Click here to skip to content

Italian Printed Collections, 1501-1850

The Italian collections are among the finest in the world, covering all periods of Italian printing from the 15th century onwards and a wide variety of subjects: not only the standard disciplines such as history, the classical and vernacular literatures, and law, but also ephemera, popular devotional and political tracts, and a large collection of books and pamphlets from the Risorgimento period. 

Italian books are well represented in the Library's foundation and early collections. An interest in Italy's culture and its classical inheritance and in the collection of Italian books characterised many early scholars and bibliophiles in England, whose libraries have subsequently become part of the national collection, either through bequest or purchase.

The collection also includes a great number of books from Italy which are important for their bibliographical rarity, textual significance, the interest of their provenance, and the beauty of their type, illustrations and binding.

Highlights

One remarkable library was the one built up over a lifetime's residence in Venice by Consul Joseph Smith; this was purchased in 1763 by George III for what is now the King's Library, which was itself rich in Italian books. The range and significance of the Italian holdings were again greatly enhanced by the arrival of the Grenville Library.

Printer's device

Printer's device from De' Pesci Romani, by Paolo Giovio (Venice, 1560), shelfmark: 954.c.15. © The British Library Board

More specialised Italian collections include:

  • The Colt Hoare bequest of books on Italian history
  • Pierre Louis Guingené's library of romance literature (over a third of which is Italian)
  • The Voynich donation of 1907.

More information about these can be found in the directory of Named Collections of Printed Materials. From the 19th century onwards early and modern books printed in Italy were purchased systematically with a view to building up a collection of Italian books which would be as comprehensive as possible.

Catalogues

The wealth of the Library's Italian collections means that the two short-title catalogues of Italian books so far published, which cover the periods from the beginning of printing in Italy to 1600 and 1601-1700, are regarded by librarians and booksellers throughout the world as the standard reference works on early Italian imprints:

  • Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in Italy and of Italian Books Printed in Other Countries from 1465-1600, now in The British Museum (London, 1958); and a Supplement (London: British Library, 1986).
  • Catalogue of Seventeenth Century Italian Books in the British Library (London: British Library, 1986).

Using these catalogues as a guide, it can be said that there are approximately 15,000 16th century and 13,000 17th century Italian books in the Library's collections, many in more than one copy. It is estimated that a forthcoming short-title catalogue of 18th century Italian imprints will contain around 18,000 titles. Figures for 1801-1850 are unavailable. Early Italian books from all periods, often rare or unique imprints, continue to be purchased as acquisition funds permit, so building on the unrivalled strengths of the collection and enriching it still further.

Further useful resources are described in Italian Printed Books 1501-1800: Some Bibliographical Resources.

Stephen Parkin
Early Printed Collections
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7696
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7577

E-mail: stephen.parkin@bl.uk