Scott Clemons and H. George Fletcher. Aldus Manutius: A Legacy More Lasting than Bronze

Scott Clemons and H. George Fletcher. Aldus Manutius: A Legacy More Lasting than Bronze. New York: The Grolier Club, 2015. 351 p. ill. ISBN 9781605830612. US $95.00 (hardcover).

From its location in New York City, the Grolier Club fosters the collection and appreciation of books and works on paper, as well as the study of their art, history, production, and commerce by mounting exhibitions, offering educational programs, and producing books and exhibit catalogs. From February 25 to April 25, 2015, it hosted the exhibition Aldus Manutius: A Legacy More Lasting than Bronze. The exhibit and the catalog produced to accompany it commemorated the 500th anniversary of the death of Aldus Manutius (c. 1452-1515), a famous early printer based in Venice, founder of the Aldine Press, recruiter of manuscripts, and author of books. He is the scholar most responsible for the preservation of the classical tradition in printed Greek and Latin; he invented italic type still used today (which mimics Renaissance cursive handwriting in Latin); and he first produced small, reasonably priced, octavo-sized paper books for use by students, scholars, and schools. G. Scott Clemons is the current president of the Grolier Club, while his collaborator, H. George Fletcher, is a scholar on printing of this period and author of a 1995 catalog about Manutius. Two short essays by Fletcher precede the catalog itself. The first examines Jean Grolier’s connections with Manutius (documents show that the two contemporaries met but once in person). Grolier had considerably more to do with Manutius’s relatives and heirs because he established a bookshop in Paris that sold Aldine Press’s works and contributed financially to the wellbeing of Manutius’s children and grandchildren. Fletcher’s second essay discusses a particular Aldine Press work that Grolier actually owned, printed on blue paper. Works printed on blue paper were less costly than those on vellum but more expensive than those on white paper. It is relevant to recall that Jean Grolier (1489/90-1565) was a Frenchman born in Lyon who served the French government as treasurer of the King’s forces during France’s conquest of parts of Italy. He was a book collector, one of the first collectors of works produced by the Aldine Press or “Aldines” in short. Reading this catalog in conjunction with the recently published Greek Editions of Aldus Manutius and His Greek Collaborators, the interested person can obtain a lovely education about this printer, the subjects on which he published, his authors, the details of the publications, and information on early printing itself.

The table of contents of this catalog does not reveal its sub-organization. Every 20 or 30 pages there is a page with a short explanatory note; possibly these notes were labels that sub-organized the actual exhibition. They introduce the sub-sections of the catalog. Those unfamiliar with Manutius might read these pages first, and then the descriptions of the books in each of these themed sections. The themes are chronological and include these topics: “In the Beginning” is about the scholarly record in the Greek language, which nearly died out by the 1450s. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Greek scholars there went back to Greece or to Crete. Manutius printed their works. However, before this moment, there were many who could read them, and a new generation of Greek literate people had to exist. Manutius printed Greek grammars and dictionaries so more people could learn Greek. “Saving the Greeks” deals with the difficulties of printing in Greek because of its many accents and the letters being difficult to cast in metal type. Hardly anyone had tried to print in Greek prior to Manutius. The subsequent sub-section, “Pressing Business,” is about his invention of italic type, while “Libelli Portatiles” discusses his invention of the octavo format. The following point is emphasized: “This revolutionary innovation liberated books from the confines of the library, and enabled reading to become a conveniently personal pursuit for the first time in history.” (97) The following sub-section, “Flattery and Forgery,” tells of printers in Lyon mimicking Manutius’s italic type and octavo-sized works without giving him credit – shades of modern intellectual property and copyright issues! “Heirs of Aldus” addresses what happened to the Aldine Press after Manutius died, the printing work of his brother-in-law Gian Francesco Torresani, his selling of the press’s books in France, and connections with Jean Grolier. “Paulus Manutius” covers the printing work of one of Manutius’s own sons for the Press. “Aldus the Younger” is about his grandson’s printing career. “Collecting Aldines” concerns the early collectors of Aldine Press’s works in the Renaissance; Grolier was the first prominent collector of those cultural artifacts. “Early Bibliography of the Aldine Press” points out that Manutius’s own catalogs of works from his firm were the first bibliographies of Aldine Press books; the authors mention four other early bibliographers. It looks as though there must have been two more general labels: “The Dolphin and Anchor” and “Portraits.” These pages have these section titles, but no content. Instead, the authors folded the pertinent information into the annotations on the books in these sections. Erasmus observed that the idea for the dolphin and anchor (the printer’s mark used by Manutius) came from an image on the back of denarii coins (pictured in the catalog) minted in the reign of Emperor Titus 80 C.E. and that Pietro Bembo suggested it to the Venetian printer. The books produced by Aldine Press have been more lasting than these coins, hence the subtitle of this catalog and exhibit. The “Portraits” section has two copperplate engravings of Manutius that enable us to picture him. In the entrance hall of the Grolier Club today there is a painting by François Flemeng (1856-1923) depicting Manutius and Grolier’s meeting; the catalog includes this, with discussion.

There is a full-page color illustration from each of the 141 books described in this catalog (either a title page, binding, or sample page of text), accompanied by a bibliographical citation and an annotation. The citations contain author, title, place of printing, printer, date, and collation (physical description). The annotations, up to a page in length, discuss the following: authors; contents of the books; language(s) of the works; typefaces used; bindings and binding histories; manuscripts that served as the basis for the books; any information Manutius added to the texts; and to whom the copy displayed belongs today. Some works were from institutions; some belonged to individual collectors. This catalog has a bibliography and three indexes: general, provenance, and binding/binding terms. The reviewer did not see the exhibit itself and this catalog is armchair exhibit going at its best, provided it covers all the works in the exhibit. The intended audience is academics or general readers interested in the history of books and printing.

                                                                        Agnes Haigh Widder
Michigan State University