Library Spotlight: 1590 Gospels in Arabic | Salisbury Cathedral

Search form

You are here

Library Spotlight: 1590 Gospels in Arabic

Posted By : Guest Blogger Wednesday 17th June 2015

This blog post was written by Nathan Shipstone, Cathedral Verger.


The late 16th century was a turbulent time for the Popes of Rome. Though they had absolute rule over the Papal States of central Italy, levied enormous political influence throughout most of Europe, and were the heart of Catholic Christendom; the Popes’ authority as sovereigns of the land were under constant threat from the bellicose Ottoman Empire to the east and the Barbary pirates to the south, and likewise their sovereignty of faith was being eroded by an increasingly confident Protestant Reformation to the north. But it was during this time of great crisis that considerable resources were spent establishing an Arabic printing press in Rome, whose initial intention was to promote the Catholic faith amongst Arabic-speaking Christians of the Middle East, but which ended up having a far more significant impact on the growth of Oriental Studies in Europe. The first book that this press published was the four Gospels, in Arabic, and Salisbury Cathedral’s library possess an original copy of them.


This printing press (the Medici Oriental Press, named after its patron) was instigated in 1584 by Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici, a native of Florence and the second son of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, of the House of Medici. The Medici were a powerful banking family and political dynasty who ruled Tuscany for some four hundred years between the late 14th to the late 19th centuries. The Medici had a long history of patronage to the arts, and they are widely considered to have helped foster the birth of the Italian Renaissance in Florence. Cardinal Medici’s Oriental Press had the full support of the then Pope, Gregory XIII, who had made considerable efforts during his papacy to ground and expand Catholic influence in the Middle East (particularly amongst the Maronite community in what is now modern-day Lebanon) and who granted the Press a virtual monopoly in which to print Arabic books.


With the vast wealth of his family and direct support from the Pope behind him, Cardinal Medici set about commissioning a new Arabic type for his Oriental Press, far superior to any previously used. He solicited the help of the great French typographer, Robert Granjon, who had moved to Rome several years earlier to work on types for other Oriental languages that were needed by Catholic missionaries in the Middle East. Granjon manufactured a moveable metal type that bettered all previous attempts at an Arabic printing press in Europe, and would remain unsurpassed for years afterward. Like most operations based in Rome, the Medici Oriental Press had the primary purpose of missionary and evangelising activity but this did not prevent Cardinal Medici, along with the learned director of the Press, Giovanni Battista Raimondi, from publishing several secular Arabic works. Such books included a 12th century geographical text by the Moroccan cartographer al-Idrisi (in 1592), an 11th century medicinal canon by the famous Persian polymath Avicenna (in 1593), and an ancient Arabic translation of the renowned 3rd century BC Greek mathematician Euclid (in 1594). These books were to be sold in the Ottoman Empire (who had yet to establish a printing press of their own) in order to make a profit from the Medici Press and to make use of a newly acquired import licence, issued by Sultan Murad III, to allow books printed in Rome (which was still an enemy nation) to be sold in his Empire. The lure of such rich profits from the untapped market of the Ottoman bourgeois may have helped the Medici Press to circumvent the usually strict censorship ecclesiastical authorities exercised over the publishing houses in Rome.


Raimondi had ambitious plans to print many more works in Arabic and in other Oriental languages, but lack of popularity in the Ottoman Empire made the Medici Press a commercial failure. Adding to these woes, Pope Gregory died in 1585 just one year after the Press opened, Medici resigned his cardinalship in 1587 in order to ascend as Grand Duke of Tuscany, and when Raimondi himself died in 1614 the printing Press was effectively shut down. However, the unsold volumes of the Medici Press that were destined for the East were, in the years and decades following its closure, to find new markets in the West – inspiring a new generation of European Orientalists (including those in England) with a wealth of means to study the language of Arabic, the region of the Middle East, and the scientific achievements of the Golden Age of Islam.  


View the gallery of pictures of this book here.