European studies blog

12 January 2015

Collecting the Renaissance: Aldus Manutius and his legacy

2015 is the 500th anniversary of the death of Aldo Manuzio (or Aldus Manutius in the equally familiar Latinised form which he himself used), one of the most important figures in the history of printing and publishing. When he was active, these trades were still in their infancy (the new technology of printing with moveable type had spread to Italy by the 1460s, within two decades of its first appearance in Germany) and Aldus did much to shape their development not only in Venice, where he set up his publishing house, but across the continent more generally.

Aldo Manuzio / Aldus Manutius, from Antoine Augustin Renouard, Annales de l'imprimerie des Alde (Paris, 1834).
British Library 11917.f.34.

In what promises to be a crowded schedule of exhibitions, conferences and other events taking place all over the world to mark the occasion (see the Manutius Network 2015), the British Library has entered the field early with a small display drawing on its incomparable collections of Aldine editions in the Ritblat Gallery: Collecting the Renaissance: the Aldine Press 1494-1598. The display is open to the public until Sunday 25 January.

What makes Aldus so lastingly significant in the annals of printing and publishing in Italy and beyond? He started his career as  a typical Renaissance humanist, passionately dedicated, like so many in 15th-century Italy, to the study and recovery of the classical tradition – in Aldus’s case especially Greek – and, as a teacher, with its transmission. It is possible that he first moved in the late 1480s or early 1490s to Venice, the home of many Greek scholars in exile after the fall of Constantinople, in order to pursue the study of the language more intensively. His interest in publishing was sparked off there, in the city which was already – and would remain for the best part of the 16th century – the hub of the European booktrade, and grew directly out of his scholarly interests, as part of a wider cultural project to disseminate books in Greek and promote the study of major authors such as Aristotle. His first edition, published in 1494 and included in the display, was the Erotemata, a Greek grammar by Constantine Lascaris.  

Aldus maintained his scholarly interests and his standing as a scholar: his printing house became a celebrated meeting point for learned men from all over Europe, some of whom contributed directly to the firm’s editions, and his last book published in the year of his death 1515, also in the display, was his own Greek grammar on which he had been working all his life. But printing in Greek was not for the faint-hearted (or impractical); it presented significant technical and editorial challenges which Aldus seems to have relished and it is his natural flair for all the aspects of the profession which was the foundation of his enduring success. One of the most striking aspects of his activity is his appetite for innovation and experiment with books as material artefacts, with formats, typefaces and page design. Many of these innovations – for example, the pocket-sized  and enormously successful series of Latin and Italian classics he began to produce round the turn of the century, the quintessential ‘Aldine book’ – proved to be turning-points which shaped the subsequent development of book production and of the book trade all over Europe.

Petrarch, Le cose volgari (Venice, 1501) G.10714.

Aldus2                                   Dante Alighieri, Le terze rime (Venice, 1502) 1071.f.3.

The British Library display includes copies of some of the most celebrated editions produced by Aldus, as well as a few books published by his descendants – his son Paolo and grandson Aldus junior – who carried on the firm after his death, with only intermittent success;  while sharing his scholarly interests, they lacked his business flair and acumen. 

 Aldus3  Aldus4
Paolo Manuzio and Aldo Manuzio the Younger, from Renouard, Annales de l'imprimerie des Alde

The celebrated and enigmatic Hypnerotomachia Poliphili of 1499 could not of course be omitted:  it is perhaps the iconic Aldine edition, despite its being in almost every way an unclassifiable one-off and certainly uncharacteristic of his overall production (most famously for being copiously illustrated with elegant and densely allusive woodcuts). But the Hypnerotomachia  is shown here for its ornate sixteenth-century binding, indicating how much its French owner, Thomas Mahieu (Maiolus), prized it, just as the small-format editions of  Italian and classical texts are exemplified by copies – of Martial, Virgil and Petrarch – personalised by their purchasers with richly illuminated title-pages. These features show the parallel focus of this small display – on Aldus and his dynasty but also on his collectors, both in Aldus’s time and much later, whose bibliophilic passion for his editions did so much to preserve his fame.  It is their libraries, dispersed over the centuries, which have gone to enrich the Aldine resources of the UK’s national library and to make them into the comprehensive, various and multiple collection the current display allows us to glimpse.


Thomas Mahieu's binding (top) and a typical page-opening (above) from Francesco Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Venice,1499) C.24.c.19.

The display has been curated jointly with the Warburg Institute in the University of London, which will be hosting a one-day colloquium in February on the similar theme  of Aldus and his cultural legacy seen from the perspective of bibliophilia and its connections with the antiquarian book trade. It is hoped that a permanent record of the display, with images, will be included in one of the 2015 issues of the Bibliographical Society’s journal The Library.

Stephen Parkin, Curator Italian Studies


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