2. Arabic and the Art of Printing
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Historians generally credit Napoleon with introducing the printing press to the Arab world when he invaded Egypt in 1798. But though Napoleon did bring printing presses - and Arabic type - to Egypt, the story of Arabic printing is, in a sense, even older than printing. It begins in 1311, when the Papacy established chairs for the study of Arabic and other oriental languages at three European universities and at Rome.
This move - to encourage Arabic studies - was the result of a number of factors: Papal correspondence with the Mongol court , close ties with the Crusader states in the Levant, long-standing trade relations between the Italian maritime republics and the eastern Mediterranean and-the Papacy's prime interest-a desire to propagate the Catholic faith among the Arabic-speaking Christian communities of Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.
There were other, less political, considerations, too. Translations from Arabic - the language in which Greek philosophy and science had been preserved - were essential to St. Thomas Aquinas and other Christian theologians in their formulations of medieval theology and philosophy; to properly understand Aristotle, the foundation for much medieval thinking, theologians had to read translations of the great commentaries upon him composed in Arabic by such Muslim scholars as Avicenna and Averroes. But most were unsatisfactory.
It is therefore not surprising that it was in Italy, the European country with the broadest interest in the Arabic-speaking world, that the first Arabic book was printed from movable type, in 1514.
Arabic type had been used sporadically before 1514, but no entire book printed in Arabic was produced until Gregorio de Gregorii, a Venetian, published a Book of Hours entitled Kitab Salat al-Sawa'i, probably for export to the Christian communities of Syria.
The book was not a great success. Though the borders, depicting arabesque flowers and birds, are charming, the type is crude: squarish, ill-formed letters that are unpleasant and virtually unreadable. It was, nevertheless, a bold attempt, as well as the first, to solve the problems of printing in the Arabic alphabet: designing and making - by hand - hundreds of characters and the connections between characters needed to duplicate the cursive nature of Arabic script. De Gregorii s typeface, moreover, was more successful than the Arabic type used by William Postel in his Unguarum duodecim, printed in Paris in 1538 or the eccentric face used in Rutgher Spey's Epistola ad Galatas, done in Heidelberg in 1583.
The man who did begin to solve the problems of Arabic printing was the French type designer Robert Granjon, whose name is still associated with a wide range of unsurpassed Latin and Greek typefaces - and the story of how he came to design Arabic type begins with the attempts by the Papacy to unite the Christian churches of the Levant with Rome. As these Christian minorities - Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Jacobite, Nestorian and Coptic - were strongly represented in the important trading centers of the Levant, Constantinople, Aleppo, and Alexandria, Pope Gregory XIII, in 1576, determined to make this connection spiritual as well as commercial. As a start he focused on the Maronites, who had particularly close commercial links with Italy. In 1584, he founded a Maronite College in Rome to train European missionaries in various oriental languages, and to train oriental Christians in the languages of Europe. Responding enthusiastically, the Maronites threw themselves into the task of editing, writing, and translating books into and from Latin, Arabic and Syriac. But as it soon became obvious that the time had come to seriously undertake the printing of Arabic and other oriental languages, Gregory appointed Cardinal Ferdinando de Medici director of what came to be called the Medici Press. Cardinal de Medici, in turn, sought someone versed in oriental languages to oversee the operation of the press, and was lucky enough to find Giovan Battista Raimondi.
Giovan Battista Raimondi was the archetype of the Renaissance man: an accomplished classicist, a philosopher, a mathematician and a chemist. More to the point, he was also well qualified with regard to Arabic printing. During a trip to the East, he had learned Arabic, Turkish and Persian and collected grammars and dictionaries of those languages. He had also translated books from both Greek and Arabic, and written learned commentaries on Greek scientific works.
To set up an Arabic press, Raimondi rented some buildings on the piazza del Monte d'Oro in Rome, ordered presses, ink, paper and other necessary stocks and through a printer named Domenico Basa, obtained punches with which to cut an Arabic alphabet - punches designed by Granjon. Basa sold the punches to Raimondi and signed an agreement under which they would work together and share materials.
The first books printed under this arrangement - and bearing Domenico Basa's imprint - were the Liber VII precationum (1584), a book of Christian Arabic prayers, and the Hortus rerum mirabilium (1584), an historical-work by Abu al-Abbas Ahmad ibn Khalil al-Salihi, the full Arabic title of which is The Book of the Garden of the Wonders of the World. This combination of Christian liturgical and Muslim scientific texts was also to be characteristic of the productions of the Medici Press.
Meanwhile, Raimondi had quickly realized that the success of the Medici Press would depend largely on the skill of Robert Granjon and to induce him to stay in Rome, offered a rent-free house, a stipend of 10 gold scudi a month, plus one gold scudo for every steel matrix he cut and a bonus of 300 scudi romani for every completed alphabet. Although he was 72 years old, Granjon accepted these excellent terms and set to work immediately.
In a few years Granjon had cut a large number of oriental characters, following superb calligraphic designs provided by Raimondi. On September 6, 1586, he completed the small Arabic typeface used for the text of the folio of Avicenna of 1593 (see fig. 1). Legible and much more "oriental" in feel than those of de Gregorii, Postel or Spey, this face was not improved upon until the time of Ibrahim Muteferrika in the early 18th century.
Figure 1: Canon of medicine by Avicenna (Ibn Sina) published in Rome in 1593 at the Library of the American University of Beirut (Source). (© AUB Libraries, 2002-2007).
Granjon, who died in 1589, was succeeded by Giovanni Cava
by: FSTC Limited
, Fri 22 August, 2008