Libraries & Culture 38.4 (2003) 408-410
[Access article in PDF]
The Correspondence of Johann Amerbach: Early Printing in Its Social Context. Selected, translated, and edited by Barbara C. Halporn. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. xiv, 383 pp. $57.50. ISBN 0-472-11137-X.
In this volume, which contains 256 letters edited and translated chiefly from the first volume of Alfred Hartmann's Die Amerbachkorrespondenz (Basel, 1942-), Barbara Halporn skillfully renders into English a vivid and always lively account of the activities of the Amerbach publishing house in Basel during the tenure of its founder, Johann Amerbach, from 1481 to 1513. Halporn arranges the letters both topically and chronologically into nine chapters with headings such as "Doing Business," "Business and Friendship," "The Scholarly and Intellectual Network," "Family Life," "The Three Johanns," and "Patristic Editions." The bulk of the correspondence is addressed to Johann Amerbach himself, as very few of his own replies survive. Yet, as Halporn makes clear in her excellent introduction, many of Amerbach's business and intellectual acquaintances were attracted by "his personality, his vision, his energy, and not the least by his [End Page 408] honesty and common decency," and thus Amerbach "is the central figure in the story that the letters tell" (10-11).
Not surprisingly, the reader finds numerous letters that shed light on the daily concerns of operating a large and successful publishing house such as the economics of paper, ink, and type, the thorny issues of debt and credit, the vagaries of the book market, the threat of market saturation, and so on. Even more revealing, however, are those letters that lend insight into the social context of the Amerbach publishing house. Much of the correspondence resonates with the voices of business associates, intellectual acquaintances, and personal friends who became the core network of connections through which Amerbach gained access to information and received business and professional favors. For example, we find Amerbach calling on the humanist Jacob Wimpfeling and the Augustinian canon Augustinius Dodo to provide him with much-needed manuscripts, letters, and sermons for his publication projects as well as news about monastic library collections. Frequently, such relationships involved a quid pro quo. Typical is one letter (26 March 1510) from the humanist Johann Reuchlin, who, lamenting the "treachery of printers," inquires whether Amerbach would consider buying up the remainder (seven hundred copies) of his poor-selling Rudimentahebraica; Reuchlin, a preeminent Hebraist, promises in return to come to Basel and help Amerbach edit a multilingual edition of the Operaomnia of Jerome. One of the pitfalls of developing these scholarly and intellectual networks, as the letters underscore time and again, is that Amerbach found himself bombarded with letters from friends and acquaintances proposing that he take up this or that book publication, usually one of their own! Other letters (chapter 5, "Business as Usual") show Amerbach caught in the middle of a heated epistolary exchange between two scholars (Conrad Leontorius and Jacob Wimpfeling) of radically different religious viewpoints and educational agendas.
Of all the letters, none are more entertaining than those between Amerbach and his sons, Bruno, Basilius, and Bonifacius. Bruno and Basilius attended the University of Paris, where they received a humanist education; Bonifacius pursued a career in law at the University of Basel. The letters capture many of the tensions between Amerbach senior and Bruno and Basilius in particular—your typical fun-loving, impecunious university students who never seem to quite measure up to their father's high moral and intellectual standards. Amerbach is forever displeased with his sons' excessive spending but, in the end, uses various book dealers and third parties to bankroll their accounts. In one striking letter, however, Amerbach has clearly reached the end of his tether. Rebuking Bruno for requesting more money at a time when the firm is experiencing heavy financial pressures, Amerbach explodes on paper: "Perhaps you think I own an ass that coughs up money for me. It doesn't work that way. You know I have not published in two years. We are all living on capital" (284). After settling...