Hear ye! Hear ye!

How the news came to be

Sabine Eiche
January 13, 2011

WikiLeaks has forever changed the way the world reports the news-or has it? In reality, the journalist's role of disclosing secret documents and messages from foreign diplomats and agents is a centuries-old practice. In this article, Sabine Eiche takes us back to the dawn of news reporting to reveal that the men who gathered the news in the past often worked the same way as WikiLeaks' journalist-hackers, nosing out the secret information that they thought would interest or amuse their patrons. Find out why government secrets aren't so new after all. Buona lettura!


Has it ever occurred to you that the privilege of reading the news, as you're doing now in The Florentine, was not something you could have taken for granted if you'd been living hundreds of years ago? Then, the news was delivered in quite a different way, and at times to just an elite few.


When did it all start? Well, it seems to have been human nature from time immemorial to crave information, regardless of whether it came as rumour or authoritative report. We know that the ancient Romans brought out an official publication, called the Acta Diurna, which was posted in public places such as markets. There, whoever had learned to read found various announcements, including ones of personal interest, like births, deaths and marriages. In medieval times, the town crier took care of broadcasting the news. He would routinely stop at prescribed points in the town, usually at crossroads, and shout the news at the top of his lungs. By the later fifteenth century, and probably even much earlier, rich people like the Fuggers of Germany and rulers of states like the Medici of Florence had their news delivered to them directly. In Italy, these early news reports were called avvisi, and they were dispatched from major cities such as Milan, Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples, as well as from other countries. Until the seventeenth century, avvisi were written by hand. Many of them have survived and are now in manuscript collections such as those of the Vatican Library and the Florence State Archives.


How was the news gathered before the era of printing presses, telegraphs, telephones and journalists? Not surprisingly, news was gathered where people congregated, for instance at the court or palace of a ruler, where foreign ambassadors, agents and visitors hung around in the antechambers, waiting for their turn to have an audience. They might spend hours waiting, and what better way to pass the time than to gossip and exchange and collect tidbits of information to send back home?


Another fruitful source of news was the headquarters or shops of merchants in the big trading centres and ports. People looking for news would go there, hopeful of picking up something from either foreign letters that had arrived with shipments or other traveling merchants. The news items would then be copied down, usually with an indication of the source-and sometimes with a comment about its reliability. For instance, the sixteenth-century humanist and diplomat Cosimo Bartoli, who for years was the Medici's agent and news-gatherer in Venice, wrote at the bottom of one batch of avvisi that had come from Brussels, which he was sending to the grand duke: ‘I got these avvisi from a very excitable person, but I wanted to send them all at the same, even though I don't believe a word of what is said.'


The range of topics covered in the avvisi was as wide as that covered in any modern newspaper. There was something for every taste and interest, and plenty that would make even your hair stand on edge. Picture the grand duke of Tuscany in February 1586, reading the following avviso: ‘n Prague, a rich lady went out, ordering her servant to do various tasks in her absence. When she came home, she found that the servant had not done as ordered. She beat the servant, and when the servant's young son started bawling, she took a club and hit him over the head, killing him. Then the rich lady was arrested and buried alive that same day.' No doubt the grand duke sighed with relief that he lived in civilized Florence and not in Prague, where the scales of justice seemed to tip the wrong way.


Not all avvisi were so grim. Some were distinctly hilarious. There must have been shrieks of laughter when the grand duke and his courtiers read another avviso from Prague, which had come in the same batch: ‘ young bride went to church to be married. When she arrived, she found the church filled with 23 young men, all of whom claimed to be her betrothed. The bride was so confused, she turned around and ran back home.'


If access to avvisi had originally been limited to the ruling class, by the middle of the sixteenth century it had become possible for private people to hire news-gatherers. The recipient would subscribe to the news-service, and the news-gatherer would send him avvisi based on his interests, for instance about politics, the book trade (a very popular topic), scientific discoveries, society gossip, miracles and monsters. Since such private news-gatherers were usually required to pay the source for each avviso they ‘gathered,' they had to pick and choose what they would send on to their subscriber in order to stay within the limits of their budget.


Sensation always sold well, and it wasn't long before things got out of hand. In 1572, the pope issued an edict prohibiting news-gatherers (who by then were known as novellanti) from writing news. A few novellanti had already been hanged because ‘they write things that the pope does not like.'


Such threats and dangers notwithstanding, the business of news writing continued, and by the seventeenth century single or double sheets of the latest news were being mass printed and sold to whoever was willing to pay. The cries of ‘Hear ye, hear ye!' had begun.

more articles