"Publicatio in valvis: The Politics of Promulgation in Papal Rome, 1420-1520"

Margaret MESERVE

Long before the introduction of printing to Rome in 1465, the papal chancery had been "publishing" papal bulls by physically posting manuscript copies at certain, particularly sacred or legally potent sites around the city: not only the doors of major basilicas and administrative buildings but also public spaces like the market of Campo de' Fiori, certain bridges across the Tiber, and the city gates. These acts of legal publication (variously called promulgationes, publicationes, affixiones) were accomplished by particular personnel (papal heralds or cursores) bound by canon law and custom to perform their duties in certain, almost ritualistic ways that endowed the texts they posted with legal and even sacred meaning. They also had their counterparts in the civil procedures of the Roman commune, which sent its own heralds, criers, bailiffs, and process-servers out across the city with papers of their own to paste, nail, or otherwise attach to doors and walls; and their work would be echoed, in fact precisely parodied, by Cinquecento authors of the pasquinades and other libels and placards that regularly found their way onto fragments of ancient sculpture in the High Renaissance. This paper examines how publicatio in valvis (literally, “publication on doors,” or the practice of public posting) functioned in the political and information economy of early Renaissance Rome. It was a procedure that remained strangely resistant to the onset of print, even as popes and their chanceries began to deploy the new technology to mass-produce their legal proclamations. Well into the 16th century, printed papal bulls retain references to and traces of the act of their original publicatio; at the same time, rival Italian states limited the reach of papal authority, preventing papal agents from “publishing” material on doors within their own jurisdictions and dispatching spies to post fake bulls and critical libels on the sacred doors of the apostolic city. The use – and abuse – of publicatio in valvis reveals powerful tensions at work between manuscript and print publication, ancient authority and modern technology, the appeal to public opinion and the power of exclusive, sacred toponomies in the early modern Eternal City.

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