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Scribe Filippo de Strata's Polemic Against Printing

8/1473 to 12/1474

Between August 1473 and December 1474, during the short time that Nicolò Marcello held the office of Doge, or chief magistrate, of Venice, Filippo de Strata, a monk and scribe in the Benedictine community of San Cipriano in Murano, addressed a polemic against printing to the Doge. Printing had only recently been introduced to the city of Venice, but evidently the scribal community already felt threatened by the new technology, and its lower costs, though its impact may not have been as dramatic as Filippo's polemic would imply. One senses considerable exaggeration in Filippo's protests, especially since the texts printed in Venice by this time were primarily editions of what we would call tame classical authors, except perhaps for Ovid. That printers undercut the prices of hand-written manuscripts was a very real issue, and perhaps the central motivation of Filippo's florid protest, more than his claim that printed books were sources of moral corruption. Needless to say, Filippo's objections to the new technology were, for all intents and purposes, ignored.

The text of Filippo's polemic is preserved in Venice's Biblioteca Marciana (Italian Manuscripts, Class I, 72 (5074) folios iv.-2r. It was translated from the Latin by Shelagh Grier and issued in 1986 by the Hayloft Press as a pamphlet with an introduction by Martin Lowry in an edition of 350 copies. Here is the translation. Throughout the translation scribes are called "writers."

"May you hold sway for ever, Marcellan house, now seated on the throne, exalted as you deserve. Doge Nicolo, you will prepare celestial realms for yourself, where you may disport yourself joyously.

"You have lived a holy life as a private citizen, keeping yourself to yourself; now you will live a just life as Doge, I am sure, living for the people also. You have helped many by distributing largesse within your means; now it will be fiting for you to assist larger numbers from your abundance. In the past you have prayed on your own for the peace of those dear to you; from now even the least of men should pray for you as Doge. With these frank verses, wending through no long preambles and circumlocutions, I respectfully present my small gift. Accept this little book which I am sending to a great man, with, I pray, a favourable disposition, with a gift or with a reward. You will read the holy writings of the saints, which I have recast in the verancular tongue, telling of the deeds of the Fathers.

" I know that you always hate printed books crammed with the foolishness of common folk, and that you follow sound precepts. The things I have described do not apply to you, but to the utterly uncouth types of people who have driven reputable writers from their homes. Among the latter this servant of yours has been driven out, bewailing the damage which results from the printers' cunning. They shamnelessly print, at a negligible price, material which may, alas, inflame impressionable youths, while a true writer dies of hunger. Cure (if you will) the plague which is doing away with the laws of all decency, and curb the printers. They persist in their sick vices, setting Tibullus in type, while a young girl reads Ovid to learn sinfulness. Through printing, tender boys and gentle girls, chaste without foul stain, take in whatever mars purity of mind or body; they encourage wantoness, and swallow up huge gain from it.

" O God! O piety! O holy venerable faith! What, my lords, are you doing? Your pledges come to nothing, as long as what is pleasant is more pleasing to you than what is honourable. They basely flood the market with anything suggestive of sexuality, and they print the stuff at such a low price that anyone and everyone procures it for himself in abundance. And so it happens that asses go to school. The printers guzzle wine and, swamped in excess, bray and scoff. The Italian writer lives like a beast in a stall. The superior art of authors who have never known any other work than producing well-written books in banished. This glory pertains to you, Doge: to lay low the printing-presses. I beg you to do this, lest the wicked should triumph.

"Writing indeed, which brings in gold for us, should be respected and held to be nobler than all goods, unless she has suffered degradation in the brothel of the printing presses. She is a maiden with a pen, a harlot in print.

"Should you not call her a harlot who makes us excessively amourous? Governed only by avaricious gain, will not that most base woman deserve the name of prostitute, who saps the strength of the young by fostering wantnoness? This is what the printing presses do: they corrupt susceptible hearts. Yet the (may we say) silly asses do not see this, and brutes rejoice in the fraudulent title of teachers, exalting themselves with a song like this (be so good as to listen):

"O good ciitzen, rejoice: your city is well stuffed with books. For a small sum men turn themselves into doctors in three years. Let thanks be rendered to the printers!

"Any uncultured person without Latin bawls these things. I propose a very different song:

"Never as the city had so small a number of books as at this time, or even of people wanting books. The printing-presses are giving us a city without cash and without a heart. If you are the kind of person who expects light to come to you out of darkness, then it will come to you from printed books.

"I do not wish to batter your ears, o most honoured Doge, with sad songs, drawn out with endless muttering. Discover, instead, how much distance there is between false and true from this book about the saints, which flowed from goose-quills, and which I have abridged with my own hands."

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