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Architecture & design

The human element in the history of books

— January 2012

Article read level: Academic

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Back cover of The Culture of Correction, showing a page from Santes Pagnini, Thesaurus linguae sanctae (1529), revised for the Plantin Press by Johannes Isaac Levita, Leiden University Library 874 B 7

The Culture of Correction in Renaissance Europe

By Anthony Grafton


Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times is essential reading for the art history student, but probably very few have thought much about who edited his text in 1550 (and the next edition in 1568).  To whom did Vasari turn to tighten up rambling recollections, mark up his copy and compile a ‘table of contents’ list for this first-ever work of art history? In The Culture of Correction in Renaissance Europe, Anthony Grafton reveals a history of the ‘correctors’ who edited key publications in Renaissance Europe from the middle of the 15th century to the end of the 17th century. As Grafton points out, we have these ‘correctors’ to thank for the invention of the proofreading symbols that are still in use today.

This book started out as a series of lectures given by the author at the British Library in 2009 (Pannizi Lectures), and is the first for many years to research the Renaissance correctors. Seeking the ‘human element in the history of books’, Anthony Grafton delves into the lives of the men and women who liaised with authors, edited their texts, read the proofs, and checked the final copy after printing. Extracts from letters between author and corrector highlight how many authors, Vasari amongst them, relied heavily on the press corrector to improve the quality of the text.  This human element leads Grafton’s historical research in seeking out a ‘lost world’ through manuscripts, correspondence, printing-house records, early printed books and, corrected proofs.

To begin, Grafton lays out the rudiments of the print workshop through the writings of the Basel scholar Theodor Zwinger (1658–1724), known for his scientific approach to the art of travel. In Methodus apodemica (1577), for the enlightenment of travellers in the early era of the ‘Grand Tour’, Zwinger created a methodical chart to unravel who-was-who in the Renaissance print workshop. 

To aid understanding of Zwinger’s diagram, Grafton uses a wood engraving of a printer’s workshop by Moses Thym, taken from Jerome Hornschurch’s Orthotypographia (1608). This was the first manual for printers’ correctors, helping them to eliminate errors and make texts clearer. This print, shown on Grafton’s book cover,  illustrates a printing shop at work. One can see a host of tasks underway. One pressman pulls sheets on a press, another lifts pages to dry on ceiling racks, one wets paper to take ink, whilst in the background three men argue as a young woman enters with a flagon of beer to refresh the workers.

Grafton explains that the engraving highlights Zwinger’s categorization of members of the shop who work as a team to create the publication. One can spot Zwinger’s ‘theoretical’ members who compared the printed text with the original copy, and the twin roles of Zwinger’s ‘mechanical’ workers: the compositors who set the type and ‘pressmen’ who inked and printed the pages.

This history of the culture of correction is richly interleaved with original material. One such is the inclusion of the fascinating introductory text written by the corrector Francesco Rolandello for a Latin version, by philosopher Marsilio Ficini (1422–99), of the ancient Greek works of Hermes Trismegistus. We learn of the debt owed by librarian and humanist Vespasiano de Bisticci (1421–98) to one of his correctors, Jehan de Mouveaux, who transformed Bisticci’s book design with the addition of a detailed index. Grafton then moves on to expose the Renaissance printer’s world, where the corrector was usually reluctant to admit mistakes.

There follows a rigorous examination of just how much authors relied on their ‘correctors’ to improve and shape up their texts.  Both points of view are examined and argued. Grafton points out that Renaissance authors often complained that it wasn't possible to publish the books as they wanted, because the correctors changed their text. The tale of how Marsilio Ficino delayed the publication date of his Latin translation of Plato’s Dialogues to await the conjunctions of Saturn and Jupiter in 1484 – a rare solar occurrence happening only once every twenty years – proves that writers with a reputation could manipulate publishers.


In fact, there may be little difference between the relationship of author and corrector in Renaissance times and that today. Grafton introduces each chapter with contemporary stories from the modern-day publishing world, including a humorous ‘tragic’ tale of Hermann Hesse the German poet and novelist. In ‘Tragic’(1923) Hesse narrated the story of a poet who had become a corrector, who, in despair at his inability to convince colleagues ‘that the adjective “tragic” did not apply to every incident’ collapsed and died. The poet’s editor showed sympathy by altering the obituary title ‘Tragic Death of a Poet’ to ‘Regrettable Death’, then ‘One of the Old Guard’. On the same subject Hesse attracted attention in 1946 with ‘The Author to Corrector’, denouncing correctors who regularized his German text, vilifying them for taking ‘the music out of his language’.

But to return to Vasari, the ‘father of art history’, and his dealings with correctors, Grafton tells us that Vasari could not oversee the publication of his first edition of Lives, printed at Torrentino’s workshop in Florence in 1550. Instead, he sought the aid of a highly skilled group of people, including a Benedictine scholar, Vincenzo Borghini. His skilled ‘workforce’ oversaw proof-reading, page resetting, index creation, and additional text. Vasari added an epilogue to the book but not before asking Borghini to ‘revise, cut or improve it’ before publication, a tell-tale sign of the inexperienced author.

It is just one example in this remarkable book of the collaborative effort between Renaissance author and editor/corrector, which essentially continues between author and editor today.

The Culture of Correction in Renaissance Europe by Anthony Grafton is published by the British Library, London, 2011. 192 pp., 60 black and white illustrations, £30.00  ISBN: 978 0 7123 5845 3


Rosalind Ormiston
Independent art historian

Editor's notes

Anthony Grafton teaches European history at Princeton University. His books include Joseph Scaliger: A Study in the History of Classical Scholarship (1983-93); The Footnote: A Curious History (1997); and Worlds Made by Words (2009)

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