The Franciscan Printing Press in Jerusalem in an exhibition in Milan

The Franciscan Printing Press in Jerusalem in an exhibition in Milan

A recently published book and an exhibition in Milan go back over the history of the Franciscan Printing Press of Jerusalem

The exhibition on the history of the Franciscans’ printing press in Jerusalem, from its creation in 1847 until 1948,  was inaugurated in Milan on 27 November at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart. An extraordinary feat of the centuries-old mission of the Friars Minor in the Holy Land.

In the middle of the 19th century, in a Jerusalem under the iron-fisted control of the Ottomans, the  Franciscans were the first in the whole of Palestine to print in Arabic. This came about with the creation of the Franciscan Printing Press which, despite many difficulties, political upheavals, an epidemic of the plague and two world wars, and then the technical innovations of the publishing industry, has continued to work until the present day.

tipografia dei francescani mostra Milano

Thanks to the enormous amount of material still kept in St Saviour’s Convent -  where it all started – the first century of activity of the printing press has been reconstructed, also offering an unusual view of the interior of a printing press between the 19th and 20th  centuries. The result is a book, the fruit of the research by Arianna Leonetti, a researcher in history of modern and contemporary publishing, member of the Creleb (European research centre on books, publishing and libraries of the Catholic University) and of the “Books bridges of peace” project.

The four sections of the volume are dedicated to the four different historical phases examined, from the years when the printing press was founded (1847-1850), thanks to the contribution of the Commissariat of the Holy Land of Vienna. The book is also richly illustrated and documented, the result of long and meticulous research by the author in the archives of the Custody of the Holy Land.

The opening of the exhibition

About fifty people attended the inauguration of the exhibition called  “The character of a mission: the adventure of the Franciscan printing press in Jerusalem”  in the Via Nirone seat of the Catholic University. The exhibition in panels was made in June in Jerusalem by a group of young collaborators of the Creleb, with the support of Pro Terra Sancta, but the outbreak of the war in October made it impossible to hold the exhibition in the Holy City. Information and photographic material come from the General Library, the Historical Archive and the Department of Cultural Heritage of the Custody. Some students guided the public in viewing the panels and showcases in which volumes published y the Printing Press are on display.

This was followed by the presentation of the study by Arianna Leonetti, Stampato a Gerusalemme. Storia della tipografia francescana di Terra Santa tra Otto e Novecento, [Printed in Jerusalem. The history of the Franciscan printing press in the Holy Land between the 19th and 20th centuries] TS Edizioni, Milan 2023, 350 pages, 50 euro) published by the publisher that continues the work of the Franciscan Printing Press today. It is a monograph that deals with a complex story. Not only in relation to the printing press, but also the Custody itself, and the social, cultural and educational commitment by the Franciscans through the publications.
The Dean of the Faculty of the Arts and Philosophy, Andrea Canova expressed the appreciation of the Catholic University for an initiative like this one which is a sign of peace and hope at one of the darkest times for all the peoples in the Holy Land.

Edoardo Barbieri, a lecturer in History of the Book and Publishing and Director of the Creleb, recalled the relationship of exchange which exists between the Custody of the Holy Land and the scholars of the book of the Catholic University. He underlined the audacity of the Franciscans at the origins of the printing press, in printing in Arabic in Palestine when it was prohibited by Ottoman law and  when the friars did not have the economic possibilities and technical skills.” But there were men who were so stubborn about a project that was good that they accomplished it. Even with a thousand difficulties and great incomprehension, their vision was clear,” Barbieri added. “To make a people mature, it takes schools and  books are needed for schools: a simple thing but not obvious.”

Maria Pia Alberzoni, a medieval historian who at the Catholic University is one of the maximum experts in History of Franciscanism, appreciating the  rich documentation, including photographic, in the volume, emphasized the bond between the activity of the printing press (the only one in which numerous young Palestinians were involved in training and in work) and the mission that Francis gave to the friars in Chapter XVI of the unconfirmed Rule. Alessandro Tedesco, a scholar of bibliographical studies and also a lecturer at the university,  who, like Ms Leonetti, studied for a long time in the Library of St Saviour observed how the monograph is also accessible to non-specialists. This narrative is even exciting in some passages describing the human, working and cultural events linked to the history of  a  productive activity in the context of the Holy Land straddling the second and third industrial revolutions. For Tedesco, the author has been able to organize a huge amount of information taken from the documents in the Historical Archive of the Custody in St Saviour’s convent (letters, registers of accounts, diaries of directors, publishing catalogues etc.); from the book documents, i.e. the huge archive of publications (religious books, school textbooks, publications in different languages and alphabets); and from the studies which in the past have been dedicated to the feat, in particular  by Father Agustín Arce (1884-1984) and Father Claudio Baratto (1920-2009).

The monograph brings together both the story of a dimension of the missio ad gentes of the Franciscans and the human stories of those who started the printing press and ensured its  development over the decades.

Machinery and instruments, the technological contribution, cases of characters, punches, decorative friezes, presses or parts of presses; all these materials abandoned in the storerooms have been rediscovered, catalogued and enhanced during this study of which the exhibition aims to be a beacon.

The exhibition at the Catholic University will remain  open until 1 December, from 9.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m.. It is possible to have free guided tours every day from 12 noon to 2.00 p.m.

Francesco Pistocchini