Vespasiano da Bisticci
Born near Rignano sull'Arno, not far from Florence, he was chiefly a book merchant, or cartolaio, and had a share in the formation of many great libraries of the time. When Cosimo de' Medici wished to assemble the Laurentian Library of Florence, Vespasiano advised him, and sent him by Tommaso Parentucelli (later Pope Nicholas V) a systematic catalogue, which became the plan of the new collection. In twenty-two months Vespasiano had 200 volumes made for Cosimo by twenty-five copyists. Most of them were, as typical of the era, books of theology and liturgical chant.
He had performed important services for the diffusion of classical authors when Nicholas V, the true founder of the Vatican Library, became pope. He devoted fourteen years to collecting the library of Federico da Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino, organizing it in a more modern manner; it contained the catalogues of the Vatican, of San Marco, Florence, of the Visconti Library at Pavia, and Oxford.
Vespasiano had a limited knowledge of Latin, and he is one of the few writers of the time who acknowledged it. Untrained as a writer, but with a discernment and intelligence in the appraisal of important figures, he left a collection of 300 biographies that is a major source of shrewd observation and reliable facts for the history of 15th-century humanism: Vite di uomini illustri del secolo XV. He retired in 1480, disheartened by the advance of the printing press that was displacing the beautifully illuminated manuscripts that were his stock in trade and his love.
He was not an erudite philosopher or historian such as Machiavelli and Guicciardini proved in the next generation, but he depicts the atmosphere of the period and its intellectual life. His accounts plunge the reader into the social world of Florence; they contain delicate pictures of manners, charming portraits, noble female figures, of which last point it is possible to judge by reading the biography of Alessandro Bardi (ed. Mai, 593). The general tone is that of a moralist, who shows the dangers of the Renaissance, especially for women, warns against the reading of the novels, and reproaches the Florentines with usury and illicit gains. Vespasiano is a panegyrist of Nicholas V, the great book-lover; he is severe to the point of injustice against Pope Callistus III, the indifferent lender of books, which, however, he did not give over to pillage, as Vespasiano accuses him of doing.
His manuscripts, which he thought of as rough notes for a more polished series of Latin Vitae, remained unknown until they were discovered by Cardinal Angelo Mai, who first published them in 1839. A reading of them in Mai's edition in 1847 inspired Jacob Burckhardt to commence his magisterial Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860).
- Published as Vite di uomini illustri del secolo XV by Ludovico Frati, Bologna, 1892-93; a translation was reprinted as The Vespasiano Memoirs: Lives of Illustrious Men of the XV Century (Renaissance Society of America Reprint Texts) 1997.
- Noted by Myron Gilmore, in his introduction to a 1963 edition of Bisticci by Harper Torchbooks, republished in 1997.
- Jacob Burckhardt, Die Cultur der Renaissance, I (3rd ed., Leipzig, 1877), 198, 236-39, 261, 354
- Muntz and Fabre, La bibliotheque du Vatican au XV siecle (Paris, 1887), 116
- Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship, II (Cambridge, 1908), 95.
- Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.