The biography of Eustachio Celebrino must be pieced together from his own (not necessarily trustworthy) admissions, and from the numerous works he published in the early decades of the sixteenth century. A prolific hack writer (poligrafo) and a maker of woodcuts for printed books, Celebrino typifies the adaptability, versatility and mobility of many of those who became involved in the Italian publishing industry in the first century after its initiation in the 1460s.
Celebrino was born in the late fifteenth century in Udine in the north-eastern Italian region of Friuli, then part of the Venetian empire. In one of his works he claimed to have been educated in medicine and philosophy at the University of Padua, becoming a wandering scholar and writer and frequenting some of the great Renaissance courts. But he also hinted at a past spent in gambling dens and brothels, and an encounter with legal troubles that forced him to flee the city of his birth and change profession many times. There is probably some truth to his comment that he had been forced to take up ‘every art, industry, and skill’ to make his way in life, yet Celebrino eventually found a home for his protean talents in the printing industry that was flourishing in many Italian towns and cities at this time.
By 1511, Celebrino was working in Perugia in central Italy creating woodcuts to illustrate locally-produced printed books and correcting proofs for printers including Girolamo Cartolari and Cosimo Bianchino del Leone. By 1522, he had been attracted to Venice, the largest printing centre in Italy and Europe at the time. There, he provided woodcut illustrations for prolific printers such as Francesco Bindoni, Maffeo Pasini, Melchiore Sessa and Niccolò Zoppino, who were driving the burgeoning production of cheap, vernacular print. His rather accomplished woodcuts ranged from examples of lettering for handwriting manuals to images of fantastical heroes and giants for chivalric tales.
By the middle of the 1520s, however, Celebrino’s attention turned from cutting images to writing and editing vernacular works for the press. Like other writers providing material for the ever-growing Italian press at this time, Celebrino could turn his hand to almost any topic, and seems to have had a good sense of what was popular and would sell, as a number of his works appeared in several editions. Many of his compositions belonged to the blossoming genre of instructional manuals, presented in cheap pamphlet form. These ranged from his own handwriting manual (Il modo di imparare di scrivere lettera mercantesca) to instructions on how to prepare a table for a feast (Opera nuova che insegna apparecchiare una mensa). He also produced a number of collections of remedies and recipes for common ailments and other health problems, including a manual for curing syphilis in ten days (Questo è lo modo da guarir del mal francioso); advice on avoiding the plague (Reggimento mirabile et verissimo a conservar la sanità in tempo di peste); and a book of ‘secrets’ or recipes for beauty, health and household problems (Opera nuova intitolata dificio di recette). Celebrino promoted these works as opening up wisdom and learning to all. His remedy for syphilis, which he claimed was based on his own experiences with the disease, was aimed at the ‘infinite poor infected with the French disease’ who could not afford doctors and medicines but might spare a few coins for a pamphlet. One of his books of secrets (Opera nova piacevole ... intitulata Venusta) pitched itself to ‘ladies who desire to make yourselves beautiful’, and included the recipe for an ‘unguent for the face as used by the Queen of Hungary, an excellent thing’.
In his poetic compositions, Celebrino straddled the division between written and oral traditions. He represents a period in which many popular songs and poems were being first recorded in print and printed texts were beginning to reach a much wider audience, including the illiterate and semi-literate, who might hear them sung or recited in the piazza, tavern, home or workshop. Celebrino’s bawdy verse tale of an adulterous priest, for example, addressed both readers and listeners. In some compositions, Celebrino explicitly adopted the poetic style of the ballad singer, although we can only speculate whether he himself performed his works publicly or he simply borrowed this popular mode of address. In the morality tale of the callow youth Fenitio, which Celebrino adapted into verse from popular folklore, he concluded by saying that he had been wandering the world for twenty years and had been left without a cent to his name, ‘sing[ing] to the sound of my lyre on a bench’. Regardless of the truth of this statement, it is likely that Celebrino’s works were performed and sold by entertainers in the piazzas, as was common practice at the time. A very popular poem by Celebrino which may have been disseminated in this way was his account of the 1527 sack of Rome (La presa di Roma). This work, first published in 1528 and reprinted numerous times in various cities, belonged to a thriving genre of verse narrations of the vicissitudes of war and politics plaguing Italy at this time, frequently performed and sold publicly by popular entertainers. Celebrino wished to emphasise the credibility and quality of his work above others, however, claiming in the opening preface that, although he had not witnessed the sack himself, he had versified the account given to him by an army Captain who had been present.
Celebrino’s career reflects another powerful tendency of the early printing industry: the unscrupulous approach to finding new material to publish by adapting, cutting, versifying, translating or simply stealing other works from both oral and written sources. Operating before the development of a proper system of copyright, Celebrino’s works rarely aimed at originality, but rather sought to present familiar or interesting material to the public quickly and cheaply with little regard for its source. So his humorous Story about a priest was pinched from another contemporary popular work; his books of secrets, like many examples of this genre, followed a standard formula and included recipes from other collections. In turn, his work on the sack of Rome was incorporated into another, longer poem about the Italian wars, without acknowledgement (Guerre horrende d’Italia).
Ultimately, the career of Celebrino encapsulates the concerted efforts of the Italian publishing industry in the early sixteenth century to reach a much larger readership than had ever been imagined before the advent of the press, by producing cheap, accessible material in the vernacular rather than Latin. Contributors like Celebrino played important roles as mediators between learned, official culture and the unlearned, principally oral culture of the majority of the Italian population. Although Celebrino’s activity appears to have ceased around the middle of the 1530s, his works continued to be published in the 1540s and 1550s, with or without acknowledgement of his authorship. At least thirty-five editions survive of works by Celebrino, published principally in Venice but also in Milan, Brescia, Cesena, Bologna, Orvieto and even Naples. Given that all are small, humble pamphlets surviving in only one or a handful of copies, it is probable that many other works that he wrote and published have not been preserved.
by Rosa Salzberg
Diamanti, Donatella. ‘La presa di Roma di Eustachio Celebrino da Udine’, Italianistica 19 no. 2 (1990): 331-49.
Morison, Stanley. Eustachio Celebrino da Udene: Calligrapher, Engraver and Writer for the Venetian Printing Press (Paris: Pegasus Press, 1929).
Palma, Marco. ‘Celebrino, Eustachio’, in Dizionario biografico degli Italiani (Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1979), 361-2.
Servolino, Luigi. ‘Eustachio Celebrino da Udine. Intagliatore, calligrafo, poligrafo ed editore del sec. XVI’, Gutenberg Jahrbuch (1944-49): 179-89.