The Lagoon City and the Book: Descriptions of Renaissance Venice

By Sandra Toffolo |

The Fondazione Biblioteca San Bernardino in Trento, one of our Preserving the World’s Rarest Books library partners, is home to the books acquired over the centuries by the Franciscans in Trentino: around 25,000 books published prior to the nineteenth century, including over 300 incunabula and 3,600 books from the sixteenth century. Among their many treasures is De Venetis magistratibus by Marcantonio Sabellico (1436-1506). As promised by the title, it is a treatise about the various magistracies of the Venetian Republic. Page after page, Sabellico describes in detail how these magistracies came into being and what their tasks are. ‘No musical harmony answers as much to itself in every respect as the diligent administration of our city does,’ he declares. (‘Nulla in musicis armonia tam sibi ex omni parte respondet: quam nostrae civitatis diligens administratio…’, fol. 94v.)

Fondazione Biblioteca San Bernardino
Sabellico’s De Venetis magistratibus. Courtesy of the Fondazione Biblioteca San Bernardino, ffa-XI 325.

The Fondazione Biblioteca San Bernardino’s version can be found on fols. 94v-104v of Opera Marci Antonii Sabellici, a large folio book containing 21 works by Sabellico and printed in Venice by Albertino da Lessona in 1502 (USTC 854022). Dozens of libraries currently hold a copy of this book, including another one of our PWRB partners: the Codrington Library in Oxford. This 1502 book was not the first time that De Venetis magistratibus saw the light of day. It had been published for the first time as a separate, 34-leaf treatise in quarto format by Antonius de Strata in Venice in 1488 or 1489 (USTC 991471). A substantial number of copies of this edition also survive to the present day: 38 in total, including our PWRB partners the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen, the Houghton Library at Harvard University, Yale’s Beinecke Library, and the Morgan Library in New York. Indeed, Sabellico’s treatise on Venetian magistracies proved popular enough to be printed in multiple editions, outside of Italy as well as in Venice, either as a separate treatise or as part of Sabellico’s collected works. Moreover, many of Sabellico’s other works also had much success. In appreciation of his book on Venetian history, Rerum Venetarum ab urbe condita libri XXXIII, the Venetian government even awarded Sabellico a lectureship at one of the city’s schools. They also granted the book copyright – the first known author’s copyright.

All of this is in stark contrast with how modern historians speak of Sabellico’s works. Eric Cochrane, for example, has written that ‘Sabellico managed to combine the principal defects both of Quattrocento humanist historiography and of the Venetian chronicle tradition.’ (p. 84) Clearly, this opinion was not shared by Sabellico’s contemporaries, as shown by the fact that De Venetis magistratibus alone is present in dozens of libraries around the globe, not to mention Sabellico’s many other works.

Erhard Reuwich’s view of Venice
Detail of Erhard Reuwich’s view of Venice, one of 26 woodcuts included in Bernhard von Breydenbach’s Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam (first published in 1485). Courtesy of Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

How common was it for people in the early modern period to spend time reading dozens of pages that describe the government of a city that they had perhaps never even set foot in? The answer to this question is that it was actually not at all a rare phenomenon. City descriptions had been a common feature of European literature since antiquity, occurring not only as part of larger works but also in texts that were devoted entirely to describing a certain city or territory. Some cities attracted more attention than others, and Venice was definitely a city that inspired a large number of descriptions. Indeed, the oldest extant description dates from 537, when Venice consisted only of small communities living on the various islands of the lagoon, and from that moment onwards people have never ceased to devote texts to the city. In the Renaissance, it was the subject of a wide variety of works. Sabellico’s De Venetis magistratibus speaks about Venice’s political system. This has long been recognised in historiography as an important element in how both Venetians and foreigners thought about the city in the Renaissance. Venice was often portrayed as the seat of an ideal government in texts from across Europe, written in different languages, and in genres ranging from political treatises to poetry. However, descriptions of Venice did not only discuss its political system. Other authors could emphasise different elements, including the city’s religious aspects, morality, or material culture. Moreover, Venice was not just limited to the islands on the lagoon. Already prior to the Renaissance it had various maritime possessions, and in the course of the long fifteenth century it also came to stand at the head of an extensive territory on the Italian mainland. This, too, was taken into account by many authors who described Venice in the early modern period.

Benedetto Bordon’s Isolario (1534).
View of Venice in Benedetto Bordon’s Isolario (1534). Source: Wellcome Collection.

Such representations of Venice circulated in different genres, different languages, manuscript and print, and across Europe and even the Americas. This happened not only through texts but also through oral tradition and images (as seen in the examples in this blog post). Some authors even refer explicitly to such transmission of ideas. Felix Faber, a monk from the German town of Ulm who passed through Venice during his pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1480 and again in 1483-1484, in his travel account mentions on multiple occasions that he has taken information from Sabellico’s works. He also gives us a glimpse of other ways in which he learned about Venice and its history and legends. On one occasion, for instance, he explains that he learned of a certain legend about Venice and Saint Mark from merchants, the hearsay of the common people, and an old chronicle, ‘written on parchment’, which he found in a convent library in Germany. Ideas about Venice were therefore in no way restricted to the Venetian lagoon but could, and did, circulate far and wide. The various editions of Sabellico’s work on Venetian magistracies, which today can still be found in libraries across the world, are a small testimony to this broad reach.


Some further reading:

  • Ruth Chavasse, “The First Known Author’s Copyright, September 1486, in the Context of a Humanist Career,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library of Manchester 69, no. 1 (1986): 11–37.
  • Eric W. Cochrane, Historians and Historiography in the Italian Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).
  • Felix Gilbert, “Biondo, Sabellico, and the Beginnings of Venetian Official Historiography,” in Florilegium Historiale: Essays Presented to Wallace K. Ferguson, ed. John Gordon Rowe and W. H Stockdale (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971), 275–293.
  • Francesco Tateo, “Marcantonio Sabellico e la svolta del classicismo quattrocentesco,” in Florence and Venice: comparisons and relations, vol. 1: Quattrocento (Firenze: La Nuova Italia, 1979), 41-63.
  • Sandra Toffolo, “Constructing a Mainland State in Literature: Perceptions of Venice and Its Terraferma in Marin Sanudo’s Geographical Descriptions,” Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme 37, no. 1 (2014): 5–30.
  • Angelo Ventura, “Scrittori politici e scritture di governo,” in Dal primo Quattrocento al concilio di Trento, ed. Girolamo Arnaldi and Manlio Pastore Stocchi, vol. III, Storia della cultura veneta 3 (Vicenza, 1981), 513–563.


Sandra Toffolo is a postdoctoral researcher for the Universal Short Title Catalogue at the University of St Andrews. Her research focuses mainly on early modern geographical descriptions of Venice and the Venetian mainland state and on pilgrimage. You can follow her on

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Images available from the Wellcome Collection, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and Wikimedia under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence. Copyright of Wellcome Collection, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and Wikimedia.

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