Glasgow Incunabula Project update (30/11/12)

Our latest batch of books includes the first volume to be printed in Venice by the celebrated printer, Aldus Manutius: the Greek Grammar of Constantine Lascaris.

As part of staff development, at present I am undertaking an online course in Understanding and Managing Rare Books, offered by the Centre for Archive and Information Studies at the University of Dundee. Through this I have been reading about the life and work of Aldus Manutius, (or Aldo Manuzio), c. 1449-1515, arguably the greatest scholar/printer of the Renaissance, an erudite man with imaginative drive, whose impact on the history of printing is incalculable, and whose legacy is still evident in the typography of the modern book.

Colophon of Sp Coll Hunterian Bh.2.14 Hypnerotomachia Poliphili

Born at Bassano, he received a humanist education in Rome and at Ferrara, before becoming tutor to the princes of Carpi, nephews of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, whose patronage he enjoyed.

By 1490, Aldus had re-located to Venice and set up as a printer with the definite aim of printing Greek texts. Venice was the ideal location since it possessed Cardinal Bessarion’s large library of Greek manuscripts, had a large community of expatriate Greeks and, most importantly, was the centre of the printing trade. Financed by the princes of Carpi, and with the technical expertise of his father-in-law, the printer Torresani, he established the “Aldine Press”, his first publication being the Greek Grammar of Constantine Lascaris in 1495, probably from a manuscript supplied by his friend and editorial collaborator, the humanist scholar Pietro Bembo.

Manuscript correction in Lascaris, Constantius: Erotemata [Greek]

Manuscript correction in Lascaris, Constantius: Erotemata [Greek]

Next came the “editio princeps” of the works of Aristotle, appearing in five volumes between 1495-1498. Other Greek editions followed, along with scientific and ecclesiastical works. In 1501 he printed the collected works of Virgil and continued at two-monthly intervals to produce classical texts in the new “portable” octavo format. Although the octavo itself was not new, the smaller Aldine format was achieved by using the italic type, invented by Aldus’s typefounder Francesco Griffo, since the smaller type, combined with the absence of the traditional lengthy commentaries, meant smaller pages and hence smaller and more economical books. These were popular and in high demand: whereas the maximum press run of this period was normally around 250 books, the Aldine Press produced runs of 1000 or more of clear texts catering for the growing professional middle-class reader. These editions were as much admired for their aesthetic appearance as for their content; Erasmus, who worked with Aldus as an editor, called them “the neatest types in the world”.

The acknowledged masterpiece of the Aldine Press is the “Hypnerotomachia Polyphili” by Francisco Colonna, considered by many to be the most beautiful book of the Venetian Renaissance. A fantasy which tells a story of lost love, this work was featured in our February 2004 Book of the Month article.

Image from Hypnerotomachia Poliphili

Another stylistic innovation of the Aldine Press was the semi-colon.

Competition from other printers ensued, and the promotion of the Aldine “brand” was protected by adopting the “dolphin and anchor” printer’s device, derived from the image on a Roman coin given to Aldus by Pietro Bembo.

Although by becoming a printer Aldus appeared to have rejected the world of scholarship, this was not really so, since his motivation was the desire to make the riches of classical and humanist learning accessible to a much larger readership by means of affordable “pocket editions”. The subsequent development of European culture and education owes him a considerable debt.

The Library is very fortunate in having  many fine examples of Aldus’ s work in Special Collections. For more information about these, follow the links to works produced by Aldus from the printer’s index in the Incunabula project website. Or visit us at Special Collections to take a look at the real thing!

For a more detailed background to Venetian printing generally, see our earlier Glasgow Incunabula project update on 19/4/12.

Details  of the latest ten books to be added to the  project website are:



Categories: Library, Reflections, Special Collections

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  1. Glasgow Incunabula Project update (6/12/13) « University of Glasgow Library

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