Vespasiano Da Bisticci: “King of the world’s booksellers”

Vespasiano was one of the most mysterious figures of the Italian Renaissance and yet is it impossible to deny the role he played in the revival of knowledge and antiquity literature. However, surprisingly little is known about Vespasiano and his life. From poverty to fame, his role in the Renaissance is often overlooked but who was this man? What role did he play in the Renaissance? 

Vespasiano was born in the small town of Bisticci on the outskirts of Florence around 1421 (precise date unknown).  He left school at an early age to join the Stationer’s guild where he became an apprentice in a bookshop in Florence. It is there that he learnt how to cut, arrange and bind quires together, organise the finances, and hire talented scribes and illuminators.

Throughout his apprenticeship, he became known for the quality of his work; the detail of the illuminations and the strength of the spine. Once he had mastered those skills, he joined the dense network of booksellers in Florence where he employed a complex of scribes, Illuminators and binders who were known for their speed and accuracy. It was even said that his bookshop once supplied Cosimo de Medici with 200 volumes in 22 months using 25 copyists.

Portrait believed to be Vespasiano Da Bisticci in the volume Vita di Giannozzo Manetti. Presumed late 15th century. 

In the mid 15th century, when Vespasiano opened his own shop,  Florence had become the nucleus of the Italian Renaissance.  Intellectuals, humanists,  artists, cardinals, popes, and powerful statesmen were drawn to the city and by extension, Vespasiano’s bookshop. Access to knowledge and books was fast becoming a way to show off power, status and sophistication. 

Through the years, his reputation as a bookseller continued to grow. Despite his lack of schooling and knowledge of Latin, he managed to build relationships with some of the most powerful individuals in Europe at the time.

After he retired in 1480, he devoted his time to recording all his encounters with his powerful clients. This manuscript:  The Lives of the Illustrious Men of the 15th Century (Vite di Uomini Illustri del Secolo XV) is an invaluable insight into Renaissance Florence and these extraordinary figures. Curiously, Vespasiano recounts being invited for dinner and scripture readings at the Medici palace, his conversations with the King of Naples and the patronage of the humanist, Niccolò Nicolli. He also mentions the Englishman William Grey (later the Bishop of Ely), who travelled to Florence from Prague in the early 1440s to order several volumes of works, some of which are still in Balliol library in Oxford. 

One of his greatest employers was the Duke of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro and Vespasiano was tasked with creating a library, for which he supplied 900 volumes over 14 years. This library was one of the greatest collections of humanist literature created in the 15th century. Amongst the modern volumes in the library like those of the Bible, Petrarch and Dante; there were many books of Roman and Greek origin, ranging from Cicero, Pliny the Elder, Plato, Aristotle, Homer and the complete works of Hippocrates and Galen.  

Inscription by Vespasiano in Caesar’s commentaries with additions. Dated to 1474. 

Vespasiano’s life overlapped with many major changes in the technology of writing. The reproductions and in some cases translation of these ancient books into Latin are one of the reasons that we know about the works written by the great philosophers and thinkers from antiquity today. Since the papyrus of the original copies would not have survived, those transference of this knowledge onto parchment is invaluable. He used primarily parchment codexes which were durable but expensive, thus limiting knowledge and learning to the upper classes and deeply distrusted the quality of paper which was gradually introduced to Europe from China during the 14th and 15th centuries. Moreover, the invention of the printing press had remarkably little influence in Florence until four decades after its creation.

Finally, Vespasiano himself was set against the printing press and even said that “one printed volume would have been ashamed in the company of handwritten books.” The success of the printing press however, could not be stopped and by the time he closed his bookshop in 1480, he could no longer compete with the cheaper and quicker alternative. 

Written by Emma Le Poidevin


King, Ross. Vespasiano da Bisticci and the Manuscripts that illuminated the Renaissance. United Kingdom. Penguin Random House, 2021. 

Da Bisticci, Vespasiano. Waters, William George. The Vespasiano Memoirs: Lives of Illustrious Men of the XVth Century. University of Toronto Press, 1997. 

Spotlight. “Vespasiano da Bisticci: Cartolaio and Biographer.” The Library of a ‘Humanist Prince.’ Accessed 12 October, 2022.


Unknown. Vespasiano Da Bisticci (presumed). Portrait. Spotlight. 

Da Bisticci, Vespasiano. Caesar’s Commentaries with Additions. British Library.