‘It is well known in all the lands of exile that the printing coming from Venice is the most correct and accurate of all printing done today everywhere on earth. ‘
Rabbi Abraham ibn Migash, physician to Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566).1
Lascaris 1512 Hebrew font.
Though Aldus concentrated on the printing of Greek and Latin works we know that he was interested in Hebrew also. The Aldine Poliziano of July 1498 is notable because it contains Aldus’ first attempt to print Hebrew characters (on C5v and H8r), and as early as 1501 he published his Introductio perbrevis ad Hebraicam linguam (seen here in Worth’s copy of the 1512 edition of Constantine Lascaris).2 In the same year he expressed his hope of publishing a trilingual Bible (which never appeared).
As Aldus explains in his note to the reader, his aim in printing this small introductory guide to Hebrew was to aid greater understanding of Scripture. Hacker and Shear (2011) note that most early printing of Hebrew involved collaboration between Jewish and Christian scholars and printers coming together to produce texts for a predominantly Christian readership. Indeed Burnett’s (2000) study of Christian Hebrew printing the sixteenth-century Europe suggests that out of 190 firms only 14 ever produced texts for Jewish readers.
Though Aldus expressed the hope that, in the future, he would produce Hebrew grammars and dictionaries, his flirtation with Hebrew printing remained just that. His real focus remained on the Greek and Latin classics and he was no doubt aware of the printing vicissitudes of the De rudimentis Hebraicis (Pforzheim, 1506), composed by the internationally renowned scholar Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522) who was a prestigious member of the Aldine Republic of Letters. As Pettegree (2010) notes, Reuchlin had found it difficult to find a printer willing to undertake the printing of his Hebrew grammar and had had to subsidize the printing himself. It proved a costly decision for the book did not sell and Reuchlin was left with most of the stock on his hands.
Lascaris 1512 Hebrew names.
The Introductio perbrevis ad Hebraicam linguam escaped such a fate and was reprinted many times by Aldus himself as well as by other printers. Burnett (2000) notes that it was printed at Augsburg (1520), Basel (1547), Cologne (1517), Erfurt (1502), Hagenau (1519), Tübingen (1512) and Lyons (1533). Within Italy itself other editions appeared at Florence (1515, 1516 and 1519); Naples (1591) and at Venice in 1500, 1501, 1502, 1503, 1508, 1512, 1513, 1514, 1523, 1533, 1540, 1546 and 1555. It became, in short, a best-seller among Hebrew grammars. The strong showing of reprints in the Holy Roman Empire reflects the importance role played by printers there in printing Hebrew books. Burnett records that between 1501 and 1600 52% of Hebrew books for a Christian audience were published in the Empire and Swiss Confederation, compared to 5% for Italy. Aldus’ Hebrew publications (especially reprints of this Hebrew primer) accounted for much of that 5%.
Lascaris 1512 Aldine device.
Burnett, Stephen G. (2000), ‘Christian Hebrew Printing in the Sixteenth Century: Printers, Humanism and the Impact of the Reformation: available at: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1050&context=classicsfacpub
Hacker, J. R. and Shear, Adam (2011), The Hebrew Book in Early Modern Italy (University of Pennsylvania Press).
Lowry, M. J. C, (1976), ‘The “New Academy” of Aldus Manutius: A Renaissance Dream’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 58(2): 378-420.
Lowry, Martin (1979) The World of Aldus Manutius. Business and Scholarship in Renaissance Venice (Oxford: Blackwell).
Marx, Alexander (1924), ‘Some Notes on the Use of Hebrew Type in Non-Hebrew Books, 1475-1520’, Bibliographical Essays. A Tribute to Wilberforce Eames (Harvard University Press).
Pettegree, Andrew (2010), The Book in the Renaissance (Yale University Press).
1 Hacker, J. R. and Shear, Adam (2011), The Hebrew Book in Early Modern Italy (University of Pennsylvania Press), p. 8.
2 As Marx (1924) reminds us, we are here dealing with woodcut Hebrew letters for printing for cast Hebrew letters were not common at the time Aldus was printing his Hebrew primer.