Stop Taking Books for Granted — Andrija Paltašić and the Beginnings of South Slavic Printing

We take books for granted. Actually, scratch that, we don’t take books for granted, we take reading for granted. Last week was World Book Day and social media was filled with pictures of children heading to school dressed up as their favourite book characters, almost all of which are from books that have actually gained wider prominence as movies. Now, I’m not about to complain about kids getting dressed up as Harry Potter — I’m not that bitter, yet — but there is a clear disconnect between reading and its place in the hearts and minds of the wider public. What I mean is that people like to say they love books and reading, but actual real-life suggests otherwise.

So yes, maybe we do take books for granted. The things are piled up all around us, used for decoration more than enrichment. Watch any BBC interview (don’t watch BBC interviews) with an expert at home, and that expert will be sat in front of books. Books. Three for a pound. Books, get your books. There was a time when books weren’t as ubiquitous as they are today. I know, mad, right? I’m talking about the 15th century, or more accurately all of history before the 15th century before a blacksmith from Mainz invented the printing press and we were off to the races. Printing has come a long way since 1439.

Andrija Paltašić was born a year or so after the invention of the printing press, which is a lovely bit of historic symmetry. The man was born in Kotor into the affluent and noble Paltašić family, who had gained plenty of wealth and prestige when the Venetian Republic took over Kotor, sort of making them the Powys of the 15th century Adriatic. Questionable analogies aside, the Paltašić posse built houses and rented out boats, served as deacons and priests as well as other important positions. Andrija was born into a world that offered him plenty of opportunities, let’s put it like that.

With the world in front of him, Andrija did what any sane person at the time did and left, heading towards the riches and dreams of Venice itself. Here he procured his own printing press and began to reel off publications, initially focusing on the Greek and Roman classics before moving into religion, humanism, lexicography and the rest. Can it be argued that all those subjects are covered in the Greek and Roman classics? Of course, but it is Monday, no need for arguments.

Why is all of this important? The printing of anything is a notable thing (or at least it was), but the work of Andrija Paltašić was a landmark time for the South Slavs. This was the first South Slavic printer, the first of these proud people to start pumping out words at will. Sure, he published in Italian and Latin, but this was the very beginning of South Slavic literature. From these roots do the branches of Selimović, Andrić, Kiš and the rest flourish. Paltašić was active in Venice between 1476 and 1492 but was eager to return home, although his attempts to move back to Kotor were perpetually thwarted by financial difficulties. If you want to make money, stay away from publishing.

Some 41 of his works remain, most of which can be found in Croatia. Despite his financial struggles, Paltašić was actually one of the more successful printers in the Venetian Republic, although we’re not talking JK Rowling-successful. It would be a different world if he was. His work wasn’t financially rewarding but it was absolutely vital when it came to the cultural development of the south Slavs, paving the way for those to come in the following centuries. By the end of the 15th century Montenegro had a printing press in its capital, this despite having a centre that was essentially a military camp with one stone building. The Ottoman onslaught put a lid on Montenegrin printing until the glory days of Njegoš, but the importance and influence of Andrija Paltašić is remembered even today.

John Bills writes books about what was once Yugoslavia, tomes covering history, travel, booze and the rest. These magical pieces of literary competency can be purchased at this link, so get yourself over there and do the right thing. Pay attention to the discounts.

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