New Witcombe book focuses on 16th-century print publishing, murder

Posted on February 17, 2009 by Suzanne Ramsey

A new book by Sweet Briar College art history professor Christopher Witcombe, “Print Publishing in Sixteenth-Century Rome: Growth and Expansion, Rivalry and Murder,” gives readers an overview of the business, personalities, artwork and scandals surrounding the Roman printmaking industry.

Published in 2008 by Harvey Miller Publishers, the 469-page book contains more than 300 illustrations. It is the result of nearly two decades of research that took Witcombe to archives, libraries and museums across the United States and Europe, including six months spent in the Vatican’s secret archives.

“Print publishing,” in this case, refers to engravings and etchings — an emerging commercial art form of the period — and not books or periodicals. Scholars suspect the prints, which often depicted architectural sights or religious subjects, were like postcards.

“There’s a new type of tourist arriving in Rome at this time,” Witcombe said. “Rome has already long been a host to pilgrims. Throughout the middle ages, there are people who would come to Rome for that, so they would obviously be customers for religious prints.

“But there’s also a new type of tourist that would come to see the antiquities and in part these print publishers are catering to this new kind of tourist.”

The publishing companies that produced the prints, and there were perhaps dozens by the end of the 16th-century, were highly competitive. Underhanded practices, up to and including murder, occasionally ensued.

Witcombe originally titled the book, “Print Publishing and Murder in Sixteenth-Century Rome,” but said the marketing folks thought it a bit too “Dan Brown-ish.” He modified the title, but “murder” remained.

“I wanted to keep the idea of murder in it, because the book kind of hinges on this murder that takes place in Rome, very clearly due to rivalry between print publishing houses,” he said. “Things had just gotten so nasty.”

The murder to which Witcombe is referring is that of the engraver Gerolamo da Modena, whose drowned body was found in the Tiber River. He writes about the homicide in the book’s fourth chapter, “Rivalry and Murder.”

During his research, Witcombe read an article that mentioned depositions taken after the homicide, which was largely thought to have been carried out by a rival publishing house or a consortium of shops. He found the transcript of the testimonials in Rome, studied it, and learned a lot about the personalities involved in the printmaking industry, many of whom were rounded up and questioned by local authorities.

“On the assumption that this was a murder that occurred, they arrested all these people and then — today we might call it giving these depositions — they were kind of interrogated. Someone would ask them questions and they would answer. What this document is is a record of the questions and answers.”

From his research, Witcombe already knew the names of many of those who were questioned, but reading the depositions gave him what he calls a “street-level view” of the people and places involved. “What people are doing, who they are related to, where they are living, what restaurants they were going to — all this, I was able to tease out of this document,” he said.

That painstaking process is a part of writing Witcombe says he enjoys and it explains his love of archives. “This is the real stuff,” he said. “It’s not someone else telling me something. This is the real material. It’s sort of like reading someone else’s mail, in effect, in terms of you’re getting the real information here.”

For more information about Witcombe and his book, visit his Web site.