Book review: Corina Lanfranchi: Gut zum Druck! Streifzüge durch 525 Jahre Druck- und Verlagsgeschichte in Basel. Basle: Schwabe Verlag, 2013.

Published in November 2013. ISBN: 978-3796529177. 431 pp. €32.80 (D), €34.00 (A), sFr. 39.80. Available here.

Guest post by Sören Ohle, Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz

The analysis and Book coverthe development of publishing houses has always been a matter of great interest for scholars in the field of Book Studies. The Schwabe-Verlag in Basle has now published its own, 525 year-long history in an attractive volume, compiled by Corina Lanfranchi. Besides its respectable extent of 431 well-written pages, it contains numerous pictures and photographs in order to illustrate the changes in the history of the publishing house over half a century. As Lanfranchi herself points out, the books is not just a book of printing history: it is a Basle guidebook, a “Bücherreise” (p. 13). As a popular example of history marketing, the book therefore is not written for an academic public or with an academic purpose but aims to interest above all general readers.

The development is presented in strictly chronological order and the chapters – the so-called “stations” – are structured by the venues in which the publishing house had its seat over time. For example, the publishing house was founded in 1488 as the so-called “Officin Petri”, situated in the Ackermannshof. In 1510 the first owner, Adam Petri, bought the “Haus zum langen Pfeffer”, Weiße Gasse 28, where he became the best-known Swiss printer of Martin Luther’s translated bible. From there, the printing presses were moved frequently from one place to another: St. Alban Vorstadt (the famous Cosmographia was printed here in 1544), Marktplatz, Schwanengasse/Spiegelgasse, Klosterberg, Steinentorstrasse 13, Muttenz and, finally, Steinentorstrasse 11. For every location throughout history, Lanfranchi presents the reader with additional facts and figures. History comes alive through pictures and photographs and Lanfranchi explains the constant changes in the ownership of the printing house – from Petri to Henricpetri, Decker, Schweighauser and finally to Schwabe.

In addition to the chronology, the study contains eleven side notes, written by various well-respected authors and illuminating specific issues and circumstances of Swiss (printing) history. For example, Wulf D. von Lucius points out the outstanding skills of Swiss publishing houses regarding the quality and craftsmanship in book production around 1800; Leonhard Burckhardt offers a short but nonetheless precise sketch about the famous (art) historian Jacob Burkhardt – born in Basel in 1818 – and his concept of history. Marco Jorio recounts the development of Swiss encyclopedias in the 17th and 18th centuries, whereas Annemarie Pieper introduces the Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie (1899) as a very successful and well-known title.

The book itself is a good example for a high-quality book made in Switzerland. Gut zum Druck! is easy to read, its surface feel and look are of higher value than most other publishing histories. The downside to its popular design is that it does not fulfill scholarly and specifically book historical requirements. The main part and its insights are mainly based on Frank Hieronymus’ study 1488 Petri – Schwabe 1988: Eine traditionsreiche Basler Offizin im Spiegel ihrer frühen Drucke (published by Schwabe in 1997). Lanfranchi’s introduction makes that very clear when starting out by calling Hieronymous’ book a “treasure cove”, p. 14). Therefore, Hieronymus’ study seems to determine the skeletal structure, to which Lanfranchi added episodes and anecdotes regarding the publishing house of Petri/Schwabe. Hence, her main aim was to write a popular history of the publisher and printing press Schwabe, trying to visualize the stories of authors, printers and publishers hidden behind the books. For that purpose, Lanfranchi wrote an admirable book: she bids the reader to dive into the history of Schwabe and she successfully brings the past back to life. In particular, Lanfranchi’s approach to structuring her book along the locations in which the printing press was housed over the centuries invites the reader out for a walk, following the trails of Petri and Schwabe through Basle, much like a travel guide would.

Although the eleven additional articles deal with specific questions regarding the history of printing, they are not useful as scholarly introductions. For example, the two short contributions by Ruedi Bienz (“Vom Bleisatz zum digitalen Publizieren”, pp. 369-379) and Michael Düblin (“Die digitale Revolution: Von der Satzautomation zum E-Publishing”, pp. 380-393) try to cover 500 years in the history of printing, but there are no further comments by Lanfranchi and the two contributions are narrowly focused on anecdotal history relating to Schwabe. Thus, they cannot provide any specific, scholarly relevant information beyond this context. Even if Lanfranchi has done well as an editor, by summing up some historical background for further understanding – and no doubt the two contributions are interesting to read – she fails to find the appropriate extent for the topic: one cannot sum up 500 years of printing history on just 24 pages. In fact, none of the published articles is longer than 13 pages, which is not enough for a scholarly examination. But it is adequate for the readers Lanfranchi has compiled the book for.

In conclusion, a scholarly reader should not expect a restructured and updated version of Hieronymus’ monumental (two-volume, 2000-page) study, including wider contexts as well as new sources with reliable interpretations. But the interested reader will find a colorful panorama of its main subject – the printing press and publishing house Schwabe within Basle’s printing history.


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