Understanding how 15th-century European society reacted to the printed book

Image of a manuscript page

Image of a manuscript page from the 15cBOOKTRADE project

BL C.13.c.9 copyright to The British Library Board

The 15cBOOKTRADE Project studies the European printing revolution (1450-1500), using the half a million of books which still survive today as historical sources, to understand who used them, and how. 

This project was established with a long-term objective to understand how European society, transitioning from a medieval to an early modern period, reacted to the technological innovation wrought about by the invention of printing with movable type: issues of trade, the cost of books in comparison with the cost of living, literacy, the transmission of texts in print, the circulation of ideas. 

The project ran during the years 2014-2019. The research continues with the collaboration of hundreds of European and American scholars and librarians, and several spin-off projects. Four databases were created and continue to grow: 

Material Evidence in Incunabula: over 50,000 records pertaining to the material evidence of 15th-century printed books: ownership, decoration, binding, manuscript annotations, stamps, prices, etc. 

Owners of Incunabula: over 24,000 records pertaining to former owners of incunabula, both private and institutional.  

TEXT-inc: the detailed content (including multiple works and paratextual information) of over 8,000 editions printed in the 15th century 

15cILLUSTRATION now merged into 1516: a database of illustration found in books printed in the 15th and 16th centuries, to track the re-use, exchange, and copying of woodcuts, to better understand the working practices of printers and to highlight otherwise undocumented links among them. 

Image of Professor Cristina Dondi

Professor Cristina Dondi, PI of the 15cBOOKTRADE project

These collaborative, international digital resources are allowing us to study the production and transmission of texts in print, to track the circulation of books over time and space, and to reconstruct dispersed collections. 

The results of the 15cBOOKTRADE research were shared also with the general public in a successful exhibition, Printing R-Evolution 1450-1500. Fifty Years that Changed Europe, held in Venice, Correr Museum and Marciana National Library (Sept. 2018 – Apr. 2019).  

The exhibition communicated the latest research in innovative ways, making extensive use of technology and graphic design: 15 videos, interactive maps, wall to wall projections, and graphs were created to explain fundamental concepts surrounding the European printing revolution, often misunderstood or completely unknown. This material is now available online on the Printing R-Evolution website a space where we are collecting digital outreach resources on 15th-century printing created by later projects, such as incunabula in Italian monastic libraries, or the illustrated copy-census of the 1481 Florence edition of Dante with engravings by Botticelli, both funded by the Polonsky Foundation.