Theodore Cachey has pointed to the fact that Italian humanism was in general uncongenial to absorbing and exploiting the New World discoveries of the sixteenth century. Perhaps Italian intellectuals simply found it difficult to share enthusiasm for the imperialist adventures of Portuguese, Spanish, and later explorers while Italy was marked by political disunity. Accustomed to a leading role in high culture, Italians were discomfited by the patent leadership of others. (72) No surprise, then, that for real, practical command of a geographical subject, lucidly explained in something we can recognize as a basic textbook, we must wait for the importation of Northern humanist texts on geography into the Italian market.


Honter's geography in verse (click to enlarge - 794 KB jpeg image)

Honter's geography in verse (click to enlarge - 794 KB jpeg image)

As we will see with other genres of pedagogical literature, the key moment of transition came in the fifteen twenties and thirties. By this time, the New World discoveries were becoming common knowledge and more and more scholars wanted to take them actively into account. At the elementary level, it was no longer enough to conceive the world in purely European and Christian terms. Not incidentally, several of the most important general geographies of the period were penned by schoolmasters who also taught Latin grammar and rhetoric. Their polymathy made them more open than their contemporaries to including new geographical data.

Joachim Vadianus (1484-1551) at St. Gall in Switzerland and Johannes Honter (1498-1549) at Braşov (Kronstadt) in Transylvania were true polymaths. They taught school, took part in local politics, and edited or composed texts on grammar, rhetoric, philosophy, and science. Both men knew the latest books by Italian humanist authors but did not rest content with Italian humanism. Vadianus was also a medical doctor and poet; while Honter closely supervised the cutting of woodblocks for the highly accomplished maps that appeared in is works. Both were educational reformers on the local level and prominent internationally in Protestant Reform circles, feeling as they did that humanism was an appropriate vehicle for the new evangelical ideals. So it is no surprise that their works were only rarely used in Catholic Italy.

Vadianus' voluminous manual (click to enlarge - 844 KB jpeg image)

Vadianus' voluminous manual (click to enlarge - 844 KB jpeg image)

Honter's Cosmographical Basics (Rudimenta cosmographica) was a brief general geography textbook with toponymic lists and a map. First published in prose (1530) and then recast in Latin hexameters (dating from 1541), the Rudimenta saw over a hundred editions. But it was published only twice in Italy, both times discretely buried inside larger works by other authors. Composed for use as a textbook, its only Italian editions were inside enormous encyclopedias. Interestingly, in this same form three editions in Italian were published at Basel and Cologne, presumably for Italians resident in Switzerland and Germany. (73)

Vadianus' Summary of the Three Parts of the Earth (Epitome trium terrae partium, first published in 1534) was similarly successful, but again, not in Italy. Vadianus developed this comprehensive geographical manual (most editions run to five hundred pages or more) by building on earlier scholarly and evangelical publications, respectively a commentary on Pomponius Mela and a study of the missionary voyages of St. Paul. Vadianus presented the Epitome as a logical outgrowth of Scripture study. He offered his readers no less eminent a mentor than St. Paul, whose missionary travels were a commonplace model for modern evangelicals. Vadianus claimed that Paul's letters are best understood by those who study geography so as to know about the peoples and physical features of foreign lands. Geography and the missionary impulse were thus inextricably linked in Vadianus' influential work. (74)


Both Honter and Vadianus employed printers who knew how to make books in the latest humanist styles. Indeed, most editions of Honter's little geography would have been at home, graphically at least, in any Italian bookshop of the fifteen forties that catered to Latin-school students. The first edition of the Rudimenta in verse, printed at Braşov / Kronstadt under Honter's direct supervision, is an octavo with the poetic text set in italics, in the style of the popular Aldines of the period. The paper and presswork are first quality. The title page is adorned with a simple architectural border, not an Aldine look but still consistent with many books printed at Venice for the Hungarian and Balkan market. Later editions by Christoph Froschauer in Zurich are even more Venetian in look. They have clearly organized, typographic title pages with a handsome emblematic printer's mark.

Vadianus in the types of Frischauer, 1534 (click to enlarge - 820 KB jpeg image)

Vadianus in the types of Frischauer, 1534 (click to enlarge - 820 KB jpeg image)

Vadianus's printers also dressed his work in Venetian style. The Epitome was much longer than the Rudimenta, and it usually came off the presses as a chunky octavo. In Basel and Zurich editions (the latter also by Froschauer), its prose text is less spacious on the page than Honter's hexameters, but the types are clear and well used, and the result was a book very much in tradition of Venetian scholarly octavos of the period. So, Northern humanists sought and got Italianate packages for many of their works, even when the books would never find wide currency in Italy. (75)

Open Bibliography (330 KB pdf)
(72)  Cachey 1996, 63-64.
(73)  Karrow 1993, 302-315; Engelmann 1982, 58-63 and 84-90; Török 2001, 70-72.
(74)  Vadianus 1534, 17-18; Bonorand 1962, 91-96.
(75)  Näf 1945, 21-26. Most of Froshauer's output was in a Germanic style using gothic types, but he was capable of excellent Italian-style typography for classical texts, humanist literature, and science; see Staedke 1965, 60, 72-79; Leemann-Van Elck  1040, 163-167.

Posted by admin on September 19, 2008
Tags: Chapter Four

Total comments on this page: 9

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MQuinlan on paragraph 2:

Personal taste but I didn’t like the word polymathy.

April 5, 2009 2:35 pm
Paul F. Gehl on paragraph 8:

Further on Honter, see now: Urs. B. Leu, “The Teaching of Geography in 16th Century Zurich,” in Scholarly Knowledge (Geneva, 2008), esp. pp. 240-245.

April 21, 2009 3:05 pm
Paul F. Gehl on paragraph 1:

A good, microscopic look at a geography textbook market outside Italy in our period is Urs B. Leu, “Textbooks and Their Uses, an Insight into the Teaching of Geography in 16th Century Zurich,” in Scholarly Knowledge. Textbooks in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Emidio Campi et al., Geneva, Librairie Droz, 2008, 229-248

January 4, 2011 11:25 am
eddie.guimont on paragraph 1:

Italians may have been isolated from New World discoveries, although given that Italian navigators and innovations were vital to the initial imperial adventures of those other states, I wonder if there was an initial interest that died off once Spain, et al., developed independence from that Italian aid. But at the same time, Italy was where refugees from Byzantium traveled, and had more direct contact with the Arab and Turkish worlds – through the attempted Ottoman invasions, trade contacts, and as a site to prepare for Christian counter-attacks on the Muslim world – than many of those same imperial powers who were focused on the New World. So I wonder, is there any evidence that while Spanish, Dutch., etc., humanists were more receptive to the geographic and naturalistic discoveries of the New World, Italian humanists may have still been receptive to discoveries and contact in the other direction, ie, with the Eastern world? Or by the 15th/16th centuries, had the knowledge of the Muslim world been largely diffused throughout Christendom already?

September 20, 2011 12:39 pm
eddie.guimont on paragraph 1:

I tried posting this before, but my comment got eaten, so let’s try this again…

I wonder if the fact that the earliest voyages to the New World, if not done by Italian states still were done with Italian navigators and innovations, allowed for an early interest in the New World discoveries by Italian humanists, only dying out after the imperial powers developed independence from Italian aid. Also, Italy was the place of refuge for those escaping the fall of Byzantium, as well as a main center of contact – through attempted invasions, trade, and attempts at counter-attack – with the Arab/Ottoman world, having much closer contact than the imperial powers like Spain, Portugal, etc., did. Did this result in Italian humanists drawing more inspiration on the geographic/naturalistic discoveries of the East, even if they ignored the discoveries coming in from the other direction? Or was the knowledge of the Muslim/Eastern world so diffused through Europe at this time that it would have had little impact on Italian humanists specifically?

September 20, 2011 12:51 pm
Paul Gehl :

Sorry for the delay, Eddie. For a first comment you need to wait for approval. From now on you personally are approved to comment and new comments should show up immediately when you post them.

September 20, 2011 4:33 pm
Paul Gehl on paragraph 1:

I might send your question on to Ted Cachey, Eddie –with your permission. He is the great expert on this subject. My immediate sense is that Italians in general were deeply interested in the discoveries themselves, and in all the issues around them, but that the humanists in particular did not feel that it was a field of study they owned.

September 20, 2011 4:27 pm
eddie.guimont :

Sorry about that – that sprung to mind as the reason immediately after I re-sent my post…But thanks for the quick reply, and I certainly give permission for my question to be passed along to any and everyone!

September 20, 2011 5:11 pm
Paul F. Gehl on whole page :

For a good discussion of geography in the mature humanist classroom (in Protestant Switzerland), see Urs B. Leu, “Textbooks and their Uses –An Insight into the Teaching of Geography in 16th century Zurich,” in Scholarly Knowledge: Textbooks in Early Modern Europe, Geneva, Droz, 2008, pp. 229-248.

August 21, 2017 12:21 pm

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