities and towns had issued more than 28,000 different books totaling at least 20,000,000 copies. By the early 1470s, a dozen or so among them had emerged as the most important publishing centers on the Continent and about half of them specialized in printing the Bible: Basel, Nuremberg, Strasbourg, Cologne, and Augsburg in the German-speaking world, Lyon in France, and Venice in the Italian peninsula. Venice was the most important of all. In the era of the incunables, which runs from 1455 to the end of the year 1500, more editions of the complete Bible were printed in Venice than in any other European city (32 out of a total of 122). The Venetian presses produced complete Bibles in both Latin and Italian, with Latin editions outnumbering Italian editions almost 2 to 1. Before 1501 Venice produced 21 of the 94 Latin Bibles printed throughout Europe and 11 of the 30 Bibles in vernacular translations.

At the head of a maritime empire that stretched across the Eastern half of the Mediterranean and controlled the commercial routes between the Levant and Europe, Venice was a multilingual and multinational city. Nominally part of the Byzantine Empire until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Serenissima attracted Greek refugees fleeing the Ottoman rule and played host to Greek scholars who brought their precious manuscripts and served as editors and correctors for Venetian publishers. The press of Aldus Manutius (1450-1515) issued some of the earliest Greek Scriptures ever published including the first edition of the complete Bible dating from February 1519. About the same time Daniel Bomberg (d. between 1549 and 1553) printed in Venice the first Hebrew Bible to issue from a Christian press. First completed in 1518, Bomberg’s Biblia Rabbinica went through several revised editions, of which the second, dating from 1524-5, was by far the most influent.

The golden era of Venetian painting, from Crivelli to Veronese and Tintoretto, coincides with an equally remarkable period in the history of Venetian printing, when the Bible was published in the three ‘sacred languages’ (Latin, Greek, and Hebrew) and in several Italian translations and when printers like Nicolas Jenson, Aldus Manutius, and Daniel Bomberg spread the fame of Venice throughout Europe.

This exhibition focuses on Bibles printed in Venice during the High Renaissance, but also includes a few slightly later Scriptures as well as two editions printed in Geneva and fraudulently bearing Venetian imprints. These two intruders bear witness to the prestige Venetian books had achieved on the international market.

Exhibition and preservation of the Rare Bible Collection @ MOBIA are made possible, in part, by the generous support of the American Bible Society and Hans G. and Barbara Jepson.