Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Ross King, while dabbling in fiction at times, seems to have made his greatest literary impacts in the realm of non-fiction, as he recently did once again with The Bookseller of Florence. Taking us back to the fifteenth century, it tells the true story of Vespasiano da Bisticci, known in his day as the king of the world’s booksellers and perhaps the greatest propagator of knowledge, ultimately setting Italy on the long road to the Enlightenment.
Table of contents
Ross King Brings Vespasiano da Bisticci to Life
The modern printing industry has come such a long way since the printing of the Gutenberg Bible it has become difficult to imagine a world where books are difficult to access, especially since the advent of electronic publishing. Nevertheless, such times did exist, and in his non-fiction book titled The Bookseller of Florence, Ross King takes us back to 15th century Italy when the crucial jump towards the pursuit of knowledge took place.
At the start of the century, knowledge was a rare and precious commodity, with books being reserved only for the wealthy and educated, and being so few one could actually absorb the sum of human knowledge in a single lifetime. However, in 1422 an event took place bound to change the course of Italian history: the birth of Vespasiano da Bisticci.
He opened his own bookshop, and at a time when books were still reproduced entirely by hand, he sold hundreds upon hundreds of volumes of all kinds over the course of four decades, prompting not only a certain rise in literacy, but the development of a collective thirst for knowledge. Known as the king of the world’s booksellers in his time, Vespasiano surrounded himself with scribes, scholars, other booksellers, and in a more general sense, hunters after enlightenment.
Over the course of his career Vespasiano found himself on a collision course with many prominent and interesting people, including popes, kings and princes across the European continent, all of whom became his customers.
However, the true of height of his power came with the invention of the printing press, turning him into perhaps the most prolific merchant of books and knowledge in human history, or at least with a place on the pantheon among other legendary figures. Despite the religious and political turmoil consistently surrounding him, he played an essential role in helping the world shift from script to print, and likely gave one of the initial pushes to launch Italy on the long road to its famous Enlightenment era.
A Literary Meaning to Life in The Bookseller of Florence
To begin with, I would like to clarify this is indeed a work of non-fiction, a biography which follows the life of a specific person, while shooting glances to the side at the world he lived in and the people he was surrounded by. In the traditional sense there isn’t much action, and if you’re looking for a light, simple and entertaining read, this probably won’t be your first choice.
There are plenty of aspects and areas to discuss in this book, but the first one I would like to bring your attention to is the value of books in 15th century Italy, at least as described by Ross King. The Bookseller of Florence is filled with various descriptions on how people perceived various facets of life, and the author does an excellent job at conveying the reverence books were accorded.
Slowly but surely, King explains why books were so highly sought-after, why Vespasiano and his peers spent so much time and effort looking for specific works, and essentially, why they decided to dedicate their lives to the spread of knowledge. While I do understand societies as large as ours tend to change drastically over time, I can’t help but imagine we took a few wrong turns along the way, based on the disparity between the past and present value accorded to literature.
The process of hunting for these rare volumes is also described in absolutely fascinating detail, pulling us into a world with its own rules, values and players… a world which feels wholly different from ours despite existing in parallel. Ross King captures the adrenaline and excitement of hunting after rare volumes in the terrifying dark ages before the internet, something the vast majority of us are absolute strangers to.
Naturally, considering the title and subject matter, the author spends an appropriate amount of time focusing on the world of books as it was in High Renaissance Florence. However, there is a whole lot more to be found in this book, from the description of Florence itself to examinations of its social currents and the nearly-countless notables Vespasiano was surrounded by over the course of his remarkable existence.
A Preserved Piece of Time
Indeed, like many authors whose books and novels take place in Florence, Ross King simply could not resist taking us on a grand tour of all the city has to offer. From the crowded and narrow streets of the north bank to the grand majesty of Il Duomo, the author brings the whole place to life and effectively leads us by the hand to show images of bygone times.
He never spends too long on his descriptions of the setting, and always makes sure to include some fascinating tidbits of history here and there, even if they have absolutely nothing to do with Vespasiano, at least not directly. As it turns out, Italy in those days had a massive amount of political, aristocratic and religious turmoil to contend with, something we’re also made privy to on numerous occasions.
In essence, by following Vespasiano and his biography we also end up exploring many of the events which touched him, both directly and indirectly. Speaking of the man in question, Ross King has obviously done an extensive amount of research to paint as precise and objective a portrait as possible, and ultimately I think he manages to bring him to life, to instill in the reader the realization they are reading about a true person, even if he lived multiple centuries ago.
The scholarly weight of The Bookseller of Florence is not be underestimated, but it is softened by the storytelling abilities of the author. His time spent writing fiction has certainly paid off in this context, allowing him to weave a narrative which is not only pleasant to read, but very easy to follow and seldom overloading the reader.
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Overall, I would argue the totality of Ross King‘s efforts have allowed him to capture and preserve a unique period of time in human history, one which holds just as many captivating secrets and developments as the modern world.
The Final Verdict
The Bookseller of Florence by Ross King is a historical biography of the highest order, sharing with us a torrent of scholarly facts delivered through a concise and engaging prose, dragging us to the depths of 15th century Florence, its vast realm of book hunters, and of course its undisputed king, Vespasiano da Bisticci.
If you have any kind of interest in high renaissance Italy and want to learn about one of the most influential figures in the history of literature, then this is definitely a book you’ll want in your collection.
Ross King is a Canadian novelist and writer of non-fiction books who began his published career in the 1990s with Domino and Ex-Libris, and most recently wrote Mad Enchantment in 2016 and The Bookseller of Florence in 2021. He has received numerous awards and nominations, including the 2012 Governor General’s Award for English-language non-fiction and the 2017 RBC Taylor Prize.