Venetian Proceedings – A report on News Networks’ fifth workshop

News Networks in Early Modern Europe recently held its fifth workshop, hosted this time at the Universita Ca’ Foscari in Venice.  As usual, we heard an array of papers from junior and senior scholars, as well as members of the network, as well as considerable input from interested auditors.

Proceedings began with a paper from Massimo Petta on printed Italian avvisi, using Milanese printers to help trace the networks of the printed newsletter and the emergence of its characteristic layout; particularly the gradual supplanting of data giving the source of the news by publishing data in the paratextual materials.  Petta discovered that the networks established by Milanese printers of newssheets came to be used by booksellers and printers for the general trade as well; and he noted that most of the networks he describes have two levels, a more circumscribed circulation of avvisi among Italian cities on the one hand, and a wider circulation, often in different forms and genres.  Subsequent discussion of a number of points raised the question of how to define an avviso, and whether its chief characteristics reside in the discourse itself or the paratextual materials (revisiting a point raised in the Antwerp meeting, as to whether single-event printed newsletters qualify as avvisi.)

Chiara Palazzo used the example of the battle of Chaldiran, in present day Iran, between the Ottomans and Persians in 1514 to elaborate the structure and function of the Venetian news network in the early 16th century.  She demonstrated in detail the overlaying of a commercial network on a diplomatic network that provided a complex series of staging posts, suggesting at least three principle lines along which news could emerge from the Ottoman empire and the Eastern Mediterranean.  As well as fully articulating the complexity of a network which is frequently treated simply as a connection between two points – Venice and Constantinople – Palazzo also attended closely to the extent to which news of Ottoman military ventures were the subject of interpretation, wishful thinking, and downright distortion.

The first afternoon concluded with a roundtable, with each of the project’s core members discussing the mechanisms of censorship and state control in their area of geographical expertise.  Paul Arblaster, dealing with the Hapsburg Netherlands, traced the development of press laws from religiously motivated prohibitions of particular titles, authors and types of book, to systems of prepublication licensing, experiments with self-regulation by the press (Philip II ordered the printers of Antwerp to form a guild in 1557 for the purposes of regulating the trade; the same year as his wife, Mary I of England, incorporated the Stationers’ Company of London, it was pointed out.)  He also outlined the complexities of the various authorities empowered to license books in the region, pointing out that rivalries between these were exploitable by printers and booksellers.  It was also suggested that there were instances where general press laws were created to camouflage strikes strike at particular works without wishing to give the targeted work notoriety that would follow. There was considerable interest in whether this strategy might have been imitated in other parts of Europe.


André Belo added some remarks on the structures of censorship in Portugal.  He outlined a tripartite system of censorship – the crown, Inquisition, and diocesan authorities, and noted that in 1642 Portuguese gazettes were banned; they were reinstated in 1642, provided they refrained from reporting on domestic news.  Although officially barred from taking partisan positions in their reporting, the Portuguese gazettes found ways of making their editorial positions easily understood.

Carmen Espejo emphasized the extent to which Spanish news managed to circulate effectively, despite the historiographical commonplace that the chokehold of censorship by the Inquisition and the Spanish crown prevented it.  (Antonio Castillo Gomez made a similar point in a different context during the Seville workshop, pointing to the culture of libels, ballads and writing on walls that fashioned local networks of news in 17th-century Spain, and frequently exploited or was actually occasioned by rivalry between branches of civil and religious authority.)  As elsewhere, Espejo pointed out, censorship laws were inconsistently applied and rested in the hands of multiple authorities.

Mario Infelise outlined the structures of state control of printing in the Venetian Republic – whose printers’ Guild was also set up in the 1550s, around the same time as the Antwerp and London guilds.  Unlike many other European powers, and although its system of censorship included a reader who checked books for religiously heterodox opinions, the system of imprimatur was not used; ultimate authority over the publication of printed matter resided with the Riformatori dello Studio di Padova, whose authority extended over all cultural matters.

Turning again to Northern Europe, Joad Raymond emphasized both the relative ease with which the press could be controlled in England and Wales given its concentration in a single centre, but also the ad hoc nature of much of the legislation that addressed the book trade; and pointed to Charles II’s preference for blunt over legislative instruments for regulating the world of print, as gangs of thugs were used to beat up the authors and printers of books displeasing to the crown.

The meeting resumed the following morning at the Venetian State Archives, whose astonishing collection is housed in a cluster of three adjoining convents and whose shelves contain over 70 kilometres of documents.  A guided tour of these was followed by a demonstration of the scope, content, and organization of the archive by Mario Infelise.  Bound volumes of weekly dispatches from ambassadors stationed all over Europe were shown, along with the weekly abstracts of information received by the senate that was sent back to the Republic’s agents, texts of avvisi gathering information from Venice for dispatch to other European centres, and a unique example of the simplified avvisi printed to hang on shop walls and rafters – known in French as lardons. Infelise also showed the state documentation of the regulation of printing in Venice, which from the mid-16th century provides a fairly complete picture, including the first documented printing privilege in Venice (from 1459) and the registers of the guild.


After lunch Sheila Barker gave a presentation on the production of Roman avvisi, and their procurement by the Medici Grand Dukes of Florence, based on the astonishing collection of 200,000 examples in the Medici Archive.  Barker drew attention to the urgency with which news left Rome, the systems of checking and comparing multiple avvisi used by Cosimo de Medici and his secretaries to establish the reliability of the news they received, and pointed to the Medici interest in how Florentine affairs were reported, the use of avvisi as a sort of market report on the bribery that was an essential part of Roman religious and political life and which formed an important part of the political news of the Italian peninsula, and the development of news as a species of entertainment  (pointing in particular to the lavishly detailed descriptions of plays and processions).

Lodovica Braida then gave a paper on printed letter collections, demonstrating how their origins as style manuals did not preclude their use as vehicles for current political information and for the popular dissemination of heterodox religious views in the guise of manuals of fine style.  Braida also pointed out that the information or views contained could acquire fresh relevance in subsequent editions, noting in particular the omission of controversial materials in editions of Paolo Manutio’s (the son of the great Venetian typographer) collection of Lettere Volgari around the time of the Council of Trent.

Joad Raymond’s paper offered some reflections on how to theorise news networks and posed a challenge to the network, arguing that the national and nationalistic biases of the historiographies of news communication established in the 19th and early 20th centuries have not been effectively broken down, either by transnational case studies or by the achievements in recent bibliographical scholarship and the histories of reading and of the book.  Raymond proposed that it might be possible to conceptualise the history of news communication through the optic of social network theory, which provides mathematical models for understanding complex networks as self-organising rather than random systems.

The workshop resumed and concluded the following day with Laura Carnelos’s paper on the market for cheap print in 16th– and 17th-century Venice, detailing the sites of exchange, the classification of printed matter in the Venetian book trade, the role of itinerant distributors, and practices for regulating it.  Among many interesting points that came up in discussion, it was noted that charlatans and mountebanks traded under official licence, protecting one aspect of their livelihood (as traders in cheap printed matter) in order to better restrain another (as hawkers of worthless remedies.)

Thanks are due to everyone who attended, as well as all the contributors, to Mario Infelise and the Universita Ca’ Foscari in particular for their work in organizing and hosting the event, and, as always, to the Leverhulme Trust for funding it.  The next News Networks event will be the London Symposium, News and the shape of Europe, at Queen Mary from 26-28 July: watch this space, and the website ( for more details.



2 thoughts on “Venetian Proceedings – A report on News Networks’ fifth workshop

  1. Pingback: The problem with the history of news? | Early Modern Post

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