Aldus Manutius. Biographical notes

Aldus Manutius (1449 - 1515) was born in Bassiano, a small town in the Lazio countryside in the duchy of Sermoneta. He pursued a course of classical studies between 1467 and 1475 in Rome, attending the lessons of Domizio Calderini, who was close to Cardinal Bessarione. After 1475 he moved to Ferrara, where he is noted as being a pupil of Battista Buarini, who had an enormous influence on the development of his ideas on the learning of Greek and its importance for humanist and scientific education.

In this context Manutius developed an extraordinary faith in an encyclopaedic knowledge based on the classical tradition and Christian faith. This led to an intense passion for every aspect of language, intended as a means of expressing man’s rational capacity, which profoundly marked his work as a literary man and publisher.

In 1480, in Carpi, he obtained the post of tutor to the princes Alberto and Lionello Pio, probably on the recommendation of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, the princes’ uncle, who he would have met in Ferrara. His stay in Carpi lasted until 1489. A first draft of his future Latin grammar entitled De diphthongis Graecis et ut Latine fiant libellus seems to date from this period.

Manutius moved to Venice between 1489 and 1490, where he probably continued his work as a teacher, as shown by the publication of his Latin grammar Institutiones grammaticae Latinae, printed on 8 March 1493 by Andrea Torresano. There is no evidence to suggest that Manutius moved to Venice with any intention of working in publishing, although the Serenissima was at the time the main publishing centre in Europe. It is possible that his interest in printing developed gradually from the idea of extending his educational activities and his dissatisfaction with the quality of the texts and books on which he had to rely.

The founding of the Aldine press dates from 1494. The first work was the Greek grammar Erotemata by Constantine Lascaris, printed between February and March 1495. The first tome of Aristotle’s works followed in November 1495, which was to be completed in 1498 with five folio volumes. He then moved on to grammars, poets, orators, historians and all those authors who could have assisted the revival of studies and literature. In these years Manutius enjoyed close relations with the educated Venetian nobility. He was very close to the great diarist Marino Sanuto, owner of one of the most notable libraries of the time, and Bernardo and Pietro Bembo were among his main advisors. Greek largely predominated in his publishing work of the first five years (1495-1500). In addition to the five volumes of Aristotle, the production was more distinguished by philosophical and scientific works than literature. Indispensable grammars and dictionaries for learning the language predominated, while the literary works seemed mainly intended to provide good models of Greek expression. Such was the function of the comedies of Aristophanes (1498), edited by Marco Musuro, and the works of Theocritus and Hesiod (1496), capable of providing a wide variety of stylistic forms, essential for acquiring knowledge of philosophy, medicine and mathematics. The attention focused on scientific texts is confirmed by the writings of Dioscorides and Nicandrus (1499).

But Aldus Manutius had much more ambitious plans. In 1498 he outlined a demanding publishing programme that included among other things the speeches of Demosthenes, the rhetoric of Hermogenes, the works of Plutarch and Xenophon and various classical commentaries on Aristotle. In October of the same year he had also published the first of his three editorial catalogues, in which he included only the Greek books, thinking the others less salient and of little importance. The production in Latin in this period, part of which was complementary to the Greek editions, was certainly less demanding. The other works of the period seem rather to depart from the main editorial line, to the point that the printing may have been determined by the need to satisfy his partners, concerned at the commercial difficulties of the works in Greek. A preliminary option on scientific research once again proposed starting from Greek philosophy.

In January 1496 he published De Aetna by Pietro Bembo, a minor work from a literary point of view that recounts the Venetian nobleman’s travels in Sicily, but memorable mainly for the elegance of the Roman characters engraved especially by Francesco Griffo, which became a reference for all future inventors of typefaces. All the subsequent main Roman series were inspired by them, from those engraved by Claude Garamond in the sixteenth century to many typefaces in use in twentieth-century printing.

Between 1498 and 1499, Manutius began to also show an interest in Hebrew printing, related to his contact with scholars like Pico, Bembo, Tommaso Giustiniani and Vincenzo Querini, who knew the language. At the end of the Latin and Greek grammars published in 1501, Manutius added an Introductio perbrevis ad Hebraicam linguam, which was the first time Hebrew characters had been used in Venice.

Only two works in the vernacular came out in this initial period. The first was the very famous and mysterious Hypnerotomachia Poliphili of 1499, whose attribution to the Dominican Francesco Colonna continues to be debated. It is considered one of the printing masterpieces of all time. Its special features were use of the vernacular, cloaked in an aura of Latinising classicism and, especially, the editorial apparatus, which surprisingly combined text and illustrations on all 234 folio pages. The illustrations were taken from 172 engravings on wood made by an unknown artist, who recent studies suggest placing in the environs of the Paduan illuminator Benedetto Bordon. His accomplished graphic experience was put to use the following year in the edition of the Epistole di santa Caterina da Siena, in which the illustrative part has a similar importance and in which for the first time Manutius tried out italic characters, albeit only for the words ‘Jesu dolce Jesu amore’.

There was a decisive change of plans in the years 1501-03, probably caused by the needs of partners and a major crisis in Venetian publishing work, put seriously to the test by wars and economic difficulties. There was a considerable drop in the production of Greek, actually interrupted for two years after 1499 in favour of Latin editions. These were also years of significant innovations. On 23 March 1501 Manutius asked the Collegio dei savi for a ten year privilege that would protect a new Latin typeface he had had engraved to launch the printing of the Latin classics.

The new italic Latin typeface was inspired by the manuscript forms used in Italian chanceries of the second half of the fifteenth century and was intended to give the prints the elegance and beauty of Humanist manuscripts. This, along with the new octavo format, came to be the distinctive sign of Manutius’s work. He put new pocket editions on sale (defined in the 1503 catalogue as ‘libelli portatiles in formam enchiridii’), intended not so much to lower the prices and circulate the popular book, as to encourage a different use of the book. It was to be less related to the space of the studio and directed more at a widening of the reading public, not necessarily made up of professional literary men, and thus encouraging new reading practices. Manutius’s merit was not that of having been the first to use the octavo format, already in use for some time for printing religious and devotional texts, but of having used it for the production of classics. The removal of comments was also intended to not distract the reader’s concentration on the text, avoiding pedantic influences.

Manutius was moreover fully aware of the revolution he was bringing about. Writing to Sanuto to dedicate his Horace to him in 1501, he pointed out that a portable book allowed reading in moments free of political occupations or study, while he suggested to the condottiero Bartolomeo d’Alviano that he keep the small format books with him on his military campaigns. The first example was the Virgil which came out in April 1501, followed by many others: Perseus and Giovenale, Martial, Cicero, Lucano, Ovid, Catullus, Tibullus and Propertius. Success was assured and the print runs were immediately very high. The small book of 1502 containing Catullus, Tibullus and Propertius ran to more than 3000 copies. Francesco Petrarch’s Cose Volgari (1501) and Dante Alighieri’s Terze Rime (1502) came out at this time in the same format and with the same italic typeface.

The punctuation innovations in the editions in Latin typefaces, partly derived from Greek writing, were no less important and brought about a genuine printing revolution. Manutius contributed to the assertion of the semi-colon with the De Aetna, at the same time taking particular care over its acceptance. He moved these signs to popular editions with Petrarch in July 1501 and Dante in 1502, and, borrowing from the Greek, introduced the use of the apostrophe, accents and the semi-colon, accepting the suggestions and indications given to him by Bembo.

In Greek Manutius moved towards literature. In 1502 the tragedies of Sophocles came out in octavo, along with Thucydides and Herodotus, among others, and in 1503 the works of Lucian, the tragedies of Euripides in small size, along with the commentators Ammonius and Ulpian.

The typographical mark of the anchor and dolphin appeared in June 1502, in the second volume of the Poetae Christiani veteres, a first version of which had already appeared in an illustration by Polifilo. The mark illustrated the motto ‘Festina lente’ (make haste slowly), cited for the first time in July 1498 in Greek in the dedication of the works of Poliziano to Sanuto, who had suggested it to him, taking it from a Greek proverb.

In those years the idea of an academy of Greek studies came to fruition and became active in Venice in 1502.

Between 1504 and 1505 the press was unable to maintain the rhythms of the previous years; it was a period marked by serious uncertainties. It is likely that there had been misunderstandings within the publishing company, concerned about the cost of the Greek editions, which was not matched by a rapid commercial return. However, relations with Torresano became closer. At the beginning of 1505 Manutius married Maria, Andrea’s twenty-year-old daughter. The marriage produced five children. At the end of that year Manutius left his original home in S. Agostin and moved in with the Torresano family in S. Paternian. In 1506, however, the printing work stopped. On 27 March Manutius wrote a will in favour of his father-in-law, and the two partners signed a deed combining their respective properties, 4/5 allocated to Andrea and the remaining share to Manutius, who shortly after left on a trip to Lombardy in search of manuscripts to publish. Manutius must have returned to Venice towards the end of 1506; the following year printing work was resumed. On 28 October 1507 Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote to him proposing his Latin translations of Hecuba and Iphigenia in Aulis by Euripides.

Erasmus confessed to him that being published by Manutius would give him immortal fame, especially if printed in italics, which he thought the most elegant possible, and offered to contribute by buying 200 copies. This initiative on the part of Erasmus documents Manutius’s established fame in Europe. It was moreover what he needed to resume printing, placating his partners with projects ensuring a commercial return. At the end of the year the edition was ready and it must have fully satisfied Erasmus, who shortly after came to Venice to personally take care of the new edition of his Adagia, completed in September 1508.

Between 1508 and the first half of 1509, spurred on by Erasmus’s editions, the press revived. Plutarch’s Orators and Opuscula were brought out in Greek, and, in Latin, in octavo, Horace’s Opera, Sallust and the Epistolae by Pliny the Younger.

But in spring 1509 the military operations undertaken by the League of Cambrai against the Republic of Venice caused a new suspension of activity. After the defeat at Agnadello (14 May), Manutius left Venice for Ferrara in the second half of the month. At the same time a series of deeds formally regulated his relations with Torresano. These moves actually concealed an agreement between partners that would have allowed them to salvage the printing works whatever the outcome of the war.

In 1509 Manutius settled in Ferrara, though not renouncing his travels. In 1511 he spent time in Bologna and Siena, where he once again met Erasmus. In June 1512, the political situation having quietened down, he returned to Venice and resumed printing with a series of highly prestigious Greek editions and the continuation of the octavo series of Latin classics.

By now over sixty, Manutius seems to have felt more than previously his daily exertions in the printing works. The dedication to Andrea Navagero in the Rhetorica ad Herennium reveals all his dislike of a task that obliged him to reply to letters arriving from all over the world, to receive visitors curious to know what he was about to publish and to listen to nuisances wishing to publish with his press. In January 1515 he printed his last edition, the De rerum natura by Lucretius in octavo.

On 16 January 1515, Aldo Manuzio gave his last testament in Venice. On 6 February he died.

* Information taken from the Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani Treccani, edited by Mario Infelise.