Talk, script and print: the making of island books in early modern Venice


  • The author would like to thank this journal's reviewers for their useful comments and suggestions. Research for this article was supported by a British Academy Small Research Grant.


During the early modern period, island books (isolari) were among the major print genres by which the Venetian reading public learned about the Mediterranean and the New World. This article focuses on the intellectual, social and cultural processes through which these books constructed islands as objects of inquiry and created textual and visual knowledge about the Aegean archipelago and the Venetian overseas dominions. It shows how diverse communities of practitioners, networks of information and ways of knowing shaped the production of these cultural artefacts, and analyses the connections between images of insularity and notions of empire in Venetian metropolitan culture.

  • Sebastian: I think he will carry this island home in his pocket and give it his son for an apple.

  • Antonio: And sowing the kernels of it in the sea, bring forth more islands!

Shakespeare, The Tempest (II.i.91–4)

In 1653, the Sicilian scholar Nicolò Serpetro published in Venice a curious encyclopaedia titled Il mercato delle maraviglie della natura, overo Istoria naturale. Although the book was only a translation of the Thaumatographia naturalis (Amsterdam, 1632) written by the Calvinist doctor and natural philosopher John Jonston, Serpetro presented the text in a significantly new form. Instead of classifying the wonders of nature in ten categories, as Jonston had done, he arranged them in an imaginary marketplace where ‘the most precious and admirable’ goods of the world were on sale. Using a mnemotechnical model, perhaps inspired by the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the warehouse of German merchants in Venice, he divided his marketplace of marvels into porticos, loggias and shops in which numerous extraordinary phenomena were displayed. [1] The seventh of these loggias carried the name Dell'isole and contained two shops: the first was called Della nascita et morte dell'isole and the second was Delle maraviglie d'alcune isole.

The presence of these two shops in a seventeenth-century compendium of natural marvels reflects the long-standing fascination of early modern Europeans with islands and their tales. Recent research has demonstrated the centrality of island narratives to European culture in the period 1400–1800 and their relationship to trade and colonization in the Mediterranean and the Americas. [2] The impact of these narratives was further enhanced by the advent of the printing press and the wide circulation of printed maps, images and travel literature. In this context, the seventh loggia of Serpetro's marketplace shows the new visibility which islands gained through print and the continuing classical association of insularity with wonder in early modernity. The virtual visitors of Serpetro's second island shop, for instance, could encounter several unusual phenomena: ‘rabbits … cannot survive’ in Ithaca; in Crete ‘there are no owls and, if they are brought there, they die’; and in Cephalonia ‘there is a river with numerous cicadas on one bank and none on the other’. [3]

The belief in fabulous islands was part of a wider attraction to the strange and the marvellous which characterized early modern European culture, ranging from cabinets of curiosities and travel writing to natural philosophy, books of secrets and news pamphlets. [4] In Venice, moreover, Serpetro's conjunction of marvel and insular geography had a special economic, political and imaginative resonance. Islands formed, of course, the natural environment of Venice and its lagoon, but they were also the composite elements of its overseas empire, which was often portrayed as a space of wonder. This was the supreme emotion which any imperial metropolis – let alone the marvellous city par excellence, Venice [5] – aspired to convey both to its inhabitants and foreign visitors.

This article examines the books which probably played the most important role in consolidating the islands of the east Mediterranean into a coherent category of knowledge in early modern Venice: the isolari (or island books). A typical example of the sophisticated geographical and cartographic culture of Venice, [6] this unique genre of travel literature and cartography shows what the Venetians knew about their city's overseas dominions and how they came to learn about them. Originating in the medieval portolan charts used by pilots and merchants who sailed the Aegean, the isolari gave islands an exclusive treatment in encyclopaedic editions which combined text and image. Although the emergence of the genre is closely related to Florentine humanism and antiquarianism – the earliest known manuscript isolario, the Liber insularum archipelagi (c.1420), was compiled by the Florentine priest and traveller Cristoforo Buondelmonti – it was in the city of Venice that the production of these books flourished. As the capital of an empire stretching from the Alps to Cyprus and a major international entrepôt between northern Europe and the Mediterranean, Venice was a leading centre of political, economic and cultural information in the early modern period. [7] Most importantly, the city lay at the heart of Renaissance print culture: by the end of the fifteenth century it had risen to the vanguard of the world publishing industry, producing more books than any other city in Europe; while in the sixteenth century its thriving presses printed over half of all cinquecento Italian editions. [8] Moreover, at the height of the Venetian map trade in the fifteen-sixties, there were probably as many as 500–600 copperplates for maps in active use among local publishers, that is, twice as many as those used in Rome at the time. [9] Thanks to the rapid expansion of printing and the emergence of a mercantile public interested in geography, travel accounts and maps, the city provided an ideal intellectual and commercial milieu for the compilers of island books. Consequently, Venetian publishers released them in circulation from the early days of print in the fifteenth century, and by Serpetro's time, island atlases had become best-sellers in the Venetian marketplace of books, ready to be consumed by a wide and diverse readership – from statesmen and ecclesiastics to ‘merchants, mariners and students of geography’, [10] as Giuseppe Rosaccio noted in his Viaggio da Venetia a Costantinopoli.

As Pamela Smith and Benjamin Schmidt have remarked, historians ‘are in the habit of identifying the end products of knowledge making – texts and books, data and ideas – rather than the manner and means of their production’. [11] This statement is highly relevant to much of the historiography which has hitherto dealt with island books. Their description, typology and textual analysis have been the major preoccupations of most of the scholars who have studied them so far, although some have also explored their relationship to early modern literary texts, while others have analysed the treatment of particular locations in them, like Mount Athos or the city of Constantinople. [12] In what follows, the discussion will focus on three neglected aspects in the study of the printed isolari, which nevertheless provide highly valuable insights into the ‘constellation’ [13] – to use Adorno's term, in turn borrowed from Walter Benjamin – of intellectual and socio-cultural processes by which these books came into being. First, the article will explore how diverse communities of practitioners and experts, knowledge-making practices and circuits of information were involved in the creation of island books. Second, it will analyse their use of illustrations in connection to the wider process of documenting knowledge through images in the early modern period. Third, it will investigate what the accumulation of knowledge about islands can tell us about the relationship between insularity and notions of empire in metropolitan Venice. The overall aim of this analysis is to connect the isolari with their specific socio-cultural context and to assess their impact on the imperial imagination of early modern Venetians.

If a social history of the printed isolari were to be written, the first thing to note would be the extent to which their compilation was a broad, collaborative project entailing the combined efforts of multiple agents. Professionals of print, cosmographers, map-makers, scholars, noblemen, monks, ordinary sailors and physicians were all involved at various stages in the process of their creation. In the case of the first printed island book, Bartolomeo dalli Sonetti's Isolario (Venice, c.1485), even readers took part in the completion of its maps by adding topographical details in their own handwriting: such were, for instance, the drawings and notes on two copies of this island book owned respectively by Giovanni Bembo, the Venetian rector of Skiathos and Skopelos, and Michael Lok, the English consul for the Levant Company in Aleppo. [14]

As several studies in early modern book history have shown, printed books were the outcome of a joint enterprise that encompassed a complex set of partnerships among writers, editors, printmakers, publishers and others. [15] When we turn to the particular case of the isolari, an acknowledgement of the collaborative nature of their production forces us to rethink these books from a radically new perspective. Primarily, it requires us to place them at the intersection of a broad range of scholarly, commercial, institutional and trans-imperial networks, in which the search for a single author is often fraught with serious reductionist implications. Moreover, this networked conceptualization of the isolari implies that they should be understood as far more complex objects than has been hitherto suggested by the emphasis of some historians on their ‘hybrid character’, [16] defined merely as the blending of medieval with Renaissance cosmography or the mixture of history and geography with nautical manuals. While these combinations are clearly evident in most of the isolari, an examination of their social context points to the need to go beyond a strictly textualist notion of hybridity in order to take into account the interaction of different communities and forms of knowledge in the process of their composition. This observation calls for the revision of a commonly held assumption, namely, that the humanist compilers of the printed isolari often bypassed the maritime cartographers' emphasis on autopsy in favour of their Latin sources and philological commentaries. [17] As will be shown below, although most of the authors of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century printed isolari never visited the east Mediterranean, they nonetheless participated in extensive networks of people and information which offered them unique access to first-hand evidence gathered by imperial administrators, military officials, colonial subjects, ships' pilots, travellers, physicians and other eyewitness observers.

These general remarks can be made more concrete through an examination of Tommaso Porcacchi's L'isole più famose del mondo, originally published by Simon Galignani in Venice in 1572 and later reprinted several times until the beginning of the eighteenth century. [18] Intended for those who ‘take delight in the study of geography’, [19] Porcacchi's book was the first isolario to contain maps engraved on copper. It opens with a description of ‘the island and city of Venice’, followed by twenty-seven chapters on other Mediterranean and Atlantic islands, peninsulas and archipelagos, and ends with a ‘description of the map of the world’ and a ‘discourse on the navigation chart’. Porcacchi was a prominent figure of the mid cinquecento Venetian community of poligrafi, a group of versatile professional writers who earned their living as employees of the vernacular presses. His career was closely connected to the most significant publisher of the period, Gabriel Giolito, and covered the production of works in several genres. Apart from editing anthologies, summaries and popularizations for non-specialists, Porcacchi supervised Giolito's Collana historica, a series of translated Greek classical texts and modern military books. [20] His familiarity with the classics and the methods of reassembling excerpts from various sources in popular editions is also evident in his isolario, an accessible database typical of the sixteenth-century practice of riscrittura (scholarly borrowing and rewriting). [21] Porcacchi's isolario therefore incorporates the standard humanist reading and writing habits of the poligrafi, including the use of subject headings, marginal notes, indexes, visual aids and other devices designed to enable readers to retrieve and memorize knowledge. Moreover, following the techniques of the poligrafi, it reduces knowledge to ‘easy-to-learn commonplaces’, with the aim of ‘providing reference information’ and ‘helping the reader pass the time with historical tales of human interest’. [22] As a product of this particular methodology, which prescribed stockpiling data in a user-friendly format, Porcacchi's isolario shows how Renaissance pedagogy systematized geography along a descriptive grid arranged by place and topic. [23]

Yet, the book was not just a collage of other texts which recycled material laid out by a skilful editor. Although Porcacchi introduces himself as the ‘auttore’ of the book and ‘writer with an honoured and famous name … consumed in the study of the belle lettere’, he also acknowledges ‘the friends and the gentlemen I happen to have in various places, who have sent me written information, derived from many languages … Many of them are also in this fortunate city of Venice, who have informed me orally and in writing about many particulars, which I did not know’. [24] These acknowledgements obviously point to a complex web of personal connections, both local and extra-local, which allowed Porcacchi to obtain information through oral conversation and written correspondence. They also demonstrate that his working practices belonged to a wider culture of research and scholarship developed around the circulation of texts, images and objects within the networks of epistolary communication and patronage which formed the early modern Republic of Letters.

It is this world of sociability and reciprocal exchange of information, services and gifts that provides the context for Porcacchi's publications, the network of ‘gentlemen, friends, benefactors and factors’ [25] whom he regularly thanks in his works. As editor of Pietro Bembo's Asolani, he dedicated the book to Count Cesare Locatelli, noting that he had spent the previous summer in the villa of Marquis Lodovico Malaspina at Arcoli (near Verona) where he discussed the idea of virtue in the company of Count Federico Sarego and the physician Girolamo Brà. He also added that during the cooler hours of the day he had been working on his studies, ‘in particular describing the thirty Isole più famose del mondo, which at the moment are being given to the press with accurate copperplate designs’. [26] Porcacchi knew the importance of forming social connections, and various clues in his isolario suggest that he used his network of friendships and clientage relations as a kind of early modern search engine and multi-media resource. In his chapter on England, he explains that he obtained information from Mario Cardoini, a Neapolitan exile at Edward VI's court, and the governor of Cervia Mario Cotti, whose brother Clemente served under Chiappino Vitelli, ambassador of Cosimo I de' Medici to London. Porcacchi also learned a great deal from conversations with the Catholic exile in Venice Sir Richard Shelley, diplomat and prior of the hospital of St. John of Jerusalem in England. [27] In addition, he was able to converse about England and the Levant with the traveller William Malym. In a letter to the Englishman, Porcacchi offered advice on appropriate conduct in ‘the lands of the infidels’ in a typical ars apodemica fashion and coached him on how to read books and perform on-site observations: ‘With your books you will be able to appropriately enjoy yourself, and while discovering an island or a place on the hinterland, I know you will be making a diligent investigation of the most notable things, and above all find the ancient equivalent to the modern names’. Although Porcacchi confessed ignorance about the ‘voyage to Asia’, he nevertheless sought to discipline his friend's voyage in order to use it for the collection of new data. ‘Make sure on your return’, he begs Malym, ‘that I see the description of the principal places, which your lordship will have made’. [28] It would be safe to assume that, to a greater or lesser extent, this did happen, as some of Malym's recorded observations from this journey supplemented his English translation of Nestor Martinengo's L'assedio et presa di Famagosta (Verona, 1572), providing a brief description of Cyprus. [29]

Information derived from Italians abroad, foreign diplomats in Venice and travelling scholars in the Ottoman empire was complemented with data provided by members of the colonial elites in the State of the Sea. For example, the Cypriot nobleman Ettore Podocataro, an eminent figure in the intellectual and cultural circles of Venice, belonged to this important category of informants. In his chapter on Cyprus, Porcacchi notes that the description of the island had already been made in ‘that book, which signore Hettore Podocatharo calls Portrait of the Kingdom of Cyprus’. Having seen the text, he decided not to talk about ‘notable things, and about herbs and stones and miraculous waters’, nor ‘about the customs and the character of its inhabitants’. As he explains, this would have been superfluous, ‘since signor Hettore Podocatharo has discussed them adequately’. [30] Nevertheless, in his 1576 edition of L'isole, Porcacchi seems to have borrowed extensively from Ettore's manuscript as the revised, much longer chapter on Cyprus does not merely mention him again, but also contains details that only someone highly familiar with the island could possibly have known. [31] Moreover, the revised chapter on Cyprus was probably enriched with data obtained from another of Ettore's unpublished works, ‘his most beautiful and most ornate digest of the succession of the most serene Latin kings of the Kingdom of Cyprus’. [32]

An additional category of reputable informants who took part in the assemblage of island narratives and served to enhance their credibility were the patrician administrators of Venice's maritime dominions. By entering the imperial bureaucratic network and turning it into a source of information, island book writers gained access to official materials and up-to-date observations generated through the daily practices of colonial trade and governance. In his chapter on Crete, for instance, Porcacchi mentions that he received reports not only from the Venetian nobleman Andrea Dandolo but also from Francesco Pesaro who ‘in the studies he carries out on geographical matters, the governance of kingdoms and other sciences which are pertinent and necessary to anyone in this holy Republic who wants to rise to the first grades of honour, has had true and distinct information about this and other islands, provinces and kingdoms’. [33] This passage reveals how state record keeping and the geographical interests of the Venetian ruling class were closely intertwined with the making of the isolari. More importantly, it confirms that island books were greatly influenced by the empirical practices of information gathering that were developed and institutionalized within the context of Venetian environmental management, the practical culture of commerce and empire building.

Following Giovanni Battista Ramusio and other sixteenth-century writers who argued that modern geography had outdated classical learning, [34] most isolari authors stressed the primacy of empirical forms of knowledge in their descriptions of islands. Porcacchi, for instance, expressed his reservations about the opinion of Pliny and Apollodorus and, in a manner typical of the poligrafi's favourable view of experience, [35] accepted the new measurements of Crete by his contemporaries as accurate, ‘having measured it more times with the experience of their senses’. The same endorsement of empirical observation pervades yet another island book which has been hitherto unknown to the relevant historiography, Giulio Cesare de Solis's Descrittione di molte isole famosissime. There the author writes that the island of Kythera

looks north to Cape Maleas, which according to modern mariners is around 30 miles away, although Pliny and Strabo say that this distance is no longer than 25 miles, a subject on which experience demonstrates that they are making a serious error …

This island [Lesvos] stretches, as Ptolemy writes, from south to north at a distance of 60 miles … ; nonetheless, the moderns hold a contrary view whereby, on the basis of ocular cognition, they say its length from west to east is 110 miles. [36]

De Solis assessed ancient and modern sources according to their perceived empirical value. Like Porcacchi, he emphasized the experiential, ocular knowledge of the moderns in his isolario in order to claim that his text contained reliable data. Unlike Porcacchi, however, who linked the credibility of his account of Crete to the official reports of the Venetian nobles, de Solis's preference for the common mariners' lore shows the importance of non-elite, craft practice in the establishment of matters of fact about the Aegean. His reliance on maritime testimony and navigational expertise demonstrates how a scholarly study could mix popular and erudite knowledge, thus confirming Anthony Grafton's conclusion that in the early modern period ‘merchants and navigators on the one hand, scholars and philosophers on the other inhabited much the same cosmos, imagined much the same history, and saw no necessary conflict between the lessons of experience and those of books’. [37] In his references to the oral information received from ordinary seamen, de Solis reveals in fact how an island book could bring together a heterogeneous group of men belonging to diverse professional categories and representing different fields of experience and knowledge.

A final group which played a significant part in the production of island books were medical practitioners. In the preface to his Librode tutte l'isole del mondo, Benedetto Bordone addresses his nephew Baldassaro, an ‘eccellent surgeon’, who had ‘seen diligently with the eyes of his body … the whole Mediterranean’ during his long service in the Venetian and Spanish fleets. [38] The dedication of this isolario to a military surgeon has been described by some historians as a rather ‘unusual’ gesture, as it was not in line with the common practice of dedicating books to powerful patrons. [39] This view, however, overlooks the importance of the fact that Bordone was a strong advocate of modern navigational experience, [40] which explains the dedication to Baldassaro as an acknowledgement of his debt towards the precious first-hand information he obtained from his nephew. Moreover, Bordone's appreciation of the broad-based experience and knowledge of a medically trained individual typifies the wider engagement of early modern physicians with fields of learning besides medicine. As early as the fourteenth century a number of doctors in Venice had gained a privileged social status on account of their intellectual activities. [41] Further, the historical and antiquarian interests of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century medical men and their preference for the ‘scientific method of direct observation’ are well established facts among historians who have studied Renaissance medicine as a combination of humanism with early modern scientific culture. [42] From this viewpoint, Bordone's fruitful collaboration with Baldassaro underscores both the provenance of some of his data from a trusted mediator and the key contribution of physicians in that period to various branches of knowledge, including geography.

The connections between medicine and geography are also exemplified in the case of the physician, cosmographer and itinerant astrologer Giuseppe Rosaccio, who produced the Viaggio da Venetia a Costantinopoli (1598). [43] Born into a family of physicians, Rosaccio studied medicine and philosophy at the University of Padua and published numerous texts and maps based on his studies and travels. Like many doctors who doubled as cosmographers, Rosaccio considered the study of geography as a key component of his medical profession. In his view, geography offered an understanding of the natural world and particularly of the ‘rare and marvellous effects of nature’. [44] This attention to medical geography is evident in his several references to medicinal plants and minerals in the Viaggio. Corfu, for instance, is extolled for its ‘medicinal simples of various sorts’ and ‘the good temperature of the air’, while Milos is praised for its ‘many waters, that drip from the rocks with wonderful properties for diverse infirmities’. [45]

Porcacchi's isolario sheds further light on the links between humanist medical erudition and island books. In the preface, the author expresses his gratitude to a learned physician from Brescia, Leone Ghidella, [46] who not only saved his life but also played a crucial role in facilitating the completion of his island book. During a conversation with Ghidella, Porcacchi expressed his sorrow for not having adequate information about the archipelago, ‘except for what [he] had roughly sketched from oral accounts from some expert mariners’. Ghidella's immediate reaction was to show him an anonymous handwritten text containing drawings and descriptions of all the islands of the archipelago: ‘immediately he gave me a manuscript book, without the name of the author, in which all the islands and all the rocks of the Archipelago were designed in order, with a brief narration relating to the measurements of locations’. [47] This manuscript belonged to the common type of scribally transmitted texts which circulated among European collectors, antiquarians and naturalists interested in gathering and exchanging information, natural specimens, curiosities and books. Eventually, as Porcacchi acknowledges, the entire organization of his isolario was modelled on this precious manuscript which he received from his physician.

The high value which Porcacchi attributed to Ghidella's manuscript shows the importance of images in the making of island books. As he expressed his gratitude for the physician's gift, Porcacchi remarked that from that moment onwards he ceased to be a ‘blind man’. The new visual material, he said, illuminated him: ‘having been like a blind man, by courtesy of this gentleman it seemed to me that I gained light on that subject in an instant’. [48] In claiming that he was blind no more, Porcacchi was not using merely a rhetorical trope. He was primarily expressing his deep appreciation of the role of images in the assemblage of an island book. First-hand accounts by skilled mariners, letters from both Venetian and foreign friends, and classical texts by Greek and Roman authors would simply not suffice. Only images could bridge the gap between the real experience of islands and their descriptions on the pages of a book. Only through them could readers see the Levant from home and enjoy what the official cosmographer of the Republic, Vincenzo Maria Coronelli, called ‘a voyage of entertainment’. [49]

With the exception of de Solis's unknown isolario which has no maps, all printed island books contain both images and text in various configurations, including those by Rosaccio and Marco Boschini [50] which pay greater attention to visuals, and those by Giovanni Francesco Camocio [51] and Simon Pinargenti [52] which are exclusively made up of pictures. This shows that images, if not more so, were at least as essential as text in the making of the Venetian isolari. For instance, as the publisher of Rosaccio's Viaggio da Venetia a Costantinopoli, Giacomo Franco, explained in his dedication to the bailo in Constantinople, Marco Venier, he thought it ‘both useful and delightful to describe and represent [the Viaggio] beyond all expression in words, also in copper engravings of all the cities, islands and notable locations … so that not only could he learn through reading, but almost in fact see with his own eyes’. [53]

By stating the power of engravings to represent travel beyond words and to transform the act of reading into an active process of viewing, Franco joined contemporary debates about the visual documentation of knowledge. This was, of course, the age of the birth of atlases, with Ortelius's Theatrum orbis terrarum (1570) being the first geographical book to celebrate maps as mirrors for the eye possessing an immediate mnemonic efficiency superior to any verbal communication. Similar voices arguing for the superiority of image over text were raised in many other fields, where visual information played an essential role, from the fine to the mechanical arts and from anatomy to botany. The learned physician Andreas Vesalius for instance, argued in his De humanis corpori fabrica (Basel, 1543) that images ‘place more clearly before the eyes what the text … describes’, [54] while the botanist Leonhart Fuchs stressed in his illustrated herbal De historia stirpium (Basel, 1542) that pictures ‘can communicate information much more clearly than the word of even the most eloquent men’. [55] Such views attest to the growing perception of the exceptional ability of pictures to serve learning with a kind of immediacy that the written document could not provide. They also point to the distinct role of image-making in the production and transmission of knowledge during the early modern period. [56] As sensory observation and experiential investigation were emerging as new means of validating knowledge, visual cognition became the privileged mode of understanding the world, whereas sight came to represent the supreme of all senses. That view was also shared by Rosaccio who, like other physicians of his day, considered the eye as the principal sensory organ:

The sense of sight has been positioned by industrious nature on the head, in the eyes, in the most prominent part in the way the guards of a city are posted at the highest spots in order to uncover the deceptions and trappings of the enemies; thus, these observers of all things were located by that great master in the highest part of the body so that they guard and take care of it and show what is near and what is far. [57]

Vision, however, was not only a physico-geometrical function of the eyes; most notably, it was associated with embodied image-making processes considered crucial for the creation of visual objects and artefacts. Porcacchi for instance, praised the engraver who made the illustrations of his isolario, Girolamo Porro, for ‘the excellence of hand’ and his amazing performance in engraving both images and lettering despite his eyesight problems:

Although he has imperfect vision, he engraves with such subtlety that he can be counted among those who possess the sharpest eye. He has … imperfect sight, since I do not know for what defect, having the light of one eye stained, that of the other is so short that without the aid of crystal he cannot see very far. This gentleman therefore, with such a defective eye, has so much acuity that he engraves not only with it but with an even greater subtlety of sight; since on a small quantity and rotundity of copper, not greater than a Venetian gazetta, which are these little sterling silver coins, … he has engraved many prayers together with St John's Gospel, which is recited at the end of mass with many psalms, adjusting his capital letters accordingly. [58]

This enthusiastic tribute to the half-blind engraver gifted with extraordinary visual acuity and professional skills serves as a useful device to advertise the fine workmanship of his pictures. Indeed, the perceived value of the visual during that period was closely associated with the printing press and its role in enhancing the volume and epistemological status of images. Prints became a new medium of visual communication which offered ‘pictorial accounts of the visible world’ possessing ‘a remarkable degree of documentary credibility’. [59] This heightened awareness of prints as visual evidence can help to explain Rosaccio's remark that his travels to distant countries would have been of little help had he not seen the woodcuts and copper engravings printed by famous cosmographers and the navigation charts made by Portuguese, English, Venetian and Greek cartographers. [60]

Maps were among the most common printed images, as cartography was central to commerce, warfare, the rise of modern states and empire formation. Mass-produced and relatively affordable objects, they were an important section of early modern consumer goods invested with informational, scholarly, educational, aesthetic and symbolic value. The ability of topographical prints to offer standardized representations increased their function as eyewitness presentations of real events. The competitive business of map publishing furthered that development through the invention of marketing strategies which adopted the rhetoric of truthfulness to promote engraved maps as realistic visual impressions of the depicted places. As a result, printers inserted the adjectives ‘new’, ‘true’ and ‘exact’, or the words ‘from the life’ (‘ad vivum’, ‘al vivo’), in the various titles of their pictures in order to reinforce their representational authority. [61] That was the case for Camocio, one of the most important publishers of geographical prints in sixteenth-century Venice who owned a bookshop and copperplate printing press ‘at the sign of the Pyramid’ at S. Lio. [62] His Isole famose, a collection of previously issued single-sheet engravings of islands, fortresses and battles commonly included in sixteenth-century Venetian ‘composite atlases’, [63] is a good example of early modern visual journalism intended to impress viewers with topical images presented as real. One of them, for instance, bearing the title Il Vero ordine delle due potente armate Christiana, et Turcha nel modo si appresentorno alla loro battaglia fatta sotto li 7 Ottobrio 1571 al Golfo di Lepa[n]to, claimed to portray the formation of the fighting fleets on the eve of the historic battle in a lifelike manner based on empirically verified details. Similarly, Pinargenti's Isole che son da Venetia, another island book connected with the marketplace of cheap print and news pamphlets, contained maps that used the same technique of publicizing journalistic cartography as reliable information in order to attract a larger numbers of buyers. Thus, Il vero disegno di Napoli de Romania posto nella Morea al presente posseduto da infideli, which depicted Napoli di Romania (modern Nafplio) in the form of an island (see Figure 1), and La vera copia et dissegno del sitto di Modone et Navarino venuto dall'armata mandato alli clar.mi s.ri Venetiani come si trova assediata l'armata turchesca dalli 21 sett 1572 fino al presente employed the word ‘vero’ (‘true’) to assure the readers that what they saw was the most accurate graphic news about the contested sites of the Venetian-Ottoman wars. Moreover, the additional statement ‘venuto dall'armata’ (‘arrived from the fleet’) provided the second picture with the authority of an institutional source and muted the conversion process required to turn the manuscript plan received from the fleet into a print.

Figure 1.

Il vero disegno di Napoli de Romania, from Simon Pinargenti, Isole che son da Venetia nella Dalmatia, et per tutto l'Arcipelago (Venice, 1573) (The ‘Historic cities’ project, Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Jewish National and University Libraries <> [accessed 15 May 2012]).

The same effect of verisimilitude was achieved through the re-enactment of certain military episodes in other news maps, like those included in Camocio's island book. ‘In this location the glorious day against the great dragon of the Christians took place in praise of the blessed Jesus’, affirms the accompanying text on Colfo di Lepanto, an image which memorializes the famous battle by locating it not only in time but primarily in space. This process of spatializing information is further continued through the second text box which documents ‘the site location where on 7 October 1571 our lord Jesus Christ wished to help his people through the means of the navy of the Holy League’. In the same vein, the placement of a unit of the Venetian army on the upper right hand side of a print showing the fortress of Soppoto in Albania is accompanied by an explanatory text aimed at constructing a spatialized narrative of military action which made landscape more intelligible: ‘Here stood captain Manoli Marmori with 1,000 Albanians in support of the Christians’ (see Figure 2).

Figure 2.

Nicolo Nelli, Fortezza di Soppoto (1570), from Giovanni Francesco Camocio, Isole famose (Venice, 1574), p. 28 (Venice, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana).

Although usually linked to the demands of marketing, this strong emphasis on topographical precision was also related to the access that printmakers sometimes had to official sources of cartographical information. Indeed, several geographical prints were based on manuscript sketches and military intelligence plans drawn in situ by the Venetian army engineers. Boschini's L'Arcipelago, for example, was a reworking of Buondelmonti's and dalli Sonetti's island books, while his images of Crete copied the original drawings of the military engineer Francesco Basilicata, which were probably acquired with the help of his high-ranking friends. [64] Boschini noted that he used ready-made drawings of many islands, but also prepared new ones himself based on information provided by ‘many trustworthy people, who continuously go to and come from those places’. [65] Nevertheless, it was not always the most accurate images that were sold to the public and very often illustrations alleging to be faithful reproductions of manuscript drawings were in fact adaptations of earlier engravings. The duplication of the same images in different isolari confirms a recurrent sixteenth- and seventeenth-century publishing practice, namely the copying and reuse of woodcuts and copperplates in illustrated books. [66] This was often combined with the mobility of the engravers, who worked for different publishers, and thus helped to establish a common repertoire of widely circulated illustrations. This practice culminated to perfection with the work of Coronelli, who not only drew ‘from recondite manuscripts what has not been published by anyone until now’, [67] but also reissued images which had appeared in earlier books, both his own and others. [68]

Despite the widespread repetition of visual material, the documentary value of the representation was also prominent in printed pictures of wonders and marvels. A very interesting case of transmission of spectacular information from the Ottoman empire is the Miracolo apparso in Costantinopoli, an image included in Camocio's isolario one year after the battle of Lepanto (see Figure 3). The miraculous apparition consisted of the appearance of the Christian cross on the two depicted mosques as well as on the church of St. Sophia, the Orthodox patriarchate and the church of St. Andrew in Galata. Images like this were aimed at rendering unusual events visible for a consumer public fascinated by bizarre sightings, supernatural signs and other prodigious occurrences. Apart from attesting to the use of wonders as evidence of divine providence, Camocio's image shows how print visualization was not a mere illustration of the alleged miracle but primarily a proof of it. The perception of the print as trustworthy visual testimony enhanced its power as a vehicle of religious propaganda, a dimension underlined by the illustration of the multiple but vain efforts of several Ottoman soldiers hurling arrows towards the invincible symbol of the Christian faith.

Figure 3.

Miracolo apparso in Costantinopoli (1572), from Giovanni Francesco Camocio, Isole famose (Venice, 1574), p. 67 (Venice, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana).

In times of military conflict between Venice and the Ottoman empire, images depicting the battle between Christendom and Islam in transcendental terms tended to proliferate in the Venetian market of print. A similar case is de Solis's verbal picture of an alleged miraculous event during the Ottoman siege of Rhodes when, as a result of the prayers of Christians to a Deisis icon, we are told that ‘There appeared visibly before the Turks the most clement Mother of God with a shield on her arm and a spear in her hand, with a man at her side dressed in filthy clothes but with a face more splendid than the sun, together with a very large army which routed all the Turks’. [69] De Solis complements his vivid description of the military weakness of the Ottoman army in front of a Minerva-like Virgin with pages of anti-Islamic prejudice aimed at proving the cultural inferiority of the Ottomans: thus, in his chapter ‘Ceremonies and laws of the Turks’, the opening sentence ‘The Turks, the Moors and all those barbaric nations … ’ [70] sets the tone of the entire section by conflating and homogenizing Ottoman Turks, Arabs and Muslims under the common oversimplifying label of ‘barbaric’. The presence of such proto-orientalist portrayals of the east Mediterranean people in a number of isolari poses the critical question of how far the Greek islands contributed to the formation of the idea of Europe by constituting its exotic Other. As Peter Burke remarks, ‘The Grand Turk did as much as anyone to create the consciousness of Europe in the early modem period’. [71] Indeed, the Ottoman-ruled territories were a key site for the visual construction of religious and cultural alterity in metropolitan Venice. In Coronelli's Isolario, we find a highly revealing image (see Figure 4) of the Venetian lion expelling a group of Turks ‘bag and baggage’ – to use a later well-known expression – back to Asia. This hostile portrayal of the purged Turks, punctuated by the image of a dog to imply their similarity to the animal, constitutes an eloquent visual articulation of the way in which the Venetians demarcated the cultural boundaries separating them from their oriental enemies.

Figure 4.

Parallelo geografico dell'antico col moderno Arcipelago detail, from Vincenzo Maria Coronelli, Isolario (Venice, 1696) (Venice, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana).

Examples like the illustration from Coronelli's Isolario demonstrate the close connections between the types of knowledge contained in island books and Venetian commercial and territorial expansion in the east Mediterranean. This section will discuss the centrality of the Venetian ‘will to empire’ in the making of island books, mainly in two respects. First, it will trace the links between notions of insularity and ideas of empire in Venetian culture; and, second, it will underline the role of colonial forms of prose such as ‘relations’ and ‘reports’ in the production of island knowledge. In so doing, the role of the geo-political context of Venetian trade and colonialism will be examined in a somewhat modified fashion from that adopted in the relevant historiography. It is here contended that a more fruitful analysis can result from viewing the relationship between the isolari and their context in a dialectical rather than a linear way. This is to say that, in as much as commerce and empire building influenced island books, the isolari also played a creative part in sharpening the imperial imagination of Venetian audiences.

Islands were a prominent feature both of Venice and of its overseas dominions and this inevitably created certain images of insularity in metropolitan culture. These images can be understood in relation to the classical genealogy of empire. Commenting on the significance of the Aegean Sea in the history of archaic Greece, Emilio Gabba has remarked that ‘the control of the islands is the fundamental aspect of any thalassocracy’; in the same way, he adds, the Roman empire was considered superior to earlier empires because it controlled the islands of the Mediterranean. [72] In the case of Venice, the rule of islands played an equally vital part in shaping its perception of its own power. Since the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade (1204), Venice began to create a colonial empire which included Crete, Negroponte, Corfu, Kythera and some smaller Aegean islands, as well as the ports of Modon and Coron in the Peloponnese. In a further wave of expansion during the fifteenth century, the Republic increased its island colonies with the acquisition of Cyprus, the northern Sporades (Skiathos, Skopelos, Skyros), and Zakynthos and Cephalonia in the Ionian Sea. Islands therefore became a master locus of Venetian imperial geography and the isolari were decisive in divulging representations of the Republic's island sovereignty. On several of Camocio's pictures, for instance, the phrase ‘locality of the most illustrious Venetians’ signalled that the depicted islands and port cities were occupied by the Republic. Similarly, numerous textual and visual references to fortresses built on insular territory also served to demonstrate possession and thereby conveyed an image of islands as strategic locations under Venetian military command. This was also the case with Bordone's book, the compositional structure and mnemonic visual apparatus of which, as Giorgio Mangani has observed, influenced the reading of the text by representing the Venetian imperial system as the only model of government which fostered successful commerce. [73] It is, however, Coronelli's imperial encyclopaedia of islands which provides the best clues about how the Venetians understood insularity in the context of their maritime empire.

For Coronelli, diversity was what made islands an ‘erudite’ and ‘curious’ subject of investigation. [74] His image of islands as dissimilar sites, where differences could be observed, provided a framework for viewing empire as a fragmentary space made up of discrete and disparate locations. Of course, both the structure of the isolario itself, which presented each island as a world of its own, and its function as a reference book for consultation ad locum rather than linear reading, strongly encouraged the concept of islands as distinct geographical units. At the same time, however, Coronelli identified islands with maritime connectivity, noting that God not only separated the earth through gulfs and rivers to facilitate communication, but also ‘wanted to sow the sea with islands in order to make it more practicable, disposing them with ports and beeches convenient for the refuge and shelter of ships and seamen’. [75] This perception of islands as safe stopping places, where travellers could seek protection, underlines the association of insularity with the notion of security and its importance for Venetian naval power. This particular passage also stresses the place of islands as key nodes within navigational and travel routes.

In emphasizing connectivity rather than isolation or distance, Coronelli was able to articulate not only a central aspect of the history of Mediterranean self-perception, [76] but also a view of empire as a network bringing together a multitude of small geographic sites and insular points of intersection. According to the official Venetian cosmographer, the islands of the Aegean ‘would form a great empire by themselves’ because ‘in their majority they pay haraç to the fleets of the Republic’. [77] Although most of these islands formally belonged to the Ottoman empire, Coronelli's emphasis on the fact that they paid tribute to the Republic demonstrates that the collection of tax was considered a sufficient criterion for and proof of Venetian political domination. This perception implies a flexible notion of empire according to which the determinant of island control was not formal territorial sovereignty, but the power to command and coerce local populations. Coronelli's statement thereby stands as an apt allusion to the archipelagic, episodic and fluid character of Venetian imperial space, which was both experienced and imagined as a web of sea corridors and enclaves reminiscent of the ‘imperfect geographies’ of other early modern European seaborne empires. [78]

The second way of revealing the imperial perspective of island books is to focus on some of the sources that their authors deployed during the writing process. As we saw earlier, part of their materials was related to the administrative apparatus and the advanced culture of documentation which had developed in association with Venetian trade, diplomacy and politics in the east Mediterranean. An interesting clue about the familiarity of authors with state-supported mechanisms of information collection is provided by Porcacchi's emphasis on the scholarly usefulness of the Venetian ambassadorial reports (relazioni). Although these documents contained classified data, they gained the reputation of being highly revealing sources and soon began to circulate in manuscript copies across Europe, while by the end of the sixteenth century they also appeared in print anthologies. [79] In explaining the reasons why he also considered them an important resource, Porcacchi notes that the ambassador ‘inserts in the relatione the ancient and modern histories of the provinces subject to that prince in their right place; he also gives particular information on the sites where these histories took place and … represents them before the eyes as if in a painted panel, so that the man [i.e., the prince] can quickly understand them and have singular information about all the histories’. [80] This passage on the informational value of the relazioni and their ability to represent historical and geographical facts like painted pictures provides an example of the wider interaction of the Venetian world of print culture with the constant traffic of letters and documents between the metropole and its colonial outposts. In Venice, printed maps, travel accounts, historical treatises, news pamphlets, even fiction and poetry, massively drew on reports, dispatches and military surveys, in sum the entire circuit of discursive practices and written communications within which Venetian trade and colonial bureaucracy operated. Similarly, the authors of the isolari often took advantage of the mobility of knowledge through long-distance institutional networks that allowed bureaucratic information to flow to Venice from a variety of overseas territories. In this respect, the aforementioned dedication of Rosaccio's work to the bailo in Constantinople confirms the links between the Venetian printing industry and the Republic's diplomatic network in the east Mediterranean. In fact, the title of his book, Viaggio da Venetia a Costantinopoli, directly refers to the journeys of Venetian diplomats to the Ottoman capital and recalls the diaries which their secretaries and retinue members composed about these travels. [81]

Still, although most printed isolari claimed to use authoritative sources based on cumulative experience, it should be remembered that publishing was not only meant to serve disinterested learning. It was also a commercial enterprise which operated within a highly structured system of patronage and was motivated by a range of economic, social and political concerns. Island books were in fact marketable commodities, which, of course, made the world more readable, but in doing so, they still had to combine description with a good deal of invention. Moreover, experience is not an unproblematic form of knowledge, but is always pervaded by ideological assumptions and mediated through representational conventions and techniques. [82] Therefore, the isolari should not be seen as mere products of travel, commerce and imperial rivalry with the Ottomans, but as significant cultural agents, which familiarized Venetian readers with the land and seascapes of the Levant. Their successful editorial circulation stimulated an economic interest in the islands of the Aegean, which were presented as ‘the most fruitful and delightful’, [83] and naturalized their commercial exploitation. In addition, their illustrated itineraries created an imaginary geography of colonial peripheries and remote trade routes which solidified the distance and difference between what was close to Venice and what was oltremare.

Coronelli's Isolario provides another typical example of the active involvement of island books in the making of Venetian imperial imagination. In its opening image, Venice is depicted as an enthroned queen who receives from Neptune and Venus the emblem of the Accademia degli Argonauti, a geographical society founded in 1684 by Coronelli himself, with the participation of patrician dignitaries and army officers from the State of the Sea (see Figure 5). The emblem of the society, representing a globe with a ship at the top and the motto ‘Plus ultra’, suggested that the Greek gods had endowed Venice with sea power and universal geographical knowledge. [84] This allegorical image underscores the active role of the Academy in the process of Venetian empire building through the use of printed books as an instrument for promoting the Republic's mastery of maritime space. During the same period, the Venetian-Ottoman war of the Morea (1684–99) led the printer Pietr'Antonio Brigonci to publish an updated edition of Porcacchi's L'isole, which he presented as ‘newly corrected and illustrated with the addition of Istria and other islands, rocks and new curiosities’ and a ‘distinct description of the city of Constantinople and the peninsula of the Morea’. [85] Recent conquests led to more assemblages of texts and images and these, in their turn, constructed a new spatial order which called for further, albeit never realized, shifts in Venetian maritime and colonial power.

Figure 5.

Lodovico Lamberti and Alessandro dalla Via, Gli Argonauti, from Vincenzo Maria Coronelli, Isolario (Venice, 1696) (Venice, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana).