The Travels of Marco Polo is deemed the first book to have been printed in Portuguese under a royal privilege.
The front cover of the book contains a reference to the royal privilege in question.
The insertion of this reference on the front cover became a common trend, although at times the privilege itself accompanied the printed work (see, for example, Lusíadas, by Camões, 1572).
This pioneering privilege was attributed by King Manuel I to Valentim Fernandes, a German printer who had been printing works prior to that concession, with some of the printed works being of great relevance.
When he first arrived in the Iberian Peninsula, Valentim Fernandes was employed as an interpreter by Jerônimo Münzer, a German physician from Nürnberg, who eventually became known as Jerônimo Monetário. It is said that through such endeavours Valentim Fernandes acquired social prestige and a good network of contacts, travelled around the Peninsula, spoke the language fluently and eventually moved to Portugal.
In 1495, Valentim Fernandes and Nicolau de Saxónia jointly published a work entitled Vita Christi, authored by Ludolfo de Saxônia. This was tthe first book bearing illustrations to ever have been printed in Portugal and one of the most significant works ever published in Portuguese (see DIAS, João José Alves, O quinto centenário da Vita Christi, Os primeiros impressores alemães em Portugal, Lisbon, 1995, Presidência do Conselho de Ministros / Secretaria de Estado da Cultura / Instituto da Biblioteca Nacional e do Livro. Coordenação João José Alves Dias. Acesso digital na Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal: http://purl.pt/23712/3/#/4).
Valentim Fernandes also published a Royal Decree, date unknown, available at http://purl.pt/15020/4/bad-2354-v_PDF/bad-2354-v_PDF_24-C-R0150/bad-2354-v_0000_capa-capa_t24-C-R0150.pdf, Votivale missarum secundum ritum Romane curiae on 10th April 1496, and Estoria de muy nobre Vespesiano emperador de Roma on 20th April 1496 (see DIAS, João José Alves in O quinto centenário da Vita Christi, Os primeiros impressores alemães em Portugal, Lisboa, 1995, Presidência do Conselho de Ministros / Secretaria de Estado da Cultura / Instituto da Biblioteca Nacional e do Livro. Coordenação João José Alves Dias. Acesso digital na Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal: http://purl.pt/23712/3/#/4 p. 21).
Valentim Fernandes worked as a printer between 1495 e 1514, but only obtained his first privileges in 1502 and 1503, authorising him to print, respectively, The Travels of Marco Polo and and Regimento dos Juízes e Oficiais (containing rules regarding courts and other public entities), in addition to other privileges.
Early on, privileges were awarded by means of a document bearing the signature of the monarch, which document was then divulged to the public. However, the first privilege, which as mentioned above was given to Valentim Fernandes in 1502, may not have been divulged to the public.
The privilege was undoubtedly awarded to Valentim Fernandes in 1502. It is stated, in the printed work itself, before the introductory section, that the royal privilege in question pertains to the Travels of Marco Polo so that nobody is to print or sell such work without the authorisation of Valentim Fernandes (“Ho livro de Nycolao veneto. Ho trallado da carta de hũu genovês das ditas terras. Cõ privilegio del Rey nosso senhor. ˜q nenhuũ faça a jmpressam deste livro. nẽ ho venda em todollos se regnos e senhorios sem liçẽça Valentim fernãdez so pena cõteuda na carta do seu previlegio.”)
But the privilege that is being examined is not the original privilege but the printed work itself which contains a reference to such privilege. The privilege per se has never been found.
What matters, though, is that this is the first primary source of copyright in Portugal and as such reference must be made to it.
Later on, a trend emerged whereby the privilege itself was printed alongside the work, so as to provide immediate evidence of royal authorisation to print that work.
In other instances, the printed work contains both the full text of the relevant royal privilege and of the Holy See permission to print such work. See, for example, the first edition of os Lusíadas, by Camões, 1572.
It should be noticed that in Portugal, as was the case in other European countries too, printing pioneers dealt with various aspects of printing and thus were awarded privileges that covered those activities.
From the viewpoint of the beneficiary, it should be pointed out that the printing privilege under examination was awarded to a printer, not an author, that is, to one who invested rather than to one who created.
The first authors to be awarded privileges, in Portugal, were Gonçalo de Baena and Balthasar Dias, respectively in 1536 and 1537.
Overall, the printer and bookmaker Valentim Fernandes, as many other German nationals in those days found a new homeland in another corner of Europe, was a pioneer in the field, became one of the major printers in Portual and was given various printing privileges, including the very first one recorded in Portuguese history.
There is one author, though, Deslandes, who thinks differently, even though all other sources point the 1502 privilege authorising Valentim Fernandes to print The Travels of Marco Polo, which is corraborated on the front cover of the printed work as the first Portuguese privilege.
Deslandes does not say otherwise, but rather describes the work in question as a translation work rather than as a work that was subject to a privilege (“Apontàmos brevemente algumas noticias que d'elle nos chegaram; são as que seguem: (...) ter traduzido do latim e do toscano em linguagem portugueza a celebre viagem de Marco Paulo aos paizes mais oríentaes no XIII século, bem conhecida dos doutos; o tratado do dominicano Pepino de Bolonha; uma carta da índia do genovez Santo Estevão; e as viagens de Nicolau Conti, escriptas por Poggio, florentino, secretario do papa Eugénio IV; traducção que deu na impressão em Lisboa no anno de 1502, dedicada a el-rei D. Manuel, prestando valioso serviço á litteratura portugueza e á historia dos nossos descobrimento; ter tido a 12 de fevereiro de 1503 o privilegio da impressão dos livros dos Regimentos (...)” Deslandes, 1881, p. 31).
However, there is plenty of evidence, both in literature and in the printed work itself, which is part of the collection of the National Library of Portugal, suggesting that the 1502 privilege awarded to Valentim Fernandes was in fact the first printing privilege to emerge in this territory.
Commentary by Victor Durmmond
Translation by Patricia Akester