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‘It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits.’
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I. 3.
Aristotle 1495 vol 1.
Aristotle’s Organon was, as Aldus reminded Alberto Pio (1475-1531), Prince of Carpi, who had sponsored its printing, the vital key to unlocking knowledge. It was the basic text used at medieval universities and would certainly have been used by Aldus when instructing Pio when he was the latter’s tutor at Carpi. Many Latin translations of works by Aristotle (and his commentators) had been printed previously, but in the late fifteenth century an edition of Aristotle in the original Greek, shorn of its medieval interpretative baggage, was a desideratum for humanists throughout Europe. To meet this challenge, Aldus formed a group of editors, ‘the learned men in Venice and Padua’. These included international scholars such as the renowned English scholar, Thomas Linacre (1460-1524), part of the English wing of Aldus’ nascent Republic of Letters, and, closer to home, the Pistoiese humanist Scipione Forteguerra (1466-1515). A prefatory letter from the latter to those pursuing philosophy was included in volume 1 of the set, which focused on Aristotelian logic, while Linacre and other scholars with connections to both Venice and Padua, were specifically referred to by Aldus in the preface to volume two, which explored works such as De Physica and De Caelo.
Aldus’ prefatory nod to Padua was clearly not only an indication of gratitude but also an astute recognition that the University of Padua (and other universities) would prove a very important market for the Organon. The University of Padua was at the forefront of calls for a return to Aristotelian sources and its members knew that the provision of a printed Greek text could revolutionise their understanding and teaching of Aristotle’s philosophical works.
The importance of the Aristotle Organon for the fledgling Aldine press was likewise immense. It was a huge financial undertaking (necessitating extra financial support from Pio to whom all five volumes are dedicated). It required an elaborate font and decorative initials and its editing was an enormous scholarly endeavour. In short, it was designed to showcase the core values of the Aldine press, to put it on the intellectual map of early modern printing and scholarship.
Aristotle vol 1 text and capital.
The font that was used in the Aldine Aristotle is named after the edition and continued to be used by Aldus for his later edition of Theodorus Gaza’s Introduction to Greek grammar (1495). As can be clearly seen here, Aldus wanted to make his new font as similar as possible to the manuscript Greek hand-writing style but his difficulty was two fold: first, as Lowry (1979) laments, the prevailing Greek handwriting style was unnecessarily ornate and full of ligatures; second, there was no agreed Greek handwriting style but many variants. Aldus would therefore experiment with several Greek fonts before finally settling on a style which served his purposes.
Aristotle vol 2 text and capital.
As Sicherl and Lowry (1979) have noted, we are lucky to have some of the extant manuscript press copies for the Aldine Aristotle. These give us an unparalleled insight into the workings of the press at this early stage of its development. One such, BNP MS Suppl. Graec. No. 212 was the principal source for the 1498 volume which concentrated on De Historia Animalium. A mid-fifteenth century copy of a thirteenth-century manuscript in Cardinal Bessarion’s library, the copy provided Aldus with a text of the oldest source available. Though this was not the only source text available to Aldus, because of its age it was the most important – but that didn’t make it inviolable. As the BNP manuscript demonstrates, Aldus could and did ignore his earliest source. More than that, he was at times willing to correct the earlier text, introducing new errors into the press copy at proof stage. The same errors may be found in other manuscript press copies for other volumes of the Aldine Aristotle and became progressively more common as the edition reached its final fifth volume, the Nicomachean Ethics (1498). The analysis of both Sicherl and Lowry point to a lack of co-ordination between the editors of the Aldine and the compositors – the absence of an agreed set of correction symbols only served to further complicate the task of the printer. However, as Lowry (1979) rightly points out, judging Aldus by twenty-first century editorial norms is unfair: the Aristotle Aldine was an enormous printing achievement despite its flaws. It was only naturally that Aldus would develop his editorial skills over time.
Aristotle vol 3 note re Theodore Gaza.
This note in Worth’s copy of the third volume points to the important role played by the translations of Theodore Gaza (c.1400-c.1475) in the production of the Aldine Aristotle, most particularly in this volume of the set. The editio princeps of Gaza’s Latin translation predated the Greek Aldine publication by more than twenty years, having been published at Venice in 1476. It quickly became the accepted text from which to print Aristotle’s De Animalibus and Gaza a central figure in the transmission of Greek texts. Indeed, in his prefatory letter to volume three of the Aristotle set, Aldus had specifically drawn Antonio Pio’s attention to the vital role played by Gazan translations in teaching Greek to earlier scholars such as Ermolao Barbaro, Angelo Poliziano and Antonio’s own uncle, Pico della Mirandola.
Gaza had been described by Ermolao Barbaro as ‘the only one to challenge antiquity itself’ and his erudition was certainly admired by his contemporaries.1 However, as Beullens and Gottshelf (2007) point out, Gaza challenged antiquity not only in the depth of his erudition but also in his handling of ancient texts: he had been responsible for controversial changes to the text of De Animalibus, omitting part of the book and rearranging other sections. Aldus’ regard for Theodore Gaza is seen in his decision to publish both Theodore’s Greek Grammar (1495) and a 1513 Latin edition of his Aristotelian commentaries – both texts were collected by Worth.
Aristotle vol 4 text and capital.
Despite the caveats above, the Aldine Aristotle was welcomed by all as a scholarly and technological triumph. It did not, however, prove to be a commercial success. The sheer scale of the work meant that it cost a lot of money: as Lowry (1976) reports, even committed scholars such as Codrus Urceus, drew attention to its cost, reminding Aldus that he could have bought ten Latin manuscripts for the price. In Aldus’ catalogue of 1498 the cost of the five-volume set was listed at 11 ducats, with each individual volume costing between 1.5 and 3 ducats each. Lowry (1979) compares this with the contemporary publication of de’ Paganini’s four-volume edition of Nicholas of Lyra’s biblical commentaries, which in total cost 6 ducats. But the production of a small number of sets printed on costly vellum (one extant set bears Thomas Linacre’s name and is now in New College, Oxford), surely points to the fact that the Aldine Aristotle represented to Aldus something more than a commercial venture: it was to be the flagship publication of his new printing house.
Aristotle vol 5 annotation detail.
Beullens, Pieter and Gotthelf, Allan (2007), ‘Theodore Gaza’s Translation of Aristotle’s De Animalibus: Content, Influence, and Date’, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 47, pp. 469-513.
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).
Ridder-Symoens, Hilde de (1997), A History of the University in Europe. Volume II. Universities in Early Modern Europe (1500-1800) (Cambridge University Press).
Schmitt, Charles B (1984), The Aristotelian Tradition and Renaissance Universities (London: Variorum reprints).
Staikos, Konstantinos SP. (1998), Charta of Greek Printing. The Contribution of Greek Editors, Printers and Publishers to the Renaissance in Italy and the West (Cologne).
1 Beullens, Pieter and Gotthelf, Allan (2007), ‘Theodore Gaza’s Translation of Aristotle’s De Animalibus: Content, Influence, and Date’, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 47, p. 495.