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‘Aldus, called Manutius, in his zeal for good through care and affection for our concerns discovered the harmonious appearance and neat fit of these letters by the sharpness of his own wit. For such I may call this letter, than which no expert calligrapher can devise a model more fitting for our time.’
Justin Decadyos, cited by Barker (1992).
Aristotle 1495 Greek font type 1.
Prior to Aldus’ Greek fonts there had been other experiments in the typecasting of Greek characters. Apart from the problem of there being no agreed exemplar, there was also the related technological problem of producing accents and breathings. Different printers tried to solve these problems in different ways. Some concentrated on producing capitals, others minimised the use of ligatures. Aldus’s first work printed in his new Greek type was the Erotemata of Constantine Lascaris (March 1495), but its came to fruition in his massive edition of the works of Aristotle, volume one of which was produced in November 1495.1
Aldus’ model for his first Greek font was the handwriting of Immanuel Rhusotas, a calligrapher then present in Venice. As Barker (1992) makes clear, this involved Francesco Griffo cutting a large number of punches for the letters, accents and punctuation as well as punches for Rhusotas’ individualistic ligatures. It was a costly process and Aldus made sure that his initial publication, Lascaris’ Erotemata was accompanied by an official request to the Signoria for a patent for his new Greek type. He was evidently pleased with the results, declaring in his request that his Greek font was ‘much better than it is written with the pen.’2 Not every subsequent commentator has agreed with Aldus’ assessment: some point to the beauty of the font, others, less enthusiastically, to its extraordinary complexity. As Lowry (1979) points out, there were seven variant forms of the letter ‘nu’ alone and five for ‘alpha’.3 To modern eyes, this was indeed confusing, but as the quotation above from Decadyos demonstrates, contemporaries had far fewer difficulties reading Aldine Greek fonts.
Dioscorides 1499 Greek font type 2.
An example of Aldus’ short-lived second Greek font may be seen here in Worth’s copy of the works of Dioscorides, printed in July 1499. Smaller than his first Greek font it bears traces of the influence of the handwriting of the scholarly Gregoropoulos family – Ioannes Gregoropoulos was an important member of the Aldine circle. Aldus’ decision to make a smaller font along the lines of his first font was probably due to economic reasons rather than stylistic ones – a smaller font would use less paper, which was one of the costliest items for a printer. But it was difficult to read and was only used in a handful of books between August 1496 and July 1499 – in fact the Dioscorides was the last book in which it was used.
Nicander 1499 Greek font type 3.
Change was evidently in the air in November 1499 for the Dioscorides incorporates includes not only the second Aldine Greek font but also, in its Nicander Scholia, an example of Aldus’ third Greek font. As Barker (1992) notes, this was a more successful type than its predecessor which had merely sought to produce a smaller version of Type 1. Type 3, on the other hand, though much the same size as Type 2, was far more regular and had moved away from the influence of Rhusotas’ handwriting, perhaps incorporating elements of the handwriting of Markos Mousouros.4 This font was used in Aldus’ publications of the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides, both in the Worth Library.
Euripides 1503 Greek font type 4.
Type 3 proved to be very influential and was copied throughout Europe in the years that followed but Aldus did not stop there. Ever interested in perfecting his type in 1502 he produced a fourth Greek type, now based on his own handwriting. As Barker notes, this type was a further simplification of the process and presented the reader with ‘a masterpiece, both in its engraving and the originality of its structure.’5 It can be seen here in Worth’s copy of the editio princeps of Euripides (1503), one of the new portable Aldines which Aldus produced from 1502 onwards. Indeed his use of an octavo format, along with his simultaneous introduction of a new italic font, may well have necessitated the development of Type 4. Barker, quoting Mardersteig, gives us this summation of Aldus’ achievement: ‘this last Greek of Griffo’s is not only beautiful and better than all its predecessors, but stands out among the whole series of his types as his most perfect achievement.’
Ultimately, as Barker (1992) suggests, the relationship between Greek handwriting and Aldus’ Greek fonts proved to be two-way: just as the style of various calligraphers and scholars had influenced the development of Aldine Greek fonts, so too did Aldus’ Greek font help stabilise a recognizable and accepted form of writing Greek.
Barker, Nicholas, Aldus Manutius and the Development of Greek Script & Type in the Fifteenth Century (Fordham University Press, New York, 1992).
Fletcher, H. G. (1997), ‘Aldus and Greek Learning’, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada 35, 11-37.
Lowry, Martin (1979) The World of Aldus Manutius. Business and Scholarship in Renaissance Venice (Oxford: Blackwell).
1 Worth did not collected a copy of the Erotemata. Lowry (1979) argues that the Aristotle font was an extended and more elaborate version of the Erotemata font.
2 Barker, Nicholas, Aldus Manutius and the Development of Greek Script & Type in the Fifteenth Century (Fordham University Press, New York, 1992), p. 55.
3 Lowry, Martin (1979) The World of Aldus Manutius. Business and Scholarship in Renaissance Venice (Oxford: Blackwell), p. 131.
4 Ibid., p. 59.
5 Ibid., p. 60.