Aldus Manutius life and biography

Aldus Manutius picture, image, poster

Aldus Manutius biography

Date of birth : -
Date of death : -
Birthplace : Bassiano, Rome, Italy
Nationality : Italian
Category : Famous Figures
Last modified : 2010-11-16
Credited as : Humanist, publisher, founded the Aldine Press at Venice

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Aldus Manutius contributed the first Greek and italic fonts to the publishing world. Through his printing company, he published the great works of the ancient philosophers, for the first time in their native Greek language.

Aldus Manutius the Elder was a dedicated scholar of the Italian Renaissance. He established a printing company, the Aldine Press, where he produced his first dated publication in February of 1495. The Aldine works were readily recognizable by a distinctive trademark depicting a dolphin's body wrapped around the shaft of an anchor. Early in the sixteenth century Aldus founded the Aldine Academy of Hellenic Scholars, through which he promoted the works of the great classical philosophers and scientists in their native Greek language. Aldus possessed a passion for learning and devoted his life's energy to publishing the great writings of classic literature on the newly invented printing press. In addition to his prized publications, Aldus was remembered most significantly for the many fonts (typefaces) that he designed. After the death of his grandson, Aldus Manutius the Younger, in 1598 the Aldine Press ceased operation, having published 908 editions.

Details regarding the birth and early life of Aldus have been in dispute for centuries. Even his descendents proved unable to agree on certain details. He was born in the town of Bassiano or possibly in nearby Sermoneta, in the vicinity of Rome, sometime between 1449 and 1451. Of his parentage and siblings little information survived, although in adulthood he was known to have cared for three sisters. Existing historical papers and letters indicate that Aldus was educated in Rome where he studied at least into the mid 1470s. It is known that his studies included a sojourn under Gaspare da Verona at the Sapienza (University of Rome) at some time between 1460 and 1473. Aldus studied Greek at the University at Ferrara, southwest of Venice, with Battista Guarino and was presumably in his mid to late teens when the new Gutenberg printing press arrived in Rome during the mid 1460s. It created a stir among the intelligentsia and scholars.

On March 8, 1480, the well educated Aldus was granted citizenship in the town of Carpi, where he served as tutor to Alberto and Lionello Pio, two princes of that town and the nephews of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, a prominent citizen. Aldus, it is believed, became acquainted with della Mirandola at Ferrara, where Aldus probably taught during the late 1470s until as late as 1482. He completed some writings during those years, and in particular he wrote some educational aids for the students in his tutelage. One such pamphlet, Musarum Panegyris, was published in a very limited edition by Baptista de Tortis of Venice. The work essentially was a letter to the mother of the Princes Pio and was intended to enhance their learning environment. Four known copies survived into the twentieth century.

Aldus moved to Venice in 1489 or 1490 for the purpose of opening a print shop; he continued also to teach, as he was a dedicated scholar. In 1494 he expanded his print shop and brought in two partners: a printer named Andrea Torresani and a financial backer or patron named Pierfrancesco Barbarigo. Much of what is known of Aldus was revealed by the scholar himself in the dedications and other front and back matter of his publications. In 1506, for example, Aldus related in the preface of his second edition of Horace that he had recently spent six days in jail in Mantua, suspected of hooliganism. His agricultural manual of 1514, Scriptores rei rusticae, included a statement of his copyright privilege to be valid for a period of 15 years, as granted by Pope Leo X.

When Aldus first envisioned the Aldine Press in 1489, he was nearly 40 years old. Scholars as a result have speculated repeatedly as to what prompted a successful teacher such as Aldus to embrace a completely new and untested profession so late in life. Many believe that Aldus was fascinated by the written word and by the basic rhythms of literary text and the sounds of different languages. To this effect he published a book of Latin grammar in 1493 and printed new editions in 1501, 1508, and 1514. The original (1493) edition of this Aldine grammar, entitled Institutiones grammaticae, carried an epilogue that justified the work as an effort to enhance and facilitate the teaching of young children. He subsequently spent three years, from 1495 until 1498, in compiling and publishing virtually every known work of Aristotle into a series of five folio (full-page format) documents. At the occasion of the Aldine quincentennial, Brigham Young University in Utah displayed among its holdings two surviving volumes of the Aldine Aristotle in its entirety and a priceless single page of another volume. In addition to his many folio publications, Aldus published quartos (one-quarter-size pages) and octavos (one-eighth-size pages). His octavos have been likened to paperback books of the twenty-first century.

In 1497 Aldus published a Greek-language version of a popular Latin prayer compilation, called Horae Beatissimae Virgines (Book of Hours) in a tiny, 115 by 79 mm format, even smaller than his octavo format. The following year he became the first printer to publish the works of Aristophanes and, in 1499, he released an Aldine publication of Scriptores Astronomici veteres. Scriptores contained six works, including a comprehensive astrological text, called Mathesis and written by Maternus. The Aldine version was the most comprehensive such publication of the times. Surviving copies of the text provide invaluable information concerning fourth century Roman society.

The now-famous anchor-and-dolphin impresa (printer's emblem) with the motto "fastina lente," first appeared in print in a 1499 Aldine publication, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, as an illustration in the book. Two years later, the symbol became the trademark of the Aldine Press when, in January of 1501, Aldus published the same anchor-and-dolphin symbol as the Aldine impresa in the second volume of Poetae Christiania veteres. The design of the impresa was taken from a reproduction of an old Roman coin and bore a motto quoted from the Emperor Augustus, which read, "fastina lente" ("make haste slowly"). The proverb emphasized the tedious attention to detail demanded of the printer in the mass production of books.

Among the greatest achievements of Aldus Manutius were the Aldine fonts. He was the first printer to develop an italic roman font. The Aldine italic fonts were modeled from the handwriting of two Italian scribes, Pomponio Leto and Bartolomeo Sanvito, who were contemporaries of Aldus. Francesco Griffo, a Bolognese type cutter, built the Aldine fonts for Aldus. In the 1500 edition of Epistole devotissime of Catherine of Sienna, letters appeared in the human-like italic script in the inscription below one of the illustrations in the book. Aldus introduced his first complete italic typeface when he published a collection of the works of Virgil in 1501.

In addition to the new italic fonts, the collection of Aldine typefaces included also three complete fonts of Greek characters. Of these typefaces, two were modeled from the handwriting of the Greek scribe, Immanuel Rhusotas. In November of 1502, the doge of Venice awarded a copyright to Aldus for his Greek and italic fonts, thus forbidding anyone else from use or imitation of the Aldine fonts under penalty of fine. The italic fonts were significant politically because they were used for printing government documents in Venice and other Italian city-states. Aldus published the copyright notice in his Ovid collection of 1502.

When Aldus established the Aldine Academy of Hellenic Scholars in 1502, it served as a venue for the development of his translations and typefaces. A subsequent publication of the works of Sophocles, the first such printing of the seven tragedies in the natural Greek language, was published under the auspices of the Aldine Academy. The book appeared in 1502 in the octavo (165 by 96 mm) format. The year 1502 also saw the first printing of the Thucydides history of the Peloponnesian War in its original Greek, the first Aldine publication of the works of Cicero, as well as Catullus, and the poems of Ovid. Although the Ovid publication featured an extensive index, it was left to the buyer of the book to number the pages. In 1505 Aldus printed his Aesop's Fables in an eclectic compilation containing a total of seven first editions, among them the Hieroglyphica treatise of Herapollo defining the Egyptian Hieroglyphics.

Aldus published the works of his Renaissance contemporaries in addition to the Greek and Latin classicists. The Dutch humanist, Desiderius Erasmus, was perhaps the most renowned among the sixteenth-century authors published by the Aldine Press. Erasmus, in fact, spent eight months in supervising the publication of an Aldine revision of his own book of adages in 1508. The 1509 Aldine publication of Plutarch's Moralia was edited by Demetrius Ducas with assistance from Erasmus. It was an overwhelming project, nearly scrapped on multiple occasions, and constituted the first Greek edition of the essays.

Aldus left Venice from 1509 until 1512, abandoning his printing press in the process, because a French invasion of Italy threatened his real estate holdings elsewhere. He returned to Venice in 1512, where he resumed his printing craft, having failed in his effort to oust the invading squatters. Upon his return he published the works of Julius Caesar in 1513, in what was the only Aldine publication to include multicolored maps.

Aldus's final publication, De rerum natura of Lucretius, went to print one month before his death. After he died he was eulogized publicly by the members of his print shop in a written remembrance that appeared in an edition of Lactantius selections and Tertullian's Apologeticum, which went to print that same year. In the remembrance the printers hailed Aldus as a master printer with a singular devotion to the spread of learning. As his body lay in state in the Church of St. Paternian his admirers heaped huge piles of Aldine publications upon the catafalque. Although Aldus devoted himself tirelessly to his printing business for over 20 years, he owned only ten percent of the operation at the time of his death in 1515.

The printed works of Aldus Manutius are representative of a wave of humanism that rippled through Renaissance Italy during the first half of the fifteenth century. From his shop in Venice, he published 134 editions during his lifetime and produced as many as two thousand copies for some editions. Among these were 68 Latin volumes and 58 in Greek. The output from his press included 30 first printings of Greek classics, among them the works of Sophocles, Euripides, Thucydides, Herodotus, and Demosthenes. He was involved in developing an Aldine grammar of the Greek language at the time of his death.

In the years immediately following the death of Aldus Manutius, the shop remained under the control of Torresani. Sadly, many serious and confusing printing errors occurred in the Aldine publications during that time. The situation improved, presumably after the young Paulus Manutius assumed control and operated the shop until 1574. Paulus Manutius was the son of Aldus and Torresani's daughter, Maria, who wed in 1505. Of the couple's five children, Paulus (Paulo) Manutius, was only two years old when his father died and was raised thereafter by his paternal grandfather. Under P. Manutius the Aldine Press served as official printer to the Catholic Church. Also published by the press during those years was a prototype of the modern thesaurus, called Eleganze della lingua toscana e latina. Aldus Manutius II, the grandson of Aldus Manutius and the son of Paulus Manutius, maintained the Aldine Press until his own death in 1597. So prized were the Aldine publications during the sixteenth century that a set of reproductions appeared in Paris during Aldus's lifetime. These are called the Lyon forgeries. Other copies or forgeries appeared elsewhere during the years of the operation of the Aldine Press.

In the aftermath of the industrial revolution, four hundred years after the death of Aldus, much was written about the early printer and the impact of his work on modern life. Among the various publications are a bibliography by A. A. Renouard, a biography by M. Lowry, and assorted analytical texts about the Aldine typefaces. "[H]is books represent the finest flowering of the era we know as the renaissance," noted librarian Ralph Stanton in an exposition on the occasion of the 500-year anniversary of the Aldine Press. An exhibition of prized original Aldine publications was collected by the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University and adapted for Internet viewing to commemorate the anniversary. The full impact of the work of Aldus Manutius and the Aldine Press cannot be underestimated as he lived in an era when published reading matter was available only to the highest-ranking members of the clergy and the nobility.

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