By Michael North
Today marks the 500th anniversary of the death of one of the most important figures in the printing of early Humanist texts in Greek and Latin: Aldus Manutius (1449 or 1450–February 6, 1515). His press in Venice produced many of the first and most important editions of ancient texts in an easily accessible format for scholars and the educated public, and he is credited with creating a number of new typefaces such as italic.
Raised in Bassiano, just south of Rome, Aldus Manutius (Aldo Manuzio in Italian) was born just before Johann Gutenberg printed his famous Bible in the early 1450s—the first book printed with movable type in Europe. Aldus was from a prosperous family and received a classical Humanist education in Rome, Ferrara, and Mirandola.
Humanism was a movement of the late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance which sought to reclaim artistic, medical, and scientific knowledge from the ancients, primarily through seeking out ancient texts written by Roman and Greek authors. When the movement first began in the 1300s, a primary goal was to find manuscripts of ancient texts and copy them by hand for broader distribution. Soon after printing with moveable type was invented, however, printing presses across Europe began producing larger and more affordable editions which could go into wider distribution. Aldus Manutius made a number of important contributions to this movement as a printer and as an editor.
Aldus eventually made his way to the Republic of Venice, where he began a printing business in 1494, in which he used his Humanist training to edit and publish some of the finest and earliest editions of many ancient classics. From that time until his death, as the fashion for learning Greek and reading Greek texts in the original became highly popular, his press produced no fewer than 27 first editions of Greek authors, and Greek reference works, such as grammars and vocabularies. A number of these “Aldine” editions were medical or scientific in nature, setting the standard for scholarly publishing in the 15th and 16th centuries in terms of editing from early manuscripts and printing styles.
The National Library of Medicine owns nine books printed by Aldus’ press (six of them incunabula) and many more by the press run by his heirs, which continued to produce important editions of classical literature through 1597. An early item that shows some of his skills as an editor and an innovator of typography was the first Greek edition of De Materia Medica by Roman physician Dioscorides printed in 1499. Not only did Aldus edit the text himself from the best manuscripts he could find, the type used for the edition was the third Greek typeface that Aldus created in his quest to make printed Greek more legible; he and his press used this typeface for many decades, and it was imitated by a number of other printers. The text of this 1499 edition was highly influential and remained the standard in its original language until his son Paolo printed a revised edition, using better manuscripts and commentaries, in 1518.
The latest book in the Library’s collection printed under Aldus’ care was in fact the last book his press produced before his death: a Latin edition of Roman author Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, published in January, 1515. This book is an excellent example of some other innovations and features of his press, including the use of an italic typeface, which Aldus was the first to design and use in 1500. This book is also one of Aldus’ “pocket books,” measuring only 16 centimeters high, a format he introduced in 1501 to create easy-to-carry editions of Classical works. The title page of this book bears the famous anchor and dolphin printer’s device; Aldus began using this mark in 1501 and today it is instantly recognized by those who study or collect rare books.
The Aldine press was continued by his son Paolo and his descendants until 1597, carrying on the tradition of producing important and beautiful editions of ancient texts. These include a monumental five-volume folio edition of the complete works in Greek of Galen in 1525 and the complete works of Hippocrates in a single volume in 1526.
To learn more about NLM’s rare book collections, please contact me at email@example.com.
Michael J. North is the Head of Rare Books and Early Manuscripts in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.
It is amazing to me to think that such accomplishments occurred so many years ago. Those men were unbelievable.
Thanks for your comment. It’s always amazing to hold books like these in your hands and feel that connection to the past.