Johann Froben, Printer of Basel: A Biographical Profile and Catalogue of His Editions

In Johann Froben, Printer of Basel, Valentina Sebastiani offers a comprehensive account of the life and printing production of Froben, a major representative of early modern Europe’s most refined printing traditions. Some five centuries after they first appeared in print, Sebastiani provides a bibliography of the 329 Froben editions published in Basel between 1491 and 1527 (including an analysis of some 2,500 copies held in more than twenty-five libraries worldwide), listing the paratextual and visual elements that distinguish Froben’s books as well as economic, technical, and editorial details related to their production and distribution. Sebastiani’s study sheds new light on Froben’s family and career, his involvement in the editing and publication of Erasmus’ works, and the strategies he adopted to market them successfully.

Folk who love the history of the Church and who love books and who love the art of printing will be interested in this, I think.

The volume is comprised of two major divisions.  In the first, a biography of Froben is provided.  In two chapters.  In the first, readers are introduced to the early life of Froben and in the second Froben’s work with Erasmus is the center of focus.

The second major division makes up 9/10ths of the book and is a meticulous listing of everything Froben ever printed from 1491 through 1527.  This catalog is thoroughly annotated and each includes title, contents, cost, and other historical data.

The volume also includes manuscripts of doubtful Froben-ian provenance, illustrations of title page border frames, printer’s devices, a bibliography of Froben, a general bibliography, an index of authors, contributors, editors, and translators, an index of works, an index of various catalogues, and indices of the title page frames and printer’s devices as well.  Finally, there is an index of libraries and archives. From the portrait of Froben at the opening of the volume to the final page of the index, this volume is a real goldmine of historical material.

To illustrate the author’s style I’d like to cite a fairly long section from the introduction, for two reasons: first, it provides a suitable example of the writer’s style and second it tells potential readers precisely what is in store for them between the covers of this tome:

Johann Froben’s name is a shining star in the firmament of scholarly and humanist publishing in Europe’s Early Modern Age. The authority and magnificence of the books he produced in Basel between 1491 and 1527 are well known—and not solely to specialists in the printed book. For nearly fifteen  years, the key concepts of modernity elaborated by the “Prince of Humanists”, Erasmus of Rotterdam, were advanced beneath the emblem of the caduceus which, like a modern corporate logo, was instantly recognisable as the symbol of Froben’s press. Froben’s publishing program met with success on the international book market, and most of the volumes that Froben published—classics in Latin and Greek, the seminal texts of the Church Fathers, the Bible, and the latest titles in the humanistic tradition—sold exceptionally well. Indeed, Froben reprinted them two, three, four, or even as many as eleven times to satisfy the enormous demands of his European scholarly readers. Notwithstanding the exemplary contribution to the history of print and to European culture that Johann Froben and his work represent, little is known about this representative of the most refined publishing house in early modern Europe. Although the scholarship in this area is substantial, it has offered a somewhat ambiguous image of Froben or, in any case, an unfocused one. Nor has a comprehensive bibliography of Froben’s publications ever been prepared, though such a work has long been a desideratum for a wide community of scholars in the multiple fields of Renaissance and Reformation studies, the history of the book, and Erasmus studies. This book aims to fill that gap.

This volume is a shining star in historical studies.  Readers will learn so very much about so important an artist and will come away from the experience fully inspired and totally appreciative of those giants upon whose shoulders all academics today stand.

Be advised, though: this is a gigantic book at over 900 pages.  The work takes effort.  But it rewards in spades.