This year marks five centuries since the death of Aldus Manutius, an Italian humanist who forever changed the direction of publishing, and got in one of its first copyright squabbles. Aldus Manutius: The Struggle and the Dream at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library celebrates the printer of classical Greek texts, who in working to make scholarship more portable and accessible invented the smallest mass-produced books since Gutenberg debuted his goliath bibles and introduced the italic typeface.
The Struggle and the Dream opened last month with a small display in the library’s proscholium, joined by an online exhibition. Curated by Dr. Oren Margolis, a historian of the Italian Renaissance, the display brings together some of the library’s “Aldine” editions marked with the signature dolphin and anchor. These “octavo” editions were pocket-sized, freeing them from their literal chains where previously pricy editions of the same books where so large and valuable they were kept linked to library desks, becoming the predecessor of the modern paperback. Curator Margolis told Hyperallergic:
Aldus was a humanist before he was a printer: his commitment was to editing and teaching the Greek and Latin classics, which he viewed as the foundation of learning, virtue, and society in general. Printing was an instrument of his agenda, and allowed him — though a combination of foresight, commitment to excellence, and his enviable skills of self-promotion — to cultivate an international readership, all while never standing over the press himself. It is this aspect of Aldus’s modernity that I believe is most relevant today. What Aldus was doing was taking advantage of technological change to make material more accessible and to cultivate new audiences.
Included in The Struggle and the Dream is the profoundly curious 1499 Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, an abstractly eroticized journey by a still unknown artist and author through a landscape of ancient architecture woodcuts as a man searches for his lost mistress, and the very first printing by Aldus at his Venetian business — a grammar of Constantine Lascaris in 1495. However, things really took off with the 1501 edition of Virgil’s Opera.
A flowery poem opened the tome: “Behold, Aldus, who gave letters to the Greeks, now gives them to the Latins, sculpted by the skillful hands of Francesco of Bologna.” While his italic typeface had made its very first appearance in the 1500 edition of Catherine of Siena’s Epistole — embedded in a book held by the saint in a woodcut, as a bit of a meta detail — this was its official debut. It made the Latin more legible, and allowed more to fit on a page. However, by claiming it so bombastically Aldus drove a wedge in his relationship with its actual creator, his punchcutter Francesco Griffo, and it would eventually destroy their partnership.
Humble he was not, but Aldus was wildly successful. Where contemporary printers had books in runs of between 100 and 250, he was sometimes printing 1,000. Enter the French book pirates.
While Aldus had legal protection in Italy, over in Lyon, France, pirating of his editions was untamed. It got so bad he sent a public decree against it in 1503 pointing out all the errors, which, alas, just allowed the copiers to amend their errors and release new editions. As Margolis stated in an article for the University of Oxford: “For the first time, intellectual property becomes an issue, because you’re producing something that isn’t unique any more.” While 500 years have passed since Aldus Manutius’ death on February 6, 1515, and italic is now a standard, the issue of copyright remains just as contentious. Other commemorations are joining the one at Oxford, including at the Grolier Club in New York this month.
“Anniversaries are funny things, especially when this one marks neither the beginning nor end of the Aldine Press — 1515 was actually a productive year for it, and there is an eulogy of Aldus in one of its publications,” Margolis explained. “Some curators have chosen to focus on the question of the legacy and his heirs and successors, others on later collecting. What we have tried to do in Oxford is put the focus on Aldus himself. In typography, in xylography (woodcuts), even in marketing and intellectual property rights, the Aldine Press proved very influential. But its achievements only make sense when viewed in a wider context. What I hope visitors see, when looking at (for instance) the first book printed entirely in italics [Virgil, 1501] is not just an object of beauty and curiosity, though it certainly is both of those things, but a cultural artifact.”
Aldus Manutius: The Struggle and the Dream continues at the proscholium of the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford (Broad Street, Oxford, England) through February 22. On February 6, the death day of Aldus Manutius, the exhibition will be joined by a one-day display by three student curatorial assistants.