Determined to print the Greek classics for a wider audience, the founder of the Aldine Press transformed the publishing industry in Venice at the turn of the sixteenth century. His legacy endures, and is now celebrated in an exhibition at the Bodleian curated by Somerville historian Dr Oren Margolis.

If the title of the Bodleian’s latest exhibition sounds unusual, it appears almost banal next to the content of the book it describes.

Aldus Manutius: The Struggle and the Dream showcases a selection of the output of that most famous of Renaissance print houses, the Aldine Press. Set at the centre of the various editions of Greek and Latin classics in the display is a work called Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (‘Poliphilo’s Struggle of Love in a Dream’).

The edition is open at a page that shows an Egyptian obelisk mounted on an elephant, a naked man standing on a chest, faux-hieroglyphics, Hebrew, Greek, Latin – and the main text is in a highly macaronic Italian. At first glance, the range of languages and suggestive imagery points to some kind of magic or incantations. The truth, however, is far more surprising.

“It’s a very erotic work and is strong on phallic imagery,” says Margolis. “The narrator gets hot and bothered about buildings and then shifts the focus to his beloved. It is particularly obsessed with architecture and the loss of antiquity.”

Uniquely for the output of the Aldine Press, the Hypnerotomachia edition had a sponsor. Its authorship remains unclear, but an acrostic made of the first letters of the chapter titles identifies Francesco Colonna, which could refer to a renegade monk of the period whose interests would appear to fit with the book’s unusual contents. After halting beginnings, the book found success and notoriety in the mid-sixteenth century.

“It’s the only overtly sexual Aldine publication,” says Margolis. “The quality and number of woodcuts is exceptional and corresponds almost perfectly to the layout of text. It is a tour de force of printing excellence.”

Despites its unusual subject matter, the edition also shows Aldus in his element – as humanist and as innovator, with the Poliphilo’s wanderings through a fantastical ancient architectural landscape told in cutting-edge fonts and illustrated by exquisite woodcuts.

Publicity and patrons

Aldus Manutius was aided by important patrons, customers and collaborators, among them the humanist scholar Pietro Bembo. But it may have been Desiderius Erasmus whose written support had the greatest impact on Aldus’s lasting reputation as a scholar-printer. In 1507 Erasmus spent nine months working at Aldus’s print shop and in 1508 the Aldine Press published Erasmus’s Adagia (Adages). In his explanation of Aldus’s motto Festina lente (‘Make Haste Slowly’), Erasmus added that: ‘Aldus is building a library which knows no walls save those of the world itself’.

“Like Aldus, Erasmus cared deeply about his image,” says Margolis. “It was important to Erasmus that his printer was a hero, so he created this myth of Aldus as a unique scholar-printer, which reflected well on Erasmus too.”

Aldus’s chief focus was the classics, which he aimed to make available to a wide, scholarly audience. For this reason, he wanted an edition that fitted in the hand: the small octavo format was like the modern paperback. He was also aided by the use of Italic font, since it enabled more text to be fitted onto smaller pages. One copy of, say, the 1501 Aldine edition of Virgil’s Opera might have cost a quarter ducat, equivalent to a day or two’s wages for a teacher or secretary. The customer could then have the book bound and decorated himself after making his purchase.

Aldus introduced his own dolphin-and-anchor mark of authentication and the preface to a work (which included the words ‘Aldus to the scholars’) implied that the book’s owner, through the purchase, was in entering into a wider community of scholars.

“Aldus was an innovator in making literature widely available but he was also eager to acquire whatever publishing privileges and proto-IP rights he could,” says Margolis. “Today he would be Google or Amazon, with all that implies for both access and availability, and for trying to control the process and create a monopoly.” His attempts to secure ownership of the founts made for him by the punchcutter Francesco Griffo led to the disintegration of their fruitful collaboration.

The exhibition will run until the 22nd of February. On the 6th of February Oren Margolis will deliver a talk on Aldus Manutius at Convocation House, Bodleian Library. Details of the event, which will run from 5.30-6.30pm, can be found on the library’s website. His students will also be involved and their own display will be shown on the 6th alongside the main exhibition.

“At Somerville we have a number of fellows and students interested in the period,” says Margolis. “Oxford is one of the best places to be if you want to be able to access books like this and Somerville College even has its own collection of six Aldine publications, including the first edition of Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier.”

Further details of the exhibition can be found on the Bodleian website.

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