NewsSearchMapContactHelpProject RastkoEnglish indexSrpskiAbout
Project RastkoHistory of Serb culture
TIA Janus

Pavle Ivic and Mitar Pesikan

Serbian Printing

Chapter from the book
"The history of Serbian Culture"
The history of Serbian culture  


Courtesy of


The greater part of the history of Serbian printing is in fact the story of the struggle of culture against various difficulties in the history of the nation. The century when printing appeared corresponds to the beginning of the darkest period of Serbian history -- the fall of Serbian lands under Turkish enslavement which would last for centuries. Europe was also in great danger. As Gutenberg's Bible was being typeset (1453), Sultan Mohammed the Conqueror was usurping the throne of Byzantium -- Constantinople. The southern parts of the Serbian lands had already been occupied at that time. Gutenberg himself was aware of the dramatic danger, and even before he finished the Bible, at the end of 1454, he published the so-called Turkish Almanac. In poetic form, it called for Christian Europe to resist the Turks. The book mentions the cruel attack of Sultan Mohammed on Serbia in 1454, when the Turkish army ravaged the Serbian lands all the way to the Hungarian border.

A page of Oktoih petoglasnik, printed at the Crnojevic printing house in Cetinje

In 1455, the year when the Bible was published, Novo Brdo, the most important commercial and mining centre of Serbia, fell. Kosovo, which had once been the central territory of the Serbian state, was also engulfed. That was the beginning of the end: in 1459 all of Serbia was conquered, including its capital, Smederevo. In 1463, the Bosnian kingdom fell, soon followed by Herzegovina. The only remaining city was Novi (later called Herceg-Novi), and it fell in 1481. In the last decade of the fifteenth century, when Serbian printing was to get underway, only Stara Crna Gora (Old Montenegro) was still free, meaning the mountainous part of Zeta, which was ruled to the very end of the century by the local lords Ivan Crnojevic and his son Djuradj Crnojevic.

These factors determined the character of early Serbian printing. The military resistance of the Serbs was shattered for a long period to follow, and the mission of printing was to create resistance to spiritual enslavement, to maintain spiritual and ethnic self- awareness. Only Orthodox religious books were printed, because that was the most significant resistance possible to programmatic Turkish Islamization, the most important way to safeguard the Orthodox church and faith. According to one of the oldest printers, the books were intended to keep the faith of those enslaved by the Turks alive - so that the Turkish Empire would constantly have a myriad of enemies within. Some of the books also had informative and didactic contents woven into them, and later a special Little Serbian Reader was also published (1597).

Led by piety and the desire for the Orthodox church to resist destruction at the hands of the Turks, the last lord of Zeta (that is, of Montenegro), Djuradj Crnojevic, according to one literary historian "somehow found the bravery, inspiration and far-sightedness to order the making of Serbian letters and to found a printing house in Cetinje". Its printers, with the priest Makarije "from Montenegro" leading them, managed to print five books in the Serbian version of the Old Church Slavonic language between 1494 and 1496, before the state and printing house disappeared under compulsion by the Turks. The five-hundredth anniversary of the publication of the first of them, the Oktoih prvoglasnik, was celebrated on January 4, 1994; it was the first book published in the Slavic South printed in Cyrillic. Like a Cyrillic book published three years earlier in Cracow, the book was published in an uncial type of Cyrillic, and this choice was to have a lasting typological significance. The printing done in Cetinje was of high technical quality and it served as a model for later printing houses; it was dependent on the Slavic manuscript tradition and on the trends of the renaissance (especially in terms of ornamentation).

Oktoih, printed at the printing shop of Bozidar Vukovic in Venice

After the fall of Montenegro, Serbian printing was forced to search for external sanctuary and support. The mission of printing Orthodox books was first continued in the dukedoms of Romania, primarily in Wallachia. Starting in 1507 there, the printer Makarije, most likely the same one who was at Cetinje, printed church books in the Bulgarian variant of Church Slavonic -- which was then used in Romania. These books were clearly related to the printing of Cetinje, and they were of great influence not only in Romanian, but also in later Serbian printing. The productive symbiosis of Serbian and Romanian printing began with them, and it later gained new elan when the printing house in Gorazde moved to Romania; it is also one in an entire series of bright pages in the history of Serbian-Romanian cultural and religious relations.

The central foreign base of Serbian printing was Venice, where Bozidar Vukovic, born in Podgorica in Montenegro, printed Serbian books between 1520 and 1540. His son, Vincenco Vukovic, and others would continue the life of the print shop till almost the end of the sixteenth century; one book was also published in the seventeenth century (1638). Faced with the Turkish threat, Venice and the Vatican tolerated Serbian books to a certain extent, along with the other activities of the powerful Orthodox diaspora in Venice. Its basis was the Greek Brotherhood, which was joined by the Serbs: Bozidar Vukovic even became the director (gastald) of the Brotherhood. As a notable merchant, printer and public figure, whose title in the nobility was recognised by Charles V of the Habsburgs, Bozidar Vukovic was tireless in maintaining connections with the enslaved Serbian territories. This was especially true of his links with the monastery of Mileseva and the monasteries on Lake Scutari, where he was eventually buried at his own request. His books were circulated throughout the Serbian churches, and they also had a powerful influence elsewhere in the European East, all the way to the Baltics.

At the same time, another important branch of Serbian printing was founded, led by another Bozidar -- Bozidar Gorazdanin -- and his heirs, of the Ljubavic family. While sojourning at the monastery of Mileseva, he sent his two sons to Venice, where they procured equipment and began (and perhaps finished) the printing of their first book - Sluzabnik (The Liturgy) in either 1519 or 1520. Afterwards they moved the printing house to Gorazde on the River Drina. This was the first printing house in the Turkish Empire, and all in all there were eight Serbian printing houses under the Turks, though none of them lasted very long: Gorazde, 1520-1523; Rujno near Zlatibor, 1536-1537; Gracanica, 1538-1539; Mileseva, 1544-1546; Belgrade, 1552; Mileseva (again), 1557; Scutari, 1563 (closely tied to Venice and the printing house of the Vukovic family); the last one was at Mrksina crkva (near Valjevo or south of it), led by the monk Mardarije from 1562 to 1566, who had earlier (1552) been a printer in Belgrade.

The Gorazde Psalter, printed in 1521

Coincidentally, all of these printing houses were active during the reign of Suleiman the Great (1520-1566), who conquered Belgrade and Hungary (with Buda) and was twice at the very doorstep of Vienna. The Islamic culture of the Turkish Empire did not accept printing, and although the Turkish government during Suleiman's period did not formally prohibit Serbian ecclesiastical printing, they also did not offer real conditions for it to survive. Thus, the eight mentioned printing houses in Turkey only printed eleven books. Certainly none of those printing houses was founded for the purpose of printing only one or two books, but they were closed down reluctantly because they were not able to withstand the poor conditions under the Turkish rule in the shattered Serbian state. Not even the revival of the Serbian Patriarchate in 1557 could breathe life into printing activities.

The only printing house which did not fold was the one in Gorazde which was moved to Romania, where books were printed on its equipment from 1545 till after 1580. They were printed by Mojsije of Decani (who had earlier been a printer for Bozidar Vukovic), Dimitrije Ljubavic (the grandson of Bozidar Gorazdanin), and a Romanian printer, deacon Koresi. Two books for the use of the Serbian church were also printed in Romania in 1580 and 1648. The latter was the last book in the cycle of books printed in the Serbian variant of Old Church Slavonic. Lacking the resources for its own publishing activity, and in order to insure the authenticity of Orthodox books, the Serbian church oriented itself in following period to books printed in Russian. This would open the door for the Russian type of Church Slavonic and its influence on the trends in the Serbian language of the time.

The Gospel, printed at the printing house of Trojan Gundulic in Belgrade

Old Serbian typography has only left us with about forty known editions, but their historical and cultural significance is of great importance. They helped the Serbian church to maintain itself in a critical period when the Turkish invasion was at its most destructive point, up to the period when the church was able to consolidate itself again through the revival of the Patriarchate of Pec. Due to these books, the authentic Slavic Orthodox book was able to take its place in the culture of printing and to maintain its position up to the time when (with a historical delay) Russian printed books could take over and become the mainstay of the spiritual and language culture founded by Cyril and Methodius. A precious heritage, these Serbian books are kept and respected in Serbian and other churches; they are used not only for their texts in the liturgy, but are regarded highly also because of their artistic craftsmanship, as examples of applied art.

Holy Tsar Uros, an engraving done by Hristifor Zefarovic from Stematografija, printed in Vienna

From the last third of the sixteenth century onward, the situation in the Ottoman Empire was hopelessly intolerable for the printing of Serbian books. Although most of the Serbs lived within the boundaries of that state, Serbian books were printed exclusively outside the empire until the mid-nineteenth century. After the dark and tortuous seventeenth century, from which only the two books mentioned have survived, a kind of renaissance came about in the eighteenth century. Serbian books found a new market in the lands of the Habsburg empire, which now included a large number of Serbs living within its borders. However, the authorities of the empire constantly denied the requests of the Serbian Orthodox church for the founding of Serbian printing houses; this was done in the hope that the Serbian church would be forced to accept union with Rome if it were left without the tools of education and liturgy. With great effort, the Serbian metropolitans managed to print several important books (now in the Russian variant of Church Slavonic) in RÓmnicu in Wallachia (1736, 1755, and 1761) and Iasi in Moldavia (1765). A second outlet, but again roundabout and inadequate, was found in copper engraved editions, which were produced by the copper engravers themselves with the financial support of the church (Hristifor Zefarovic in the 1740s and Zaharije Orfelin in a later period). The publishing of Serbian books gained a foothold after 1761, when the Venetian printer Dimitrios Theodosios, a Greek, opened a Cyrillic department in his printing shop. When he printed Serbian Orthodox church books, he placed a stamp on the title page which said that the books were printed in Moscow, Kiev or St. Petersburg, in order to overcome the suspicions of the Serbian priests toward books coming from a Catholic country. In spite of the fact that those claims were not quite true, they were at least close to it. Namely, Theodosios reprinted Russian church books for the Serbian church. In ten years, over forty books came out of his shop intended for the Serbs. The Austrian government finally comprehended the fact that prohibiting the foundation of Serbian printing houses was counter- productive because it opened the gateway for uncontrolled Russian influence, and that the business profits were being reaped by a foreign (Venetian) enterprise instead of an Austrian one. In 1770, a Viennese printer named Josef Kurzbeck was given monopoly rights for the Serbian territories. By giving such privileges to a Viennese business- man, who was not a Serb, the Austrian government insured firm control over Serbian literary production. Kurzbeck was in a more advantageous position than Theodosius. However, Theodosios managed to publish a few additional books intended for the Serbs, along with the monumental work of the Serb Zaharije Orfelin The History of Peter the First which was meant for Russian readers and printed in Russian. After the death of Dimitrios Theodosios, his successor Pane Theodosios continued to publish Serbian books among others. Up until 1786, Kurzbeck's printing house printed Serbian books exclusively in Church Slavonic Cyrillic, that is, in the old inherited type of Cyrillic letters taken from the Middle Ages. It was only then that the first edition came off the press in modern Cyrillic, the so-called "urban" alphabet, modelled after the style of printed Roman letters and introduced in Russia at the beginning of the eighteenth century by order of Peter the Great. Serbian writers themselves, and also printing houses beyond the borders of Austria, proved to be much less conservative. Thus, as early as 1754, The History of Montenegro, written by Montenegrin metropolitan Vasilije Petrovic, came out in print in St. Petersburg. In 1768, the Slavo-Serbian Magazine of Zaharije Orfelin and in 1772 the already mentioned biography of Peter the Great came out in Venice. In 1783, The Life and Adventures of Dositej Obradovic was published in Leipzig. This is only to mention a few of the more significant works.

The Monastery of Krusedol, an engraving by Zaharije Orfelin

In 1790, Emanuil Jankovic and Damjan Kaulici both entered petitions, independently of one another, for the founding of a Serbian printing house in Novi Sad, but they were both rejected by the authorities in Vienna. However, in 1792, after the death of Kurzbeck, his Cyrillic printing press and the rights to his monopoly were bought up by Serbian enthusiast and journalist, Stefan Novakovic. After financial failure, he sold the company to the Printing House of the Pest University, a highly developed company which printed books in many languages and which was thus able to maintain a monopoly for the printing of Serbian publications in the Habsburg lands. Only in rare cases were some authors able to print their works elsewhere, in Austria or outside of it.

The turnabout came in 1832, when in Belgrade, under the rule of Prince Milos Obrenovic, the Prince's Serbian Printing House started up. Well-equipped and adaptable, this new institution immediately took over a significant portion of the literary production among the Serbs. Shortly thereafter, the bishop and poet Petar II Petrovic, the ruler of Montenegro, also ensured that his small and destitute country also obtained its own printing house. Thus, the monopoly held by printers of the University of Pest lost all meaning. As early as 1836, Pavle Jankovic was granted the privilege of opening a Serbian printing house in Novi Sad, and in 1841 a similar permit was issued to Jovan Kaulici. It is interesting to note that Pavle Jankovic was the nephew of Emanuil Jankovic, and that Jovan Kaulici was the son of Damjan Kaulici, who had both been denied such permission in 1790.

In the period which followed, most Serbian publications were printed in three cities: Buda and Novi Sad in the territory of the Habsburg monarchy, and Belgrade in Serbia. The activity of the printing house in Buda was extinguished in the Hungarian rebellions of 1848. This resulted in the bulk of the printing and publishing activity being relocated to Serbian ethnic soil at last. Liberated from the hindrances created by the Austrian bureaucracy, Serbian books began to flourish rapidly. While only 194 Serbian books came out in the first decade of the nineteenth century according to The Serbian Bibliography of Stojan Novakovic, and 386 came out in the 1840s, that number had grown to 670 by the sixth decade of the century. The role played by books printed in Serbia quickly increased, and it surpassed the halfway mark by the second half of the seventh decade.

The way was now open for the further normal development of Serbian printing. As in other lands, it developed in two different directions: the volume of production increased and new technical innovations were adopted. This tendency was broken, turning the clock of history temporarily far back, only by the misfortunes of historical events: the First and Second World Wars, and the present sanctions of the United Nations Security Council.

// Projekat Rastko / The history of Serbian culture //
[ Promena pisma | Search | Map | Contact | Help ]