Pietro Bembo
De Aetna

Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1496, 4°
Cambridge, The Syndics of Cambridge University Library, Inc.4.B.3.134[4580]

De Aetna, a fictional dialogue in the style of Plato in which Pietro Bembo tells his father Bernardo about his climb to the top of Mount Etna, the Sicilian volcano, was the first Latin text of the renowned Venetian humanist to be published in print. The edition, published by Aldus Manutius in February 1496 (1495 more veneto), had probably been commissioned by Bembo himself; moreover, moreover, it was the first Latin text published by Aldus, the first printed text containing punctuation marks, and the first Aldine edition where the so-called “Bembo” type appeared – the beautiful fourth Roman type designed and engraved for Manutius by the famous Bologna-born punchcutter Francesco Griffo (d. 1518). It is also renowned for the elegant simplicity of its layout, devoid of any decoration except for the title in capital letters and the colophon (again in capital letters) arranged in an inverted pyramid shape. While the capital letters were modelled on classical epigraphic capitals, lowercase letters, with elegant thin serifs, have often been compared to the writing of contemporary prominent scribes. It is in fact impossible to match the Bembo type with the hand of any particular scribe of the time; so much so that Mardersteig hypothesised that Griffo himself was a skilled calligrapher on account of his talent in engraving a remarkable number of variations to the single letters (Mardersteig 1988). The strategy undoubtedly contributed towards avoiding the allegation of the printed page as being monotonous by a client of Bembo’s calibre, who was accustomed to Sanvito’s handwritten pages. All speculations aside, the Roman type of De Aetna certainly served as a model for many Parisian editions during the 1530s and was used as a model between 1928 and 1930 by the British designer and typographer Stanley Morison in recreating and reproducing the “Bembo” font (Mardersteig 1988; olocco 2012, p. 33).

In the Cambridge copy, the broad margins left by Aldus were not heavily trimmed and, although washed during the passage of the book through the antiquarian market, they revealed the presence of important corrections and additions made by Pietro Bembo himself in his small notularis hand, which can also be found in the margins of the Horace manuscript owned by his father (cat. 36). Its identification is confirmed by other, and different, autographed corrections and additions discovered by Adolfo Tura in another copy of the edition (Modena, Biblioteca Estense Universitaria, α. Z. 2. 15; E. Curti, in Pietro Bembo 2013, pp. 108–109, no. 1.12). Bembo’s authography is further confirmed by the presence of each of these modifications, together with others already detected by Bühler, in the second edition of the dialogue that was reviewed and published by Bembo in 1530 (Bühler 1951; Nuvoloni 2011).

Catalogues: istc, ib00304000.

Laura Nuvoloni