by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Great Publisher

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 23 September 1994
Bibliotèque Municipale, Tours
Title page of Erasmus's Adages, 1508



Almost everything that was going to happen pen in book publishing - from pocket-books, instant books and pirated books, to the concept of author's copyright, company mergers and remainders - occurred during the early days of printing the subsequent centuries offering but variations upon a theme

Venice was the powerhouse of early publishing. Of some 30,000 titles printed from the introduction of moveable type to the end of the fifteenth century, about 4,500 were published in Venice - a huge proportion considering that presses were operating all over Europe. But Venice ruled supreme not only in quantity but in quality, thanks above all to the exceptional vision and intellect of one man - Aldo Manuzio, whose Aldine Press became so famous that among educated Europeans it was sufficient to refer to him by his Christian name.

Aldo set up his Press 500 years ago this year, and over 150 of his books, related manuscripts and contemporary publications tracing its development make up 'Aldo Manuzio and the Venetian Milieu', a timely and absorbing exhibition at the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in St Mark's Square. The upstairs vestibule and main hall of Sansovino's Library, lavishly gilded and decorated with works by Veronese, Tintoretto and others, provide the ideal setting for this literary treasure trove (and a welcome chance to see these rooms not normally open to the public).

Born near Rome in about 1450, Aldo, a scholar and teacher, was already in his forties when he began an entirely new career as a publisher. Venice was the obvious place to launch his press: a number of wealthy aristocratic patrons with literary interests lived there, there were skilled workmen available to cut the punches, operate presses and bind books, and an abundant local supply of paper. But, above all, as it was Aldo's intention to publish the Greek classics and the grammars and dictionaries needed to unlock their riches, because Venice was the adopted home of a thriving Greek community that, following the fall of Constantinople, had made the city in Cardinal Bessarion's words 'almost another Byzantium'.

Ironically although Bessarion - who had spent much of his life trying to bring together again the Eastern and Western Churches - had left his priceless collection of codices and books to the Venetian Republic (on condition that they be made available to the public) Aldo never seems to have had access to them (possibly because the Procurators of St Mark's feared that printing them might reduce their value). Fortunately, however, Venice was so awash with manuscripts and Greek scholars able and willing to lend a hand in Aldo's mounumental enterprise that the unavailability of Bessarion's library, which is still at the Marciana, proved no serious obstacle to his work.

Fifty per cent of the capital of the Press was put up by the Venetian patrician Pietro Francesco Barbarigo and 40 per cent by the printer and bookseller Andrea Torresani (Aldo's future father-in-law). Aldo was editorial director and responsible for choosing which titles to publish, but never possessed more than 10 per cent of the business. Aldo and thirty or so in-house editors and printers lived and ate in Torresani's home. The Press's famous colophon of a dolphin entwined with an anchor symbolized speed combined with reliability, and their motto was 'Festina lente' (Make haste slowly).

The task was immense and the sign over the works' door read: 'Whoever you are, Aldus earnestly begs you to state your business in the fewest possible words and be gone, unless, like Hercules to weary Atlas, you would lend a helping hand. There will always be enough work for you, and all who come this way.' The results were breathtaking: to take but one example, the Press published almost the entire known works of Aristotle, meticulously editing and printing nearly 3,800 pages in three years.

Aldo's books were designed to be read by the cultured men and women of his age, rather than fuel the arcane disputes of pettifogging pedants and schoolmen. Hence his production of beautiful, clear texts, unencumbered by notes and commentaries, and his invention of (what was to be called) 'italic' to further ease of reading. Hence, too, his introduction of the 'octavo' format so that books became portable and could be slipped in the pocket.

Though never losing sight of his primary aim of publishing Greek titles, Aldo did venture into printing books in Latin and, in due course, Italian - usually to raise cash to subsidize the Greek list, or as an act of gratitude for editorial and financial assistance. This periodic deviation from the main scheme produced additional publishing 'firsts': the eye-witness war memoir - 'Diaria de bello carolino' by his doctor friend Alessandro Benedetti (who had been at the battle of Fornovo in 1494), the medical shocker - Niccolo Leoniceno's 'Libellus de epidemia quem vulgo morbus gallicum vocant' on gonorrhoea, or the 'French pox', which had just appeared in Italy and was causing panic; and the travel book - a popular account of the customs of the Circassians by the merchant traveller Giorgio Interiani.

Erasmus's sojourn with Aldo in 1508 produced the first international bestseller the 'Adages', a compendium of mottos, sayings and quotations in Latin and Greek, possession of which became the sine qua non of the cultured classes everywhere. Later in life, stung by the suggestion that he had been employed as a proofreader at the Aldine Press, Erasmus insisted that he never read any proofs other than his own, and wrote a scathing satirical dialogue on conditions there. Andrea Torresani, he claimed, watered the wine and fed the staff on such delicacies as 'a morsel of shellfish fished out of sewer' and 'stony cheese and seven small lettuce leaves floating in a bowl of rancid vinegar'.

Erasmus was, however, careful not to implicate Aldo himself in this, undoubtedly grossly exaggerated, for, as he acknowledged in his favourable comparison of Aldo with Ptolemy - 'whose library was enclosed within the constraining walls of a building, while that of Aldus is delimited only by the ends of the world itself' - nobody had contributed more than this publisher to the spread of the New Learning.

Indeed, by the time Aldo died in 1515, he had assured the survival of Greek letters for posterity (at least one of his books being printed from the only extant manuscript). When his body was lying before burial in his parish church of San Pantalon it was, appropriately enough, amidst piles of his books.

Aldo Manuzio e l'Ambiente Veneziano, (1495-1515) Libreria Sansoviniana, Venice. Catalogue by Cardo Editore, Venice, 1994.

First published: Times Literary Supplement

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023