by Roderick Conway Morris

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Treading the earth with a heavenly cargo

By Roderick Conway Morris
BASSANO DEL GRAPPA, Italy 19 October 2007
Museo Remondini
A Remondini print of St Simon



This lively market town stands astride the River Brenta, where it flows out of a deep gorge onto the Veneto plain, against the dramatic backdrop of Monte Grappa. The sparkling torrent is spanned by a picturesque covered bridge, designed by the architect Palladio. On a bluff above the river, overlooking the bridge, is the Palazzo Sturm, home to the new Remondini Museum.

For 200 years, from modest beginnings in 1657, the Remondini dynasty were printers and publishers. By the second half of the 18th century, their presses alone were employing more than 1,000 people, with hundreds of others busy in their local paper mills and selling their products in scores of countries, making Remondini probably the biggest publishers in Europe.

When the company folded in 1861, the town was bequeathed a priceless archive of more than 22,500 pieces, which included not only their own products but also several thousand fine art prints, among them works by the greatest names in printmaking history, from Andrea Mantegna and Albrecht Dürer to Marco Ricci and Giambattista Tiepolo.

Given the delicacy of the works, the exhibits in the permanent sections of the museum will be regularly rotated for conservation reasons. At the same time, there will be a series of special exhibitions in coming years, devoted to specific areas of the Remondini's multiple activities.

The first of these, running until Jan. 20, is 'I Santi dei Remondini,' or 'The Remondini Saints,' featuring popular prints of saints, whose enduring appeal and extraordinarily wide distribution constituted from the start one of the pillars of the publishers' astonishing success.

Printed matter of almost any kind was a luxury when the Remondini launched their enterprise in the mid 17th century. The only pictorial materials available to most people were monochrome woodblock and copperplate prints.

The greatest demand in Catholic countries was for images of saints, which Remondini began to supply in large quantities. One of the principal selling points was that these were brightly colored, sometimes by hand but also by the mechanical application of multiple blocks, the copperplate prints often embellished with silver and gold highlights.

But how to distribute economically these cheap items to widely scattered populations that seldom traveled outside restricted geographical areas?

The Remondini's answer was to recruit the inhabitants of nearby Alpine valleys who had ancient traditions of spending the long winter months, when agricultural work was scarce, as itinerant peddlers, walking from town fair to town fair, village to village, farm to farm, their large backpacks filled with carved wooden toys and other inexpensive wares.

Some of the first recruits were from the Tesino valley in the region of Trent, then part of Austria, just over the border of the Venetian Republic. Others came from the Slovene-speaking valleys on the eastern border of the Serenissima.

This redoubtable sales force, who were issued with their stock on credit plus an advance for travel expenses, gradually went farther and farther afield, setting off in small groups, sometimes not returning for three, four years or more. They wandered all over Europe, through the Iberian peninsula, on to the Americas, into Russia and finally into the Near East and Africa.

Expanding from their original Catholic market, the Remondini also printed saints specifically for the faithful of the Eastern Orthodox, Armenian and Syrian churches.

By 1781, a priest in the Tesino valley was noting that his parishioners were not only going to 'Spain, Holland, Germany, Hungary and Poland, but throughout the greater part of the Russian Empire, even as far as Siberia and Astrakhan.'

By this time, too, the Remondini were producing not just saints, but hundreds of secular prints - one of the most popular was of the mythical 'Land of Cockaigne,' where 'The less you work, the more your earn.' Other products included colored fans and papers, playing cards, board games and 'vues d'optique,' city views for optical peepshow boxes, which could be lit to display the subject 'by day and by night.'

Among Remondini's distinctive lines were sheets of transfer-like decorative motifs, from flowers, trees and animals to soldiers, horsemen and figures in oriental dress. These could be cut out, and glued to furniture, containers, snuffboxes, trays, hairbrushes and a host of other household items. Covered with a thin protective layer of clear varnish, this 'lacca povera,' or 'poor man's lacquer' technique offered cheap but attractive imitations of real decorated lacquer from East Asia.

The Remondini's early excursions into book publishing began with their cheap 'libri da risma,' 'books by the ream,' which were sold as loose leaves, to be bound, or not, by the purchaser. These were mostly elementary schoolbooks, religious tales and tracts, popular stories and legends, calendars, almanacs and the like. Amazingly, some of these, along with the saints, were still selling, unchanged since the 17th century, when the company ceased trading in the mid 19th century.

The Bassano dynasty's attempts to enter the higher realms of book publishing were strongly opposed by the Venice printers and booksellers.

Still, the Remondini's superior financial clout secured them entry to this exclusive club in 1750. They opened a bookshop near the Rialto bridge, continued to print at lower cost on the mainland and soon outstripped their rivals. Between 1751 and 1790 they were granted more licenses for books than all the other Venice booksellers put together.

During this period, Remondini began to issue catalogs of their books and other products with introductions in Italian, French and Latin. The catalogs, which included books from other publishers which they undertook to distribute through their vast network of agents and traveling salesmen, came to include no fewer than 10,000 items.

The Napoleonic Wars and the fall of the Venetian Republic dealt a blow to the Remondini fortunes from which they never fully recovered. In 1798 the joint heirs, Giuseppe and Antonio, divided their inheritance, and the former could only keep the company going by incurring debts.

The enterprise failed to keep up with innovations in both paper manufacturing and printing. The publishing backlist became woefully out-dated and lacking in contemporary works. But the family left the town where they had once prospered a unique historical record of the European printing industry's development and of their own products, from the most humble to the most refined.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024