Glasgow Incunabula Project update 4/12/15

Guest blog by Michelle Craig, who is currently researching classical incunabula in Special Collections for an MLitt (Res).

During the first decades of printing most editions of classical Greek authors were reproduced in Latin translation. Although Greek type had first been used by the press of Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer in 1465, it was not until the 1490s that the Venetian printer, Aldus Manutius, made a concerted effort to produce many first editions of classical Greek texts. The volumes featured in our latest batch of incunabula contain the first editions of Aristotle to be printed in Greek, produced in five separate volumes between 1495 and 1498. They mark the start of Manutius’ interest in the production of Greek texts that continued until his death in 1515.

Typical annotated page from Aldus' Aristotle

Typical annotated page from Aldus’ Aristotle (Sp Coll Bh10-d.10)

The scholarly Manutius was clearly interested in the production of linguistically correct classical texts and for cultivating scholarship in Greek. Yet to undertake such a costly and prolonged production, Manutius must have viewed the works as an economically worthwhile investment, suggesting a wider public desire to access Aristotle’s ideas in the original Greek. The Incunabula Short Title Catalogue records a remarkably high number of surviving volumes in current library collections, demonstrating the status of these works. This suggests both their collectability but also the importance of these editions as a set of linguistically sound and usable texts for early readers. To fully appreciate this idea, we can examine extant ownership information and annotations in our copies. The distinct provenance information for both our  sets allows some degree of comparison of the treatment of these volumes.

Old Library set

Old Library set

Diagram showing the forms of motion

Diagram showing the forms of motion

Set 1: Old Library Bh10-d.9-13

The first set is recorded in the Glasgow University Library catalogue of 1791. The volumes do show some evidence of consistent collective ownership – what appears to be the same 16th century hand runs through several of the volumes. The uniform bindings of the five volumes also suggest that they were bound as a set at some point during the 18th Century in England. It must be assumed, therefore, that they were acquired by the University in the intervening period, between the late 17th and late 18th centuries. The annotations in this set cover a wide range of Aristotle’s ethical, philosophical and logical works.

They provide short synopses of segments of the text, provide analysis of some of Aristotle’s statements and discuss or reproduce aspects of his usage of Greek. There is also copious underlining throughout. The annotations provide reference to other classical scholars such as Anaxagoras, Pythagoras and Plato, seeming to show apparent familiarity with the ideas of these philosophers.

One noteworthy aspect of these annotations is the inclusion of illustrations. There are manuscript diagrams that appear to be memory aids to improve the reader’s own understanding of Aristotle’s ideas. This is most notable in the natural philosophy texts where several diagrams help visualise Aristotle’s complex theories.

Set 2: Hunterian Bh.2.4-9

We have more information about the provenance of our second set. The earliest ownership inscription notes that it was donated by a French aristocratic family – the De Le Grange family – to the Jesuit College of Orleans, founded in 1617.  Each of the volumes bears the same donation inscription, suggesting that these volumes were maintained as a set from at least the 17th century onwards.

Greek annotations

Greek annotations

From the Jesuits the volumes moved to Louis Jean Gaignat, secretary to King Louis XV. Although there is no evidence, it may be reasonable to speculate that they may have been sold to Gaignat after the closure of the Jesuit Colleges in France in 1763. Following Gaignat’s death, they were purchased by the anatomist, William Hunter, who bought them for the substantial sum of 205 livres, 2 sous (roughly equivalent to £10 after exchange rates). They were subsequently donated to the university along with Hunter’s library and other collections.

There are two noticeable hands running through the volumes. One hand concentrates on Aristotle’s Topics and Metaphysics. The other hand, which is solely in Greek, is found in Aristotle’s On the Heavens.

These Greek annotations may perhaps be the earlier hand and can be roughly dated to the 16th Century. They have been largely erased, making it difficult to draw any conclusions in regard reader response to the volumes. Identifiable examples seem to suggest that the annotator is picking out keywords. Significantly, it appears that no later owner has attempted to resupply any of the Greek annotations.

Annotations in gold ink

Annotations in gold ink

The other hand running throughout this set of volumes is solely writing in Latin. These annotations span only the first few pages of the texts annotated; they seem to merely provide short synopses, the annotator having split the text into small sections. These annotations are written in a form of gold pigmented ink, suggesting a wealthy reader.

We can conclude, therefore, that responses to Manutius’ volumes were diverse. Both our sets of volumes were collected as sets from an early point in their history but reader use – reflected in the different forms of annotation – suggests varying levels of engagement with Aristotle’s works.

If you would like to trace further examples of works produced by the Aldine press, visit our printer’s index. To find out more, see also previous blogs dedicated to this most famous of early modern scholar printers.

The latest ten records to be added to the project website are:



Categories: Special Collections

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