3.01 A Teacher in Print

In November of 1490 a moderately well known grammar master at Rome, Antonio Mancinelli, wrote to Battista Gorio, a medical doctor in his home town of Velletri. He wished to dedicate to Gorio a small elementary Latin textbook designed for boys like the doctor's own sons. After remarking that he had composed no fewer than fourteen such schoolbooks, all printed in Rome, he put down a list of them and added this wry observation:

Truly that is all. No other works of mine interrupt the leisure of the printers. All these books were composed during these last twelve years at night, at the insistence of students, and amidst difficulties and worry about domestic matters, as you well know. For what Eusebius writes of Lactantius is often the case, "Up to the age of thirty-eight years, he lived partly in his homeland and partly at Rome." (1)

Here, in the context of a classical commonplace -- the careerist away from home lamenting the difficulty of finding time to write -- Mancinelli slips in a minor but very modern complaint. He worked hard and incessantly at his writing but the printers had only to reproduce them, an easy task by contrast to his own.

Master Antonio Mancinelli was a lay teacher with excellent philological credentials and impeccable moral ones, a combination not always found in late fifteenth-century humanist circles, especially in hedonistic Rome. His life offers a useful case for exploring the impact of print, and the role of printers, in the teaching of elementary subjects because he was so self-conscious a participant. Born in 1452, he undertook a teaching career in just those years in the early fourteen seventies when printing began to take hold in Italy. He matured while Italian humanists were actively engaged in editing the classics for the press and were at the same time debating the role of print in the transmission of classical texts.

Twenty years later, when Mancinelli had been teaching for some years in Rome, and when his reputation as a grammatical humanist was at its peak, the Italian printing industry was well established. Printed books at all levels of ambition and price were plentiful. In major printing centers, notably Venice and Milan, there was lively competition among printers for the best works of the most successful authors, even in highly traditional fields like grammar. Starting in the 1480's we can observe the phenomenon of best-selling contemporary authors and a perhaps inevitable accompaniment, piracies and unauthorized editions. This competitive climate would deeply affect Mancinelli's reputation and even the survival of some of his works.  Mancinelli was an active player in the publication of his own works. He often addressed himself to the facts of printing, especially as these affected the classroom use of his works. His prefaces, afterwords, and poetry explained how his works were to be used in print in the classroom. Unlike many humanists Mancinelli was calm, sometimes even good humored about the inaccuracies of printers. He was probably among the most self-conscious teachers in print in his generation. Only Aldo Manuzio (1449-1515) and Josse Bade Ascensius (1463-1535) -- both practicing printers as well as grammarians -- were as astute. (2)

It may even be that Mancinelli's success as an author of printed textbooks limited the survival of his works in manuscript form. There are few manuscripts of his pedagogical works and the frequently printed ones are particularly rare in manuscript, suggesting two conclusions. First, widespread printing so saturated the market for some schoolbooks that few teachers or students felt the need to copy these short, useful texts by hand. Mancinelli's textbooks could be had easily and inexpensively, especially in Italy, but also in France, Germany, and the Low Countries. Secondly, from mid-career onward, Mancinelli likely sent his works directly to press without ever preparing manuscript copies for classroom use. He truly made the transition from manuscript to print authorship in the course of his thirty-five-year teaching career.

It was as a teacher that Mancinelli achieved notoriety. Most classroom reputations are modest and do not survive the life span of a "famous" teacher's students. This fact of classroom fame was true in most of Western intellectual history before the invention of printing. In ancient times, there is only one example of a grammarian, Aelius Donatus, whose name became a permanent fixture in the classroom literature. Among the many medieval grammatical pedagogues, only Alexander of Villa Dei had this kind of published afterlife. The cult of personality in early humanist circles created at least three more, Gasparino Barzizza and Guarino Veronese in the first generation, and Lorenzo Valla in the next. Valla' case is exceptional because, though he wrote an elementary grammar, it was never much used. His classroom afterlife (as distinct from his larger fame) came about because others digested his scholarly works for the use of students.

Print publication created a different kind of fame. It gave some fairly ordinary teachers in Mancinelli's generation (and ever since) the opportunity for a permanent, or at least long-term literary reputation specifically as textbook writers. The first grammarian to achieve this distinction in print was Nicolò Perotti, a generation older than Mancinelli, who also penned one of the first critiques of the press as a transmitter of faulty texts. (3) Print also prolonged the useful life of textbooks by Donatus, Alexander, and Guarino, or books attributed to them. Thus, the pedagogical principles and teaching skills of the author of a successful textbook could last for generations. For the first time in history, textbook authors could reasonably hope to turn contemporary fame into a permanent reputation for good teaching practice, perhaps even into economic success in their own lifetimes.


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  • (1) Mancinelli 1490b: Quae quidem omnia. Nil aliud preterquam impressorum commoditatem morantur. Ea denique cuncta inter annos duodecim lucubrata, instantia quoque discipularum difficultatibus et rerum domesticarum cura quod et tu nosti. Saepe enim accidebat quod de Lactantio scribit Eusebius: Hec hactenus natus annos duodequadroginta: partim in patria Romae partim. Neither the small textbooks nor the collected works published in Mancinelli's lifetime are foliated, probably following his own design preference. In this chapter, prefaces are cited without folio or page numbers since they always appear on the first or second folio. Other information in Mancinelli's textbooks are cited with signature marks. The best source of biographical information on Mancinelli is the dissertation of Mellidi 2002, especially 32-79; see also Sabbadini 1878.
  • (2) Jensen 1998, 260-264, 277; on Manuzio and Bade, see section 4.07. Giovanni Battista Cantalicio (1450-1514), a contemporary of Mancinelli's, was more typical of humanists in complaining uncomprehendingly of the avarice of printers. A preface to this effect was reprinted with his grammar book over forty times in the sixteenth century.
  • (3) Miglio 1983, 250; Monfasani 1988, 7-13; Rossini 1997, 104-109.
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