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Soncino: a name linked to printing for five centuries

Shortly before Columbus embarked on his search for a shorter route to the Far East, Johannes Gutenberg had charted a path leading to an unexplored world right in Europe itself. With the invention of the printing press in 1448, new vistas of scholarship and thought unfolded. Yet of those who first claimed the title ``printer,'' only one name has survived since the 15th century: Soncino Press.

The press has not functioned continuously since its founding, but the Soncino family name crops up with considerable regularity in printing and Jewish history.

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When the town of Soncino, Italy, opened a public loan office centuries ago and forced the Soncino family to close its banking business, Israel Nathan Soncino, a physician, and his son Joshua Solomon turned to printing -- a profession then fascinating the educated classes of Europe.

The maiden work of this father-son printing team, published in 1484, was a tractate from the Talmud called ``Berachot'' (``Blessing''). With this work they established the format for religious texts which both Jewish and Christian printers copied. Although the Soncinos were not the earliest printers of Hebrew texts, Joshua Solomon was the first to publish a Hebrew Bible with vowels (Hebrew can be written with or without vowels).

He also introduced the use of an initial letter to indicate the beginning of a text, as well as folio markings, which signaled the correct order of the text for the page binder.

The most famous Soncino printer, however, was Joshua Solomon's nephew Gershom, a brilliant, prolific man who wandered along the Adriatic and Mediterranean coasts producing more than 150 religious and secular texts of outstanding beauty in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Italian.

A devout Jew, Gershom was compelled at times to print texts glorifying Christianity and flouting the Jews and their religion. Sometimes he would excise portions of Jewish works which he knew the church would find objectionable. Later Gershom would rein- state some of these texts as if to challenge his Christian hosts.

Many great figures respected and used his work. Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli's perfect prince, held him in great esteem, as did Friar Innocente Bacchio, a man whose order held anti-Semitism as a holy tenet. Martin Luther used Gershom's Hebrew Bible -- printed in Brescia in 1494 -- for his German translation of the Bible.

An ambitious man, Gershom charged Aldus Manutius, then the most powerful Christian printer, with one of the earliest cases of copyright infringement. Apparently, Aldus claimed that he had invented the italic type face -- also known as chancery script or aldine (for Aldus).

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Gershom asserted that a typographer named Francesco Griffo had designed the type for the Soncino Press.

Despite his many accomplishments, Gershom died a lonely, embittered man in 1534 in Constantinople. His partner and children continued to print books in Istanbul and Cairo until 1547.

A period of religious persecution and heavy censorship silenced the presses of Hebrew printers, but did not snuff the Soncino name for long. One member of the clan published books in Safed, Israel, in 1557 and 1587. In the 18th century, a Constantinople press published work by Joshua Soncino; both he and his son are mentioned as great scholars in another 18th-century commentary on Jewish works.

According to Albert Avram Soncino, an octogenarian engineer living in Philadelphia and a direct descendant of Soncinos from Istanbul, the family maintained a printing establishment in Turkey in the 19th century. Rifat Soncino, Avram's son and a Reform rabbi in Boston, visited Soncino, Italy, in the 1960s.

``The community knows it is famous because of the Soncinos,'' he says. ``The priest even wrote a history of the early Soncinos.''

The contemporary Soncino Press is not run by Soncino family members, but when British publisher Jacob Davidson revived the current press in 1929, he pledged to continue by association the high publishing standards of the original printers.

Coincidentally, in 1924, a group of German scholars including Albert Einstein founded a Berlin publishing house called the Soncino Gesellschaft der Freunde des J"udischen B"ucher (Soncino Society). The Nazis closed the society forever in 1937.

Soncino texts -- its English translations of the Talmud and Zehar as well as its bilingual editions of the Talmud and Bible -- are basic components of any modern library on Jewish religion, history, or thought.

A recent title is Judith Grunfeld's ``Shefford,'' an account of how an English village took in 500 Orthodox Jewish children evacuated by the British government and supported them in the observance of their customs.

Dedication to the publication of ``Books of enduring worth,'' as the modern logo asserts, continues to be its guiding principle.

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