Aldus Manutius: The Invention of the Publisher 
by Oren Margolis.
Reaktion, 206 pp., £18, October 2023, 978 1 78914 779 7
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Aldus Manutius​ is the bibliophile’s bibliophile. Between 1495 and his death in 1515, Aldus issued from his Venice press more first editions of classical texts than had ever been published before, and more than anyone has published since. With his punchcutter, Francesco Griffo, he designed an elegant new typeface for printing in Greek (a serious technical challenge) as well as the italic font. Aldus shrunk the book: from the large-format volume kept in the library, to a smaller, stylish text to be tucked into a pocket. As Oren Margolis puts it in his new biography, Aldus ‘unchained literature from desks and remade reading as a pastime’. He printed dozens of beautiful books, none more so than the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, the book that – by giving equal attention to nymph orgies and classical architecture – captured the libido of the Italian Renaissance.

Aldus seems to have been a difficult character. He squabbled with his workers, even alienating the great Griffo. He was an evangelist for humanist printing and had a zealot’s splenetic temper. He was chronically overworked and felt overlooked by his scholarly peers, though he could namedrop and network with the best of them. According to an earlier biographer, he was ‘almost morbidly sensitive’ about grammar and pronunciation; he got into friendship-straining arguments with Erasmus about case-endings. It’s hard not to flinch from his overweening desire to be praised. He was working himself to death and never let anyone forget it.

But I like him. I can’t help it. Anyone who has sat in the park with a paperback has Aldus to thank for freeing the book from the library, the desk, the metal chain that sometimes bound books to shelves. If you’re the sort of person who gets a quiet thrill from well-chosen punctuation, Aldus is a kindred spirit; he revived the use of the semicolon after centuries of inadequate commas. He is the secular patron saint of pedants and editors. He was so peeved by the widespread practice of shortening Latin and Greek diphthongs into long vowels that he wrote an essay about it. He is also a paragon for those of us awaiting our great second act. In his twenties and thirties, Aldus was an ordinary humanist. But then, at forty, he moved to Venice and reinvented himself as a publisher. Why did he do it? How did he become a printer so ambitious that he changed what reading meant?

Not much is known about the first, more ordinary half of Aldus’s life. He was born in Bassiano, near Rome, around 1450 (his son and grandson disagreed about the date). As an adolescent, he attended lessons with Gaspare da Verona and lectures in Rome by Domizio Calderini; he began his official humanist career as a papal secretary and lectured on the Latin classics. In the 1470s, he went to France with the Greek émigré cardinal Bessarion and studied Greek in Ferrara with Battista Guarino. Like many Renaissance scholars, Aldus worked as a tutor to the rich and powerful: around 1480, he moved to Carpi, between Modena and Mantua, where he taught the liberal arts to the local princes, Alberto and Leonello Pio. Tutoring princelings didn’t satisfy Aldus, but his connection with Carpi lasted for the rest of his life. He was granted the Pio family name, was given rural estates by the family, and asked to be buried in Carpi when he died. He dedicated books to Alberto, ‘whom I have educated and instructed since, as they say, your fingernails were soft’. Margolis argues that it was this connection with Carpi – the Pio as patrons, but also the income from his Carpi estates – that allowed Aldus to make the leap into publishing: ‘For most, the freedom to take risks and create begins with a freedom from want.’ The Carpi income provided a safety net should Aldus’s wild venture fail.

By 1490, he was in Venice. His friend, the neo-Platonist philosopher Pico della Mirandola, sent the first-ever printed edition of Homer to Aldus that year. But it’s one thing to enjoy the technical accomplishment of a printed Homer, and quite another to decide you’d like to have a go at printing one yourself. In the early 1490s, Aldus set up a printshop in the Campo Sant’Agostin and embarked on an unprecedented programme of printing Greek books. Venice was a city of printers and readers. In his World of Aldus Manutius, Martin Lowry made a rough guess that, in 1500, Venetian presses produced twenty books per member of the city’s population. There were more printshops – and more booksellers, stationers, bookbinders – in Venice than anywhere else in Europe: twice as many editions were printed there than in Paris, its closest rival. Despite the riskiness of the business, Venice was an obvious choice for a man looking to start a publishing house. It seemed to Aldus ‘another world more than a city’.

Starting a press required capital. The huge press itself was only the beginning. Paper was expensive. So too was the type, which had to be made by highly skilled metalworkers. The compositors, inkers and operators not only had to be paid wages, but also fed and housed by the master printer; in Padua, a group of compositors once staged a walkout because their beds hadn’t been made. Aldus went into partnership with Andrea Torresani, an experienced printer, and Pierfrancesco Barbarigo, a Venetian patrician who was also, helpfully, the son of a doge. These men provided impressive financial and social backing for the enterprise. But still it wasn’t easy. Erasmus, who lived at the Aldine Press for a couple of years while working on his Adagia, would later satirise the living and working conditions: watered-down wine, rotten eggs. The women ate the leftovers and the pressworkers ate the women’s leftovers.

Perhaps Aldus made unacceptable economies on the wine, but it was a tough business. The printshop’s margins were razor thin and the smallest miscalculation could lead to ruin. The first printer in Venice had established himself in 1469, only a few decades previously, and printing was an almost entirely unregulated industry; Erasmus said it was easier to go into printing than baking. The market was ruthless, and encompassed both the street peddler shilling religious images and the fine university bookshops of Paris and Padua selling enormous volumes of law and medicine. For every successful press there were dozens of transient ones, turning out a couple of unremarkable editions before going under.

Aldus wanted to print Greek books. With Griffo (from Bologna), he designed that beautiful new typeface for printing Greek. They didn’t model it on classical Greek epigraphy, as Janus Lascaris was doing in Florence, but instead immortalised the stylish, cursive Greek handwriting of their own friends. Many Greek scholars had washed up in Venice after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and Aldus worked with them to locate Greek manuscripts that had never been published before. Giorgio Valla, who lectured on Greek poetry in the city, had a vast collection; so did Marcus Musurus, a Greek scholar from Crete. With Aldus, they commissioned Greek refugee scribes to copy out the manuscripts, working together to correct and edit them, and then print them in Griffo’s new typeface. One historian has suggested that Aldus and Griffo’s preference for the look of handwriting reflects a lingering love of manuscript, even in the age of sculpted metal type.

Beautiful books, but faulty financials. Even among the learned humanists of the day, very few could read Greek: a limited market for such an expensive proposition. The first book printed at the Aldine Press, Constantine Lascaris’s Grammatica Graeca, was published in 1495. In the preface, Aldus gives two justifications for printing it. Many people want to learn Greek, he writes, and this book will help them. A marketer’s logic: if Aldus could create more Greek readers, he would sell more Greek books. Then he veers from grammar to apocalypse. He was also printing it because of

the current state of affairs, the great wars which now afflict the whole of Italy, since God is angry at our misdeeds, and which look as if they will soon upset or indeed shatter the whole world, on account of the multifarious crimes of humanity, far more numerous and serious than those which were once the reason for an angry God to submerge and destroy in a flood the whole human race.

What does this have to do with Greek diphthongs? It is what Margolis calls ‘the essential mystery at the heart of the humanist faith’: the idea that the renewal of the classical past will lead to the redemption of mankind, now in the grips of a violent moral reckoning.

Case-endings and calamity, philology and renewal. Biographers sometimes pose Aldus’s midlife crisis as a mystery, but beneath the humanist bluster there is an evangelical mission at the heart of his prefaces. He wanted to save the world by printing the classics. ‘We have decided,’ he wrote, in the grandiose first person plural of the humanist credo, ‘to devote our whole life to benefiting mankind. God is my witness that I wish nothing more than to help humanity … since that is our wish, as long as we live in this vale of tears full of misery.’ No one could say he made it look easy.

The manuscripts of ancient Greek texts were mouldering away in monks’ libraries, Aldus wrote, in their ‘harsh and gloomy prisons’. He would ‘liberate’ them. ‘After lying hidden for so many centuries,’ he claimed, ‘mutilated and covered in filth, they come to life again through my strenuous labours.’ With his work, ‘all barbarism will be finally swept away.’ With his friends at the press he founded the Neakademia club, where all members would speak Greek or incur a fine. The collected fines were used to purchase the wine, for all those men ‘who are already … dreaming of the New Academy and have all but established it after the fashion of Plato’. So what if it was a pretentious drinking society? He would make antiquity live again, at the Aldine Press.

In his prefaces, complaint is the major key. ‘You can scarcely believe how busy I am,’ he writes. He didn’t have time to eat, to piss. ‘Sometimes we are so hard-pressed … that it is not even possible to wipe our nose.’ He was a new Sisyphus, a new Hercules. ‘My single-handed efforts have done more to help the world of letters than everyone else put together.’ That might be a bit of a stretch, but the range of Greek editions he published, many within the first decade of the press’s operation, is astonishing. Aristotle’s Natural Philosophy (1497), Metaphysics (1497), Moral Philosophy (1498). Thucydides’ Histories (1502), Herodotus’ Histories (1502). Plays by Aristophanes (1498), Sophocles (1502), Euripides (1503). The Iliad and the Odyssey (1504). The works of the Greek orators (Demosthenes in 1504, anthologies in 1513). The complete works of Plato (1513).

He was so busy that he hung a sign on his door: ‘Whoever you are,’ he warned, ‘Aldus insists on asking you to state whatever you want from him as briefly as possible, and then immediately to leave.’ There was one exception. ‘Unless, that is, you have come, like Hercules, when Atlas was exhausted, to shoulder the load.’ Everywhere he looked was work and more work: corrupted manuscripts, fragments; nothing was complete, nothing was fully preserved. He was cleaning away the accumulated errors of centuries; he compared editions, sought out the best manuscripts. As an editor, Aldus said he had to ‘assume [the author’s] mindset’, and perform a philological ventriloquism. When presented with a worm-eaten manuscript: what would Euripides have written? To rescue every single work of antiquity from obscurity: the scale of the work was endless, self-obliterating.

And yet ‘I have never yet produced a book with which I felt satisfied.’ It’s always hard to tell with the humanists – ornamental emotion is de rigueur – but I think this was true, or true enough. It’s not that Aldus was never happy, but that ‘I am … content to be oppressed, content to be unhappy.’ A true Renaissance perfectionist. The tension is captured in his emblem. The Aldine Press used an image of a sleek dolphin twisting itself round an anchor. Festina lente. Make haste slowly. There is a doomsday urgency to the renewal of the past, but every punctuation mark must be checked and double-checked. ‘I always have as my companions the dolphin and the anchor,’ Aldus wrote. ‘For, while going slowly, we have produced a great deal and are doing so continually.’

The turn of the century marked another shift in Aldus’s career: from Greek classics to Latin; and to the new, pocket-sized octavo editions that would make him famous (and eminently counterfeitable). In 1501, he printed the works of Virgil in this new format. He called the book an enchiridion, the Greek word for dagger. A little weapon concealed in the pocket. Margolis says that this new form was also part of the humanist project of redemption: ‘Good literature in the hands of the Christian people … was a weapon of reform.’ A weapon, or a prayer: until Aldus, the only octavo-sized books were devotional works. But to carry Virgil around in your pocket was its own kind of devotion.

When Aldus dedicated a small-format edition of Horace to the Venetian patrician Marino Sanudo, he wanted the book to ‘invite you by its smallness to read him when you can take a rest from performing your public duties’. Margolis describes Renaissance portraits of fashionable young men and women holding little books, usually volumes of Petrarch’s vernacular poetry, published for the first time by Aldus. The book was a portable friend. Aldus told Sanudo that he could ‘share your company with these handily-sized editions, and you can hold me, as it were, in your hands’.

The classical past was personified in the physical book. Petrarch recalled entering his study, where he kept a large volume of Cicero’s letters leaning against the doorpost. His gown caught on it and the book fell, injuring his leg. ‘What is the matter, my Cicero,’ Petrarch asked his book, ‘why do you wound me?’ He put the book back; the next day it fell and wounded him again. The accident was repeated until the doctors put him on bed-rest and wrapped him in warm poultices. The weight of the large book was the weight of the past, inflicting itself on the bodies and minds of those obsessed with its renewal. Petrarch wrote to Boccaccio, referring to Cicero as a mutual friend: ‘You are right: those with whom we live on the most intimate terms are the ones who most often wound us.’

A small book made for a different kind of intimacy: more leisurely, less wounding. Margolis cites Machiavelli’s letter of 1513 to his friend Francesco Vettori, describing a day spent in exile on his farm:

Leaving the wood, I go out to a spring, and from there to my aviary. I have a book under my cloak, either Dante or Petrarch, or one of the minor poets, such as Tibullus, Ovid, and the like. I read of their amorous passions and of their loves, recall my own, and take a little pleasure in this thought.

In the evening, he put on his ‘courtly garments’ and entered into his study, where he approached the large and immoveable volumes of serious classical literature with sacral solemnity. There was a psychic weight to the big books of the study, a lightness to the octavo: a little book made for daydreaming romance among the pigeons. This was new; it was invented by Aldus when he printed his dagger-books.

Margolis’sbiography – the first in English for forty years – was occasioned by the 500th anniversary of Aldus’s death, an anniversary that prompted a flurry of international exhibitions, catalogues and scholarship. It doesn’t make any claims to comprehensiveness: parts of Aldus’s life are barely sketched and there is little on the finances of the printshop; but then, that’s all been done before. Margolis’s book is an elegant visual biography that beautifully reproduces woodcuts, fonts, paintings, coins, letters, dedications, prefaces. It’s a cultural history of Aldus the myth, not Aldus the man. A stylish book, worthy of its stylish subject.

Margolis’s central claim is that Aldus invented the idea and identity of a publisher. An Aldine book – its size, its beautiful typeface, even its grumbling prefaces – ‘stood for something; it stood for what Aldus stood for.’ The owner of an Aldine owned a little of Aldus: a little of his reforming zeal, a little of his scholarly evangelism, a little of his beauty and precision. Aldus not only changed what it meant to read, but what it meant to publish books. Printing was no longer a mechanical process only, a question of manual skill and labour. In the Virgil edition of 1501, printed in Griffo’s new italic type, Aldus wrote an epigram ‘In Praise of the Punchcutter’: ‘Behold, Aldus, who gave them to the Greeks,/now gives to the Latins letters carved/by the Daedalean hands of Francesco of Bologna.’ Aldus was the mind and Griffo the hands, but a gulf opened between publisher and craftsman. The underappreciated Griffo went to work for the rival Soncino Press. Yet even without him, the Aldine aesthetic – the small format, the spare slant of the type, the vast white margins – came to stand for the Aldine project. If Penguin orange means something to you, or Fitzcarraldo blue: that’s partly Aldus’s doing. Festina lente. Put it on a tote bag.

The final mystery of Aldus’s career is the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, perhaps the most famous book of the Italian Renaissance, and certainly one of the most erotic. Margolis calls it the ‘pornographic Pevsner guide to the Renaissance antiquarian imaginary’. The Strife of Love in a Dream, as it is called in English, is a medieval romance set in a dreamscape of antique architecture, sculpture and fantastical landscapes. The hero, Poliphilo, falls asleep and has a dream within a dream, pursuing the beautiful Polia. He goes on a convoluted journey that oscillates between highly technical descriptions and measurements of classical buildings, and ecstatic rituals of devotion to Priapus’ enormous penis. The book was esoteric even in its own time, written in an invented hybrid language of Latin, Italian and Greek, the story told more through its stunning woodcut images than through the text itself. ‘Poliphilian’ came to be a term for the kind of pedantry that bores ladies at dinner parties.

The authorship of the Hypnerotomachia is purposefully obscure and so is the identity of the woodcut artist; Aldus’s name is the only one that can be securely attributed, found only below a list of errata. Why did he publish it? Lowry downplays it as a momentary lapse in judgment, but Margolis suggests that the Hypnerotomachia shows Aldus experimenting in elevating the role of the publisher from craftsman to cerebral artist. It’s where he tried out his motto. In the Hypnerotomachia there is an explanation of the role of the architect: ‘Beyond his learning, he should be good, moderate in speech, kind, benevolent, mild, patient, good-humoured, rich in ideas, a careful investigator, universal in interests, and slow – slow, I say, so as not to be hasty in error afterwards.’ Festina lente. Aldus is not the bricklayer, but the architect; and modern publishing found its parallel in the classical art of architecture.

Aldus died in 1515. In a funeral oration, Giovanni Battista Egnazio mourned the ‘loss and death of a man who almost alone raised up and restored literature when it was in a state of collapse and almost given up as lost’. He had become gravely ill, Egnazio said, adding the finishing touches to the Aldine myth, as ‘a result of excessive work and long hours of toil into the night’. At Aldus’s funeral in San Paternian, his body was laid out surrounded by stacks of books. But the corpse was soon lost, buried in an unremembered grave. Aldus had once promised young students of Latin that fame could be theirs, if only they would commit long hours to study: ‘You too, if you can grow pale in studying learned works, I promise, will raise your name to the stars.’ There was no funeral monument in Carpi as he wished, but there was something better: Aldines in Utopia. Thomas More imagined the volumes of ‘Aristophanes, Homer and Euripides’ to be found there, and ‘also Sophocles, in the smallish type of Aldus’.

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Vol. 46 No. 2 · 25 January 2024

Erin Maglaque tells us that when Aldus Manutius published his handy octavo edition of Virgil in 1501, ‘He called the book an enchiridion, the Greek word for dagger. A little weapon concealed in the pocket’ (LRB, 14 December 2023). Later she refers to Aldus’s ‘dagger-books’. In fact, enchiridion was the Greek word for ‘a little thing held in the hand’. It’s true that ‘small weapon’ was one common meaning, but the word was also used to refer to a book small enough to hold, and usually containing a pithy distillation of key points – hence the common translation ‘handbook’ or ‘manual’ for the word in that sense. Famous enchiridia include those of the Stoic ex-slave Epictetus and of St Augustine.

By Aldus’s day, the word was usually applied to small devotional volumes, either manuscript or printed. It was the literal ‘handiness’ of these pious pocketbooks that inspired him to adopt and adapt the word for his ‘portable Virgil’ of 1501, followed soon after by a series of other Latin texts that he advertised in a 1503 catalogue as ‘libelli portatiles in formam enchiridii’ – ‘portable little books in the form of an enchiridion’.

David Lupher
Tacoma, Washington

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