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A: Venezia, Veneto, Italy

Daniel van Bomberghen, a Devout Christian, Issues the First Printed Edition of the Complete Babylonian Talmud; also a Note on 16th Century Book Prices

1519 to 1523

Having obtained permission from both the Venetian Senate and the Pope to become the first publisher of Hebrew books in Venice, from 1519 to 1523 devout Christian Daniel van Bomberghen (Daniel Bomberg) issued the first complete printed edition of the approximately two million word Babylonian Talmud. The complete work consisted of 3,472 leaves in 9 folio volumes. 

Over his 40 year career Bomberg issued 240 editions of books in Hebrew.

"Based on current knowledge of contemporary Venetian printing practices, we can safely speculate that each Bomberg edition of the Talmud was produced in print-runs of approximately 1500 copies, though of course most of them did not find their way into full sets. We do have evidence from a book catalog printed sometime between 1541 and 1543 that a complete set was available for purchase for the price of twenty-two Venetian ducats. This was at a time when one of Bomberg’s typesetters earned somewhere between 2½ and 3 ducats per month. Thus, even when first printed, these volumes were considered expensive and accessible to only the wealthiest of individuals."

"Bibliographers variously surmise that the Bomberg Talmud was normally bound in twelve or fifteen volumes in a standard order, though this is problematic. Among the fourteen known complete sets that survive as sets from the sixteenth-century, in addition to this set two others are bound in six volumes, one in eight volumes, three in nine, one in ten, one in seventeen, one in twenty-two, and only four sets are bound in twelve volumes. Even among those bound in twelve volumes, there is no standard ordering of the tractates in the various volumes" (Mintz & Goldstein, Printing the Talmud from Bomberg to Schottenstein [2005] No. 20).

On December 22, 2015 antiquarian bookseller Stephan Lowewnetheil of the 19th Century Rare Book & Photograph Shop purchased the Valmadonna Trust Library complete copy of the Bomberg Talmud at Sotheby's, New York, for $9,300,000. It was announced that Lowentheil acted as agent for billionaire collector Leon Black

Sotheby's excellent description of the set, which comprised tractates from the first (1519/20-23) and second (1525-1539) editions, was available at this link. This was the highest price ever paid for any single piece of Judaica. The Valmadonna copy, which had been preserved for centuries in the library of Westminster Abbey, was the only complete set remaining in private hands, and one of the finest of the few complete sets that survived. 

The Valmadonna Trust Library was formed in the second half of the 20th century by Jack Lunzer. An excellent account of its formation was published in on September 9, 2009. Further information was provided by Tablet on December 22, 2015.

Unusual features of Sotheby's description included a complete census of extant complete copies of the Bomberg Talmud including condition comparisons of each set plus a long note concerning book prices in the sixteenth century which considerably expands the quotation from Mintz and Goldstein above.  I quote this in full, including its very extensive bibliography:


Even by sixteenth-century standards these Talmud volumes were expensive, so it seems we should expect more than a bibliophile's interest to explain why these particular publications were so desirable.  A brief survey may be useful to establish that these volumes would have been considered a luxury, where the scudoducataurea and florin/gulden were all roughly of the same value. (For reference purposes, it may also be noted that 20 solidi = 1 lira; 1 ducat = 124 solidi (or 6 ¼ lira ).  Already at the end of the fifteenth-century, legal and academic texts, in folio, regularly sold for between 1 and 2 ducats.  Similar prices for folios printed at other Venetian printing houses continued to be seen throughout the sixteenth-century.  Specifically concerning Bomberg imprints, in 1518 Philip Melanchthon purchased a Bomberg first edition Rabbinic Bible for 14 aurei, and two years later Johannes Reuchlin purchased one for 8 aurei.  Elijah Levita wrote in the second of his two poems following the colophon at the end of the fourth volume of Bomberg's second edition Mikra'ot Gedolot, that the price for the set was six golden ducats, or 1½ ducats per volume.  In fact, Damian Irmi (a wealthy Basel merchant trader with Italy) purchased a copy of Bomberg's second edition Mikra'ot Gedolot for Konrad Pellikan for eleven gulden.  The price for this Rabbinic Bible in Gesner's 1545 list was 10 ducats; Alfasi, three volumes, 18 ducats; Rambam, two volumes,10 ducats.  In a list written sometime after 1532 of books available from Koberger's bookshop in Nürnberg: Bomberg's first edition Mikra'ot Gedolot sold for 14 fl., or approximately 10 ducats.  Finally, it is interesting to note that Johannes Buxtorf the Elder (1564-1629, Basel) and Sebastian Beck (1583-1654, Basel), state that circa 1617 one of the old Bomberg Rabbinic Bibles cost between 30 and 50Reichsthalers, which was the equivalent of 75-125 fl.

In general, books printed in Italy were considered expensive already by mid-sixteenth century, as we note that "in 1554 the jurist [Georg] Tanner wrote to Bonifacius Amerbach in Basel that the high price of Italian books prevented many buyers from making purchases."  And specifically about the Bomberg Talmud, we know from an entry dated 25 April 1541, in a daybook concerning purchases in Venice, that a Talmud set was not purchased for the University of Wittenberg because it was felt that the price was exorbitant.

Based on the examples cited above, it is safe to say that in the sixteenth century, each of the forty-four tractates in the Bomberg Talmud (allowing for two editions of Mishna Tohorot, one with the commentary of Maimonides and one with the commentary of Shimshon of Sens), if and when they were available, would have cost at least 1½ -2½ ducats.  Given Bomberg's standard for the highest quality both with regard to materials and workmanship, his folios likely were priced at the upper end of this range.  This results in the contemporary price for a full set to be somewhere around 110 ducats, plus the cost of binding.  For copies printed on heavy watermarked 'royal' paper such as the Valmadonna (#12) and Wittenberg (#1) sets, it is reasonable that they would have garnered two or three times that amount.  In order to put these figures in perspective, there is rather specific wage and income data available for sixteenth-century Italy and this data demonstrates the luxury of owning a complete Bomberg Talmud set. 

The prices we have calculated were realized at a time when a master craftsman earned 30-50 solidi/day, and a semi skilled laborer in construction earned 20-37 solidi/day.  In the mid- to late-fifteenth-century Italian typesetters earned 3ducats/month, a press operator earned 2½, and a foreman earned 5-9 ducats/month.  Contemporary Jewish sources also give a glimpse of wages for rabbis and teachers.  Elijah Capsali tutored Rabbi Isserlein for a sum of 37 ducats per year plus board.  Isaac Corcos, rabbi to the community in Otranto (southern Italy) received 70 ducats per year, Rabbi Azreil in Sulmona (central Italy) received 80 scudi (approximately 73 ducats), and Don David Ibn Yahya was to have received 100 scudi(approximately 92 ducats) as rabbi in Naples (though the promised sum never materialized).  For laborers, rabbis or teachers these wages range between 3 and 7⅔ ducats per month, and an income of anything more than 10 ducats per month would have been considered relative affluence.  And only with some level of affluence would an individual have had sufficient disposable income to purchase Bomberg folios.  Put in more descriptive terms, "a folio volume retailing for 6 or 8 lire, i.e., the equivalent of 3 to 6 days pay for a master, would be difficult but not impossible to buy."  However, while individual folios may have been within the price reach of a skilled laborer, he could not purchase such items on a regular basis and clearly that laborer would not be purchasing multi-volume sets all at once.  Finally, we bring these wage figures only to demonstrate the relative worth of the volumes, since the likelihood that laborers would have actually purchased such texts is negligible, not only due to the issue of disposable income, but we have said nothing of sixteenth-century literacy rates.

Dr. Bruce E. Nielsen, 
Judaic Public Services Librarian and Archivist,
University of Pennsylvania

references for “A Note about Book Prices in the Sixteenth Century”

Currency:  20 solidi = 1 lira; 1 ducat = 124 solidi; 

General folio prices: M. Lowry, "The Printer, the Reader and the Market," pp. 173-206 in, Nicholas Jenson and the rise of Venetian publishing in Renaissance Europe (Oxford, U.K.; Cambridge Mass.:  Blackwell, 1991) 179-180; P. F. Grendler, The Roman Inquisition and the Venetian Press (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1977) 12-14; S.Z. Baruchson-Arbib, "The Prices of Printed Hebrew Books in Cinquecento Italy," Bibliofilia 97.2 (1995) 149-61;

Melancthon: R. Wetzel, ed., Melanchthons Briefwechsel, 15 volumes (Stuttgart: Frommann-Holzboog, 1991), Bd. 1, 75 letter #24; 

Reuchlin: H. Scheible, ed., Willibald Pirckheimers Briefwechsel, 4 (Munich: C.H.Beck, 1997) 251, letter #693; 

Irmi: B. Riggenbach, ed., Das Chronikon des Konrad Pellikan (Basel: Bahnmaier's Verlag (C. Detloff), 1877) 116; 

Gesner: C. Gesner, Bibliotheca Universalis, vol. II (Tiguri: Christophorum Froschouerum, 1548) 41b-43b; 

Koberger: O. Hase, Die Koberger (Leipzig: Breitkopf u. Härtel, 1885) 386, where one florin = one rheinische Gulden, and 40 ducats = 55 gulden; 

Buxtorf: S. G. Burnett, From Christian Hebraism to Jewish Studies (Leiden:  Brill, 1996) 172 n. 12; 

Tanner: F. Kapp, Geschichte des deutschen Buchhandels (Leipzig : Börsenvereins, 1886) 1:312; 

Wittenberg: W. Friedensburg, Urkundenbuch der Universität Wittenberg (Magdeburg : Selbstverlag der Historischen Kommission, 1926-7) 1:225;

Wages: M. Lowry, "The Printer, the Reader and the Market," in Nicholas Jenson and the rise of Venetian publishing in Renaissance Europe (Oxford, UK ; Cambridge, Mass., USA : Blackwell, 1991) 187; Baruchson-Arbib, op.cit. 157-58 with comparison to consumables; R. Hirsch, Printing, Selling and Reading, 1450-1550 (Wiesbaden : Otto Harrassowitz, 1967) 36; 

Capsali et al.: A. Marx, Studies in Jewish History and Booklore (New York:  JTSA, 1941) 137, 164-65; 

Descriptive terms: P. Grendler, The Roman Inquisition and the Venetian Press, 1540-1605 (Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1977) 14." 

(This entry was last revised on 12-27-2015.)

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