Nicolas Vlasto, Printer & Publisher, Venice C15th
An important figure in the Renaissance period was the printer and publisher Nicolas Vlasto who was an early exponent of the newly invented printing press. Vlasto arrived in Venice from his native Crete, probably around 1470-80 and was active towards the end of the 1480s and 1490s. Working in Venice, his translations and publishing of early Greek and Latin texts allowed, for the first time, a mass readership to discover Classicism and its cultural roots. Although these books would have been very expensive, they were nevertheless destined to transform European thinking and understanding of the past. They not only introduced the educated classes to the first written evidence of their past but inspired an appreciation of classical religions, thinking, philosophy, arts, architecture, etc. knowledge which dominated European thought throughout the C16th C19th and which we take for granted today.
Nicolas Vlasto's date of birth is unknown, though his name is universally linked with the birth and development of printing. In this he was active from 1480 to 1500.
Originally from Rethymno, Crete, he was the grandson of Syphis Vlasto, the Cretan Resistance leader assassinated by the Venetians. Nicolas befriended Zacharius Callergis who, like him, came from one of the twelve 'Archontes' of Crete the ancient ruling families, some of whom, like the Vlastos, had been granted feudal territories there at the time of the Byzantine colonisation of Crete in 1089. Both were highly educated and it seems they arrived in Venice together at a time when no insurrections were taking place on Crete against the Venetians.
Right: This monogram, dating from at least 1499, was designed by Nicolas Vlasto himself and is thought to have appeared on all his publications. It seems that it was also used by other printers in Europe who hoped to pass off their copies as original works by Vlasto & Callergis. The characters represent the name: Nkolaos Blastos and are set beneath a 'Greek' crucifix. Vlasto appears to have been more than merely a publisher, having an enthusiasm for design and typography. [From Les Vlasto: Une Famille Patricienne Crétoise by Costas Kerofilas]
The friendship between Vlasto and Callergis is puzzling since it was Zacharius Callergis's grandfather, André Callergis who had assassinated Nicholas Vlasto's grandfather, Syphis Vlasto, who hasd been the leader of Resistance against Venetian occupation of Crete. Confusingly, the historian C. Sathas says Zacharius may not have been a member of the noble Venetian Callergis family, but of a separate and unconnected Cretan branch. Kerofilas doubts this wonders why Sathas raises this possibility when he had already shown that Zacharius Callergis indeed came from Crete.
Nevertheless it was Nicolas Vlasto and Zacharius Callergis who founded the first Greek press in Venice.
Venice was the cradle of the art of Greek typography. There had already been some Greek publications made by non-Greek printers who were not specialists in the language. There were too numerous Greek calligraphers in Europe who were much in demand for the transcription of Greek characters. But engraving these characters into metal or wood posed great problems because of their unusual shapes. Only a few people were capable of this and they came mostly from Crete.
Throughout the 'old world' (around the Mediterranean and the Black Sea) Greek was still the favoured common language among the educated élite as it had been for a 1,000 years or more and it was these people who could afford very expensive printed books.
The first to engrave Greek characters had been a Cretan, Antonios Damilas. He was a calligrapher-transcriber who started a Greek press and in 1476 published a first book in Greek: The Greek Grammar by Constantine Lascaris.
Callergis and Vlasto began their typographic enterprise in Venice around 1493. They published the Great Etymology which appeared in 1499. Although the six intervening years seem a long time, it should be remembered that at this embryonic stage the hand-crafting of individual lead letters for a work of 233 folio pages was very time-consuming. Additionally, Callergis was anxious to create an entirely hand-made typographic masterpiece.
Above: Nicholas Vlasto's signature appears here, in 1484, on the final page of a draft text for Le Grand Etymologique which he published in Venice in 1499.
Below: Vlasto's own hand-writing takes over from the work of another, in the preparation of the text for Demosthenis Orationes in Philippum (see Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris).
[Both illustrations from Les Vlasto: Une Famille Patricienne Crétoise by Costas Kerofilas]
"The printing of this Great Etymology has been achieved thanks to God, at the expense of the noble and illustrious Nicolas Vlasto of Crete, at the invitation of the celebrated and wise Anne, daughter of the respected and glorious Lucas Notaras, formerly Grand Duke of Constantinople and by the work and dexterity of Zacharius Callergis, for the use of men well-versed in, and fond of, Greek letters. The year of Our Lord 1499, in the month of July."
This publication was quite unique at this period and the praises addressed to Nicolas Vlasto are nothing short of rapturous. The first paragraph of one of them translates as:
"Marc Musurus to the gracious Nicolas Vlasto. Greetings
'I cannot congratulate you enough, Nicolas, that most men of letters who are already fond of you, now never stop talking of you with admiration; all of them, without exception, one after another, praise your qualities and your good hellenic spirit. Although the type-fonts invented recently in this city seemed in their beauty to be unsurpassable, you, far from being discouraged under the pretext that the new cannot match the old, have redoubled your efforts and raised your sights still higher in the hope of leaving to posterity a work which, in ensuring your glory, is profitable to the Nation. If this success doesn't match your expectations, however, the praise may compensate for the denigrations of the jealous...
and continues (in French) as follows:
"... Tous sont donc d'avis de t'engager à ne point hésiter à continuer ton œuvre, en raison même de la beauté des caractères et de toutes les ressources de l'art les plus minutieuses et les plus perfectionnées. Que chacun loue dans tes œuvres, l'un ceci, l'autre cela ; tu suffiras amplement à l'éloge de bien des langues. Quant à moi, je m'abstiendrai de signaler tes mérites, sachant très bien l'insuffisance de mes paroles et de ma plume ; c'est à plus fort que moi à prendre ta défense. Toutefois, je ne saurais différer de témoigner mon admiration pour tous les services que tu rends aux lettres, et, afin qu'on ne puisse supposer que tu as négligé en quoi que ce soit la parfaite exactitude de la correction, en embellissant tes livres avec un trop grand luxe pour leur donner l'apparence d'une fausse beauté, c'est au contraire pour rendre ton ouvrage irréprochable en tout point, que tu t'es attaché intimement Zacharie Callergis, qui, par son génie naturel et l'exercice approfondi de son art, a atteint la perfection. Tu as bien fait, puisque ton mérite, déjà si grand, va s'accroître encore par sa coopération. Hercule, lui-même, n'eût pas fait de si grandes choses sans l'aide de son neveu.
Un de tes mérites, selon moi, et je l'ai déjà signalé, c'est d'avoir apporté de l'ordre et de la méthode dans le choix des livres que tu avais résolu de livrer au public. Ce n'est donc pas par ce qu'il y a de plus spéculatif et par les formules de science que tu as débuté, mais par ce qui pouvait initier à la science des esprits ignorants ou retardataires, afin qu'après avoir reçu cette instruction préparatoire, ils pussent aborder les plus grands poètes et marcher sûrement dans la bonne voie, guidés par de bons conseils, et profitant des livres mis à la portée de tous ; car celui qui possède, soit la Corne d'Amalthée, abondante en fruits, soit le Rayon de miel, soit le Jardin d'Adonis, a pris le plus court chemin et peut croire posséder toute la Grèce ;ne porte donc pas ta vue plus haut, comme dit Pindare.
Tout s'y trouve réuni, et il est bien peu de locutions rudes et dures chez les poètes qui n'y soient développées et éclaircies d'après l'étymologie. L'ordre alphabétique rend toute recherche facile, et ce que l'on veut savoir s'y présente naturellement, sans que l'uniformité fatigue le lecteur. Il trouvera même du délassement dans les histoires et les fables intéressantes, soit par leur charme, soit par leur nouveauté. Quant à la parfaite correction du texte, elle ne laissera rien )à désirer ; on sait combien Zacharie épargne peu sa peine, et si quelques détracteurs s'attaquaient à quelques minuties qui parfois lui ont échappé, il ne faut pas s'en émouvoir : ce sont, n'en doutez pas, des critiques de mauvais aloi, de vrais suppôts de Momus, imitateurs de ce dénigreur qui, n'ayant rien à reprocher à Vénus, trouvait seulement que le bruissement de sa sandale importunait les passants; mais quant à l'incontestable utilité et à la perfection de la correction du livre imprimé par Zacharie, il est inutile d'insister, puisqu'il suffit de jeter les yeux sur la première page pour bien juger de la beauté des autres. Par ces deux mérites, joints à tant d'autres, tu es le vrai modèle à citer aux philologues, et je m'en réjouis de tout cœur, et avec raison, car, lorsque tout est en commun entre amis, soit en bien, soit en mal, là se trouve la preuve la plus philosophique de l'amitié. Complète donc tes œuvres par d'autres semblables ; elles assureront à ta mémoire un souvenir à jamais durable, et moi je m'enorgueillirai d'avoir un tel ami et je chanterai en préludant comme Pindare :
'uehton phxai taciota Megadon'."
A. Firmin Didot mentions the splendour of The Great Etymology with its ornamentation and gold-printed capitals. The library in Athens has an example of this work printed in gold and other examples exist elsewhere. In these special editions the gold is not merely applied to the surface but is mixed and baked into the varnish, thus preserving it brilliance. Ordinary editions have the ornamentation and capitals in red.
In The Great Etymology the first page carries a quatrain from Musurus who states that the entire cost of production was borne by Nicolas Vlasto, leading Firmin Didot ot believe that Vlasto was only Callergis's commercial backer. In fact Vlasto was no mere entrepreneur, financing this exceptional work. He was also an erudite man of letters who, fifteen years earlier had himself completed a manuscript entitled Demosthenis Orationes in Philippum begun by someone unkown where the difference in their hand-writing is evident and which he signs at the end. [See Inventaire Sommaire des Manuscrits Grecs, by Henri Osmont (Keeper) 1898, at the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris.]
The historian Sathas says that Nicolas Vlasto was far more than an entrepreneur. he as was a noble, an owner of ancient feudal territories in Crete and a humanist of great generosity. Furthermore, Vlasto's collaboration with Zacharius Callergis was not only commercial. Their masterpiece carries two imprints in red. The first represents a double-headed Byzantine eagle with the letters Z.K. on its breast Callergis's initials while the second carries a Byzantine motif with the entire name of Nicolas Vlasto surrounded by two floral embellishments. Whilst that of Callergis has no artistic merit, the monogram of Nicolas Vlasto is excellent work and (in Sathas's view) the most beauitful illustration in the book.
These monograms were later 'used' by Giunti, a famous Florentine publisher, who appropriated them in order to enhance his own publications. After all, no further books are known to have been published after 1500 by Nicolas Vlasto separately from Callergis.
With reference to Anne Notara (see The Great Etymology above), she was the daughter of the Grand Duke Luc Notara. Sathas writes that this first Greek press in Venice was founded under the auspices of, and perhaps financed by, Anne Notara though the words of Musurus and Jean Grigoropoulos as well as the publisher's note in The Great Etymology all agree that it was made 'funded by Nicolas Vlasto'. Sathas is still more paradoxical when he adds that 'Musurus agrees in attributing to Vlasto and Anne the begetting of the work' when the inscription and introduction clearly state the contrary: that it was Nicolas Vlasto who financed the publication while Anne Notara provided encouragement and moral support during thlong period of hard work in its creation.
Kerofilas says that Sathas is again incorrect in saying that Nicolas Vlasto was the son of Siphis Vlasto which he thinks is impossible knowing that agents of the Venetian government had killed Siphis Vlasto's entire family. It would be amazing if, having assassinated Siphis's wife and daughter, Venice had allowed the son to escape. Kerofilas insists that Nicolas Vlasto was the grandson of Siphis even if this is disputed by many others. [But he does not explain how or why a grandson would have been any more likely to survive the anhilation of Siphis Vlasto's family than his mother or aunt]
Kerofilas says that Crete was at this period (1480-1500) at the height of its intellectual flowering. Marc Musurus in hsi introduction to The Great Etymology emphasises the perfection of the Greek characters used by their publishers and that the staff at the press working on the this edition were all Cretan. Part of his introduction reads:
"Leaping to invisible heights...
So, the old characters [type] have disappeared, those products of the file and reed, and I admire how, through engraving, these complicated characters have been neatly sculpted and chiselled and how the almost elusive accents float over the vowels with such style between the ordered lines of text.
But should we be surprised by this Cretan flair when it was Minerva herself who, on the orders of her father, instructed them in the art of beauty?
It's a Cretan who chiselled these hollows, a Cretan who manipulated tiny pieces of bronze, it's a Cretan who has gathered them together, a Cretan who has assembled them, a Cretan who has set them and a Cretan who has selected the lead letters."
It should be remembered that the majority of the Greek calligraphers were Cretans and that the first to make Greek type characters for printing was Constantin Lascaris in his Grammar of January 1475 who called himself 'Demetrius the Cretan'.
According to Kerofilas, Musuras's praise of Nicolas Vlasto is far from exaggerated. Two letters in the correspondence between Musurus and Vlasto are important. One attests to the importance of these books and praises Vlasto for his committment to the publishing of works to 'enlighten the world'. The other, more interestingly refers to the eclectic nature of Nicolas Vlasto's choice of books. It stresses that these books were destined to promote the spread of the Greek language and says that men of letters will forever praise and admire his 'unshakeable Greek spirit'.
All this indicates, according to Kerofilas, that Vlasto was not just an investor but that he was also interested in the success of the works without thinking of the profits he could make from these publications. Musurus's ends by saying that Vlasto is an example to all literary people of the age, that he is proud to have somone such as Vlasto as a friend and that his books will assure him undying glory.
In 1891, in an essay entitled The Venetian Press, the British writer Horace Brown writes:
"In 1498 a patent was granted to Nicolas Vlasto of Crete for the manufacture of a special sort of accented lead type which had not previously been achieved with such perfection and elegance."
This leads to a a few important notes on the nature of the type characters which earned Nicolas Vlasto his patent:
The first characters to be printed were in Latin. However, when publishers wanted to include Greek inscriptions, these characters were made in Greek form but were very unattractive, without accents and resembling Latin letters. The results were so bad that it was impossible not to misinterpret the Greek. Later these characters were improved by adding accents and detail but these were not formed as part of each letter. Alde Manuce was the first to produce letters with accents. But these were still inadequate and it was Nicolas Vlasto who succeeded in producing perfect characters, each with its integral accents and detail.
Another British writer, William Dana Orcutt, in collaboration with the director of the Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence, published in 1928 a work on Italian book publishing in the C15th and C16th, with particular reference to the books of Nicolas Vlasto and Zacharius Callergis. Orcutt says that Vlasto & Callergis were the principal rivals to Alde Manuce, refers to their Cretan origin, the wealth of Vlasto and the skills of Callergis:
"... This partnership was the expression of their patriotic pride. Exiled from Greece, these ardent patriots undertook to keep alive an interest in Greek literature..."
But, despite the rivalry between the two businesses, relations between Vlasto & Callergis and Alde Manuce were friendly and even intimate. Was this perhaps because Alde's partner, Marcus Musurus, was Cretan and that he had close links with Vlasto? Alde went so far as to promote the works of Vlasto & Callergis in his own catalogues and offered them for sale alongside his own. He advertised them in enthusiastic terms, explaining how the work was undertaken at the instigation of Anne Notara, funded by Nicolas Vlasto and carried out by Callergis 'for the benefit of the well-read and friends of Greek writing'.
Marc Musurus, révèle avec force dans l'avertissement qu'il écrit en tête du "Grand Etymologique" :
"L'Etymologicum est un des volumes les plus importants qui aient été publiés à Venise. Les caractères grecs, gravés, fondus et tirés par Callergis, quoique différents de la fonte Aldine, ne sont tout de même pas moins beaux. Le volume est imprimé en rouge et noir et enrichi d'ornements de style byzantin qui le font ressembler à un beau manuscrit de l'époque".
La même année de la parution du Grand Etymologique, paraissent le livre suivant :
SUMPLIKIOU MEGALOU DIDASKALOU UPOMNHMA EIS TAS DEKA KATHGORIAS TOU ARISTOTELOUS
"Simplicius" Edition du 26 octobre 1499. La marque de Nicolas Vlasto figure sur le titre.
L'année suivante le 5 octobre 1500, deux autres ouvrages sont édités.8 "Galenus" et "Ammonius parons Hermæ filius"
Le second livre est exécuté avec les mêmes caractères que ceux qui servirent pour le Grand Etymologique. Ce livre porte la seule marque de Vlasto. Cependant il est indubitable que Zacharie Callergis était bien l'exécuteur de ces deux ouvrages.
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