The Aldine Press, 500 years on
By CATHARINE MORRIS
If you’re familiar with the concept of the “biblio-binge”, as Michael put it in his most recent post, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy a small exhibition at the British Library, of books printed by the Aldine Press, founded in Venice by Aldus Manutius in 1494 and run by him and by two further generations of his family – all distinguished scholars and teachers as well as printers – until 1597. (The exhibition, which was curated by Stephen Parkin, Paolo Sachet and Jill Kraye and will run until January 25, marks the 500th anniversary of Aldus’s death.) The press was extremely influential in terms of design, and produced some exquisitely beautiful volumes, easily recognizable from their dolphin-and-anchor emblems and sought after by collectors.
We encounter, for example, Constantine Lascaris’s Erotemata, 1495, a popular Greek grammar and the first book Aldus printed, for which he brought in expert help to meet the considerable challenge of rendering Greek script. Then there is Hypnerotomachia poliphili (1499; see picture below), an esoteric love story in Italian attributed to the Dominican monk Francesco Colonna, which is accompanied by sophisticated (though, like the text, anonymous) woodcuts. It became Aldus’s best-known volume.
There is a first edition of the Italian letters of St Catherine of Siena, 1500, which contains the first ever use of an italic font – it was designed to mimic scholars’ handwriting, we are told, and to make the text more readable – and a 1501 edition of Virgil which exemplifies another innovation: the octavo format, which enabled readers to carry the books around with them and therefore embodied “the renaissance belief that antiquity provided models to be imitated in all activities”. Petrarch is represented in an edition (1501) of Le cose volgari; the scholar-poet Pietro Bembo edited the text using a manuscript in his own possession. Late in life Aldus wrote a Greek grammar himself, which was published posthumously; the pages on display present forms of the verbs "to dig" and "to sow" in elegant tree diagrams.
After Aldus’s death the press was run by Aldus’s father-in-law Andrea Torresani, and Torresani’s sons (who for legal purposes, we are told, were regarded as Aldus's nephews). When Andrea died there was “a bitter quarrel over the inheritance”, we learn, but Aldus's son Paolo Manuzio reopened the press in 1533, and Cicero’s Epistolae familiares, published that year – its long, thin octavo format providing space for annotations below the text – marks a return to form. Thirty years later, Manuzio was head of the first Vatican printing press, and the exhibition also includes the Council of Trent’s Canones et decreta, 1564. The significance of the blue paper on which it is printed is unknown, but “it appears to have been another Aldine invention”.
The first scholarly work of Aldo the Younger (Paolo’s son) had been published in 1556, when he was nine years old. “Burdened by the legacy of his family”, we read beneath a little copy of his Phrases Linguae Latinae, an English edition published in London in 1581, “he tried, with various degrees of success, to make a career for himself as a scholar unconnected to the printing trade”. He is often overlooked, the exhibition explains, but he was well known in Europe, and this edition was reprinted many times.
A first edition of Torquato Tasso (1581) – with changes marked on it in Aldo the Younger’s hand (identified by Sir Anthony Panizzi, Principal Librarian of the British Museum 1856–66) – demonstrates the calibre of the writers the Aldine Press attracted, even in the last quarter of the sixteenth century when "the quality of its output was . . . in decline".
The exhibition makes clear that the Aldine Press also attracted eminent collectors. Jean Grolier bought Lactantius’s Divinarum institutionum libri septem shortly after it was published in 1535, for example; and the 1501 edition of Martial’s Epigrammata was at one time in the library of George III. The display makes reference to a comment made in 1811 that “all the Aldine Classics produced such an electricity of sensation, that buyers stuck at nothing to embrace them!” The fascination continues, as H. R. Woudhuysen observed in the TLS last year.
Details of this and other Aldine events planned for 2015 – including a colloquium at the Warburg Institute – can be found here.