Kenenth B. Steinhauer

title.none: Halporn, trans, The Correspondence of Johann Amerbach (Kenenth B. Steinhauer)

identifier.other: baj9928.0112.002 01.12.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Kenenth B. Steinhauer, Saint Louis University, steinhausekb@SLU.EDU

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Halporn, Barbara, trans. The Correspondence of Johann Amerbach. Recentiores. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. Pp. iv, 383. 57.50. ISBN: 0-472-11137-x.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.12.02

Halporn, Barbara, trans. The Correspondence of Johann Amerbach. Recentiores. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. Pp. iv, 383. 57.50. ISBN: 0-472-11137-x.

Reviewed by:

Kenenth B. Steinhauer
Saint Louis University

In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries Basel emerged as a center of Renaissance humanism. One immediately thinks of Erasmus of Rotterdam who spent the end of his life there specifically engaged in the activity of publishing the Greek and Roman classic literature for a contemporary audience. However, before there was Erasmus, there was Johann Amerbach (ca. 1440-1513). Ironically, Erasmus had arrived in Basel in 1514 shortly after the death of Amerbach on Christmas day of 1513. Who was Johann Amerbach? Barbara C. Halporn has answered this question by producing an English translation of selected letters of Amerbach, his family, friends and colleagues and utilizing these letters with her commentary to paint a portrait of the famed printer and publisher of Basel. One must note that many of the published letters were not written by Amerbach but rather received by him from family and business associates. In many instances, we possess only half of the exchange of correspondence, namely the half received by Amerbach. Halporn has produced a delightfully readable narrative, which essentially is a biography of Amerbach presented through his correspondence. Her earlier dissertation (Indiana University, 1988) dealt with Amerbach's collected editions of Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome. Halporn is an expert on Amerbach and the libraries of Basel.

All of the letters in the present collection are translations from Latin or German of selections of Die Amerbachkorrespondennz, edited by Alfred Hartmann and Beat R. Jenny (Basel: Verlag der Universitatsbibliothek, 1942-), which is the published critical edition of the original manuscripts located in the library of the University of Basel. Ten volumes have been completed to date, but the letters, which Halporn uses, come chiefly from the first volume. Various aspects of the professional and private life of Amerbach emerge from the letters.

First and foremost, we are presented a picture of Amerbach the printer. Halporn's work is appropriately subtitled "Early Printing in its Social Context" because the letters reveal the complications and intricacies of printing in its early stages. Amerbach's correspondence is thoroughly preoccupied with numerous details of printing and publishing. Five concerns in particular emerge. (1) Amerbach had to collect manuscripts in order to have appropriate material to print and publish. This need caused him to develop certain friendships with abbots of monasteries containing libraries, which would provide him with suitable texts. Often the monastery would receive a new printing gratis for having provided manuscripts. (2) His letters also deal with the concrete and mundane aspects of printing. He needed paper, type and ink. Much of the correspondence deals with these issues. (3) Transportation was an especially significant problem. His colleague and business partner Anton Koberger of Nuremberg constantly admonished Amerbach to ship his books in better barrels because the shipments were arriving with severe water damage. Amerbach seems to have ignored Koberger's pleas, since there is no record of Amerbach ever having answered Koberger in spite of incessant complaints. Concrete instances of war and robbery, which interrupted shipping and caused financial loss, were also recorded. (4) Printers had to carefully choose the works they published so that there would be an appropriate market of buyers for these newly printed books. Since copyrights were nonexistent, printers also had to carefully time the release of their work. Rather than release their printings in fascicles or volumes, they usually waited until the series was complete so that another printer would not reproduce their work at a cheaper price leaving them with unsold books and net financial loss. The Glossa Ordinaria was a big seller in addition to medieval and patristic works as well as some contemporary writings. Nevertheless, printers were well aware that the demand for books had to come concretely from people who were capable of paying for them. (5) These early printers, Amerbach included, were middle class merchants of the Renaissance. They were in the business of making money and much of the correspondence deals with the financial aspects of the business. Payment by means of money and bartering took place through a complex network of agents in various cities of Europe north of the Alps.

Second, we are also presented a picture of Amerbach the father. Two chapters in particular deal with family life. Even by today's permissive standards, Amerbach's children were quite rebellious. He sent his sons, Bruno and Basilius, off to Paris to study in the same city where he himself had studied. In his letters to them, he often complained that they were squandering his money and not applying themselves to their studies. In turn, they offered excuses and asked for more money. Bruno was a special problem and seems to have been the prime offender. Remarkably his sons often wrote to their father in Latin and kept archival copies of the letters which they sent. His daughter Margarete eloped with a spice merchant who was already engaged to another woman. In spite of the children's unruliness, the relationship between siblings and parents seems to be mended by the end of Johann's and his wife Barbara's lives. The correspondence slowly becomes more amicable. His sons were certainly educated enough to take over the printing business and manage it well after his death.

Both Italian and German humanists traced their origins to Petrarch, whose Latin works Amerbach published. While Italian humanists tended to be classical, German humanists were more theological. Hence, it is no accident that Amerbach should be known above all for his editions of the fathers of the church. His goal was to print the works of the four major fathers - Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome and Gregory the Great. Amerbach initially published the Opera of Ambrose. Augustine presented a greater problem. Because of his prolific corpus, works were more difficult to assemble. However, publishing Jerome was most problematic from a printer's point of view. Jerome was a linguist and the publication of his works not only required the use of Greek and Hebrew type in printing but also necessitated solving the paleographical problems involved in reading these languages in the manuscripts. Amerbach himself never finished the Jerome project but his sons did in cooperation with the Basel printer Johann Froben and, of course, Erasmus.