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Rare Srbulja from Venice in the Library of Congress

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(This post is by Angela Cannon, Balkan area Reference Specialist in the European Division)

The only two srbulje (sing. srbulja) in the Library of Congress are the 1538 Menologion and the 1638 Psalter and they are the crown jewels of the Library of Congress Serbian and Montenegrin collections. A srbulja is an Eastern Orthodox Church book, either in manuscript or printed form, written in the Serbian recension, or variation, of Church Slavic. The term was coined by the great Serbian linguist Vuk Karadžić in 1816 and first appeared in print in his 1818 landmark Srpski rečnik (Serbian Dictionary).

Both of the Library’s srbulje were printed in Venice, a vibrant center of 16th-century printing as well as a stronghold of Catholicism. Why would Venetians allow Orthodox publishing to occur on their territory? The answer can be found in the historical circumstances of the Balkan Peninsula in the 16th century which are critical to the story of the printer of the Menologion, Božidar Vuković, also known as Dionisio della Vecchia (ca. 1460-1540). In the 14th century the Ottomans began to conquer the Balkans.

Božidar Vuković Monument. Savić Marković Štedimlija. “Božidar Vuković i mletački štampari u XVI vijeku.” Zagreb: Đ. Ćlap, 1939.

Montenegro, much of which was in the Venetian orbit, fell at the end of the 15th century. In 1496 Vuković and his brother Nikola, successful fabric traders and land owners from the area of Podgorica, fled to the Republic of Venice, which was also at war with the Ottomans. Joining others from the Orthodox community living in exile, Vuković continued his successful trading endeavors in Venice. The Republic of Venice benefitted from the presence in its domain of wealthy “Greeks,” as all of the Orthodox were called then. The Republic not only had territorial interests in the Balkans, but it also received substantial support from Balkan soldiers in fighting the Ottomans. And keeping Christianity alive on the Peninsula was an additional advantage.

Vuković used his fortune to set up, by permission of Pope Paul III, a Cyrillic printing press in 1519, one of the earliest Cyrillic presses in existence. (The very first was in Krakow in 1491). From 1519-1540, his press issued ten titles. The Menologion described below was the ninth title. He printed only religious works meant for distribution to monasteries in the Slavic-speaking areas. Examples include a liturgy (1519), a psalter (1520), and a catechism (1527). Monasteries in the Balkans had suffered destruction of their property including their libraries during the Ottoman invasions, and Vuković wanted to help his homeland. His secular trade network throughout the Balkans was critical to the success of his book distribution. In fact, it seems that for a number of years he may have held a monopoly on the distribution of Cyrillic books in the Balkan and Italian regions, granted to him by Emperor Charles V (1500-58), who awarded him a noble title and coat of arms in 1533. This coat of arms appears in some of his books.

Vuković’s coat of arms. Above the ascending lion, the Cyrillic letters Бож, short for Božidar. Under the ascending lion, his title, Воевода (Voevoda). This coat of arms appeared on his later books including the Menologion, but is unfortunately missing from the Library of Congress’ copy. “Božidar Vuković i mletački štampari u XVI vijeku.”

Vuković was a prominent member of the Brotherhood of Greeks (Scuola dei Greci), an association that served as the cultural and religious hub for the Orthodox community in Venice.

Vuković even became the gastald, or leader, of the group in 1536. One of his last acts before his death was donating money to start construction on what eventually became the San Giorgio dei Greci church in Venice. Although his printing house is not how he built or maintained his considerable wealth, it is the reason he is remembered and honored to this day.

San Giorgio dei Greci in the circled area. Detail of Venice. Image 260. Georg Braun. “Civitates orbis terrarum,” 1612-18.










Cover of 1538 Menologion. Full leather over wooden boards with decorative cartouche ornament and tooled blind, or uncolored, frames. Probably late 17th- or early 18th century with later clasps. Photo by Roman Yurchenko.


A menologion is a monthly Orthodox Eastern ecclesiastical calendar with biographies of saints and prayers for each day. Vuković’s 1538 Menologion, or Minej prazdničny: sʹbornik (Holiday Menologion: Collection), is the first edition in any Slavic language of the Menologion. This work is not a full ecclesiastical calendar, but rather a selection of services and saints lives to commemorate certain holidays, hence its title “prazdničny” (holiday). The book is arranged according to the months of the Orthodox calendar beginning with September and ending with August, including an introduction and an afterword. A set of paschal tables relating to Easter appear on the final pages. The language of the text is the Serbian recension of Church Slavic, the written language of the Serbs from the 12th century to the 1830s. Besides the language, the South Slavic origins of the book are apparent from the inclusion of several Serbian national saints such as Stefan Dečanski on November 11, Saint Sava on January 14, and Stefan Nemanja on February 13.

St. Stephen the Deacon (Stefanos diakon), holding a book and a censer, one of the typical symbols associated with imagery of Stephen. Photo by Bethany Wages.

With 34 woodcuts, 85 head-pieces, and 173 decorative initials, the 1538 Menologion is the most illustrated early Cyrillic book. Its illustrations, along with those of other Serbian books from Venice, were so influential that they were imitated in the coming decades in texts from other Slavic regions. Twenty-two of the woodcuts were created just for the Menologion, with the others having been printed before in earlier Vuković works. The book consists of 432 leaves, with two columns of 32 lines printed in two colors of red and black ink. The book resembles early Slavic manuscripts, including the accents typical for manuscripts of the 15th-16th centuries.

At the back of the Menologion are Paschal tables used to calculate the date of Easter each year. Each cell contains three Cyrillic letters or sets of letters used as numbers to aid in the calculation. The table runs vertically, not horizontally. The larger black letter is called the Paschal letter or “kliuch” for a particular year. The red letters in the bottom left of each cell run from 1 through 28, indicating the solar cycle of 28 years. The black letters/numbers in the bottom right indicate the lunar cycle of 19 years. Many thanks to Fr. Vasilije Vranic of Potomac, MD, for his help in explaining the function of the numbers. Photo by Bethany Wages

Overall, Vuković’s works, especially the Menologion, were known for their beauty and technical achievement. Vuković’s target audience were the surviving monks and monasteries of the Orthodox Church in the Ottoman Balkans, not commercial entities or private collectors. This detail probably allowed him to pay great attention to the beauty of his works, because he was not concerned about making a profit from them.

The Menologion was printed over several years, from June 11, 1536 to January 19, 1538. Although Vuković was the owner of the printing house, the person who probably did the actual printing was the Serb Moisei, ierodiakon, of Budimlja, a town in present-day Montenegro. Also known as Moisei of Dečani, he eventually made his way to Romania and printed a prayer book in 1545 in Târgoviște. There are only two known copies of the 1538 Menologion in the United States, one at the Library of Congress and the other in the New York Public Library. There are a number of surviving editions or fragments in libraries in Europe, especially in Serbia. The German Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin has digitized its entire copy.

The survival rate of Vuković imprints indicates high print runs and a successful distribution in the Slavic world. In fact, Vuković himself set the price of the Menologion in his will when dictating how much to charge for the book after his death, only 3 Venetian ducats, a discount from the usual price of 4 ducats. In accordance with his last wishes, Božidar Vuković, who died either at the end of 1539 or in early 1540, was buried in the church of Starčevo Monastery in Montenegro on Lake Scutari. The 1538 Menologion, a lasting witness to Vuković’s remarkable life, is not only the crown jewel of the Library of Congress Serbian and Montenegrin collections, it is also is the crowning point of early South Slavic publishing.

Final page of the 1538 Menologion. The vignette on both sides of the inverted triangle of text was used in several places in the book. The inverted triangle text begins with “This holy and divine book began to be printed in the month of June, on day 11, and was completed in the month of January, on day 19, in Venice…” In the second line of the final paragraph the year of publication is printed twice using Cyrillic letters as numbers using two different calendars, 7046 Anno Mundi and 1538 Anno Domini. Many thanks to Harold Leich of Washington, DC, for identifying the years in AM and AD. Photo by Bethany Wages.

In a future post Angela Cannon will describe the second srbulja in the Library of Congress collection and the fate of Vuković’s publishing house after his death.


Comments (3)

  1. Glad to see this important early South Slavic imprint has found a home at the Library of Congress. Thank you so much, Angela, for this very informative write-up about it.

  2. Fascinating history. It’s always very interesting to see how different calendars were referred to at various points in history, and the dates (and sometimes even the names of the months) can change around important events. Thank you for sharing some of these incredible images and for your thorough explanation.

  3. This is a fascinating and beautifully illustrated account of an early example of exile publishing, which has played such an important role in the history of printing. Well done!

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