The text of the 1508 Aldine Pliny has been a subject of controversy for over a century. Scholars, beginning in 1919 with Elmer Truesdell Merrill’s article on the subject, have woven a complex web of argument and counter-argument in an effort to grasp what the 1508 edition of Pliny can tell us about the internal workings of the Aldine press: how Aldus sourced his manuscripts; how he edited them; and, last but not least, what the completed text tells us about printing practices at the Aldine press.

Pliny 1508 dedication

Pliny 1508 dedication.

In his dedication to Alvise Mocenigo, Aldus thanks the Venetian patrician for sourcing a manuscript of Pliny’s Letters in France during his embassy there. This manuscript, identified as ‘Parisinus’, is described by Aldus as being not only the most correct but also the most ancient text of the Letters. It therefore played a key role in Aldus’ edition. As Stout (1955) argues, it seems likely that Aldus had access not only to the ‘Parisinus’ (P), which was based on a late fifth-century text of Pliny’s Books I-X, but also a copy of P, made by another contact, Fra Gioconda of Verona (who was, in fact, responsible for the discovery of P in Paris between 1499 and 1506).1 With these texts Aldus was able to print the first complete edition of the Letters Books I-X, in 1508.

There was clearly a market for the work: in 1502 the Venetian-based printer, Ioannes Tacuinus di Tridino, had printed an edition of parts of Book X alone, edited by Hieronymus Avancius. In 1504 the same text, with emendations, was published at Bologna and in 1506 Catanaeus reproduced it yet again (at Milan) with yet more annotations. But Aldus’ 1508 edition surpassed them all because, unlike Avancius, he had gained access to a copy of the complete text and could therefore reproduce all 121 letters. Using Catanaeus’ edition in conjunction with Fra Gioconda’s copy of P and P itself, Aldus was thus able to correct mistakes in the earlier printed editions.

But if he could correct mistakes, he was also capable of making them. Some commentators, such as Merrill (1919), wrote scathingly of Aldus’ editorial skills, suggesting that ‘Aldus stands clearly convicted of being an unsafe textual critic of Pliny’s Letters.’2 Though the ‘Parisinus’ (and Gioconda’s copy) are now lost, Merrill based his analysis on an extant copy made of some sections of P for the early sixteenth-century French scholar, Guillaume Budé.3 A comparison of the Budé copy and the 1508 printed text suggested to Merrill that Aldus was not always as careful as he should be. In 1915, the identification of six leaves in an uncial script as one part of P, led to a lengthy debate between Merrill and Edward Rand, with the latter strenuously defending Aldus’ editorial style.4 Rand (1923) argued that any deviations from the original text could be explained as ‘either misprints or scribal errors made by Aldus in preparing his copy for the press.’5 He was anxious to point out that these were few in number and that Aldus was dedicated to presenting the earliest version of the text to his readers with as few emendations of his own as possible.

Pliny 1508 p. 14.

Pliny 1508, p.14 .

The 1508 Pliny can, therefore, not only tell us much about Aldus’s editorial practices but it also sheds light on the internal operations of the Aldine press. As this image demonstrates, at times the compositors found that the text on a page did not fill the entire page. To remedy this problem they would sometimes shorten the last lines, producing a pleasing aesthetic solution. As Winship (1926) suggests, this clearly shows that the Aldine compositors set the type page by page.

Errors might well take place, particularly when the press was experimenting with something new. The new numbering system in the Pliny includes a range of pagination errors (for example, p. 226 is numbered (194), which, as Winship argues, can most likely be explained by inattention on the part of a member of the press crew, who in leaving in the headings might well forget to change the page number, particularly when this was something he was unused to doing.

Pagination errors might be explained in various ways but there were other errors in the Pliny which proved more difficult to explain. Different copies of the 1508 Aldine Pliny have either facere or agere on line 13 of p. 64 (Worth’s copy has ‘agere’). And there were other differences: on the bottom line of p. 57 both nutritoria and meritoria could be found. Unlike the facere/agere conundrum, where both readings made sense, meritoria was undoubtedly the correct reading (Worth’s copy has meritoria). Was Aldus responsible for changing facere (which was the reading in the Pierpoint Morgan fragment of Parisinus) and, if so what did this tell us about him as an editor? Since the Pierpoint Morgan fragment did not include the letter including meritoria it was unable to shed light on the more problematic changes on p. 57.

Or had the compositor changed agere to facere or vice-versa, and, if so, why? Some commentators, such as Winship (1926), suggested that the variant readings had arisen because of the way the press was set up, arguing that the fact that pp 57 and 64 were affected was no coincidence since they were, respectively, d5r and d8v and would, therefore, have lain side-by-side in the forme. Since the same variants on each were usually found in the same copies this seemed to make sense – until other copies were found which did not reflect Winship’s binary divide of facere/nutritoria versus agere/meritoria. As Case (1935-36) concludes, the most likely explanation was not editorial invention but an accidental misreading of a manuscript miniscule copy (where ‘mer’ and ‘nutr’ might easily be misread), by one of Aldus’ compositors.

Pliny 1508 contents

Pliny 1508 contents.


Case, A. E. (1935-36), ‘More about the Aldine Pliny of 1508’, The Library, 4th Ser., 16, 173–77.

Fletcher, Harry George (1988), New Aldine Studies. Documentary Essays on the Life and Work of Aldus Manutius (San Francisco: Bernard M. Rosenthal, Inc.), pp. 112-5.

Lowry, Martin (1979), The World of Aldus Manutius. Business and Scholarship in Renaissance Venice (Oxford: Blackwell).

Merrill, E. T. (1919), ‘On the Use by Aldus of His Manuscripts of Pliny’s Letters’, Classical Philology 14 no. 1, pp. 29-34.

Merrill, E. T. (1923), ‘The Morgan Fragment of Pliny’s Letters’, Classical Philology 18, no. 2, pp. 97-119.

Merrilll, E. T. (1924), ‘On the Agere-Facere Aldine Text of Pliny’s Letters’, Classical Philology 19, no. 1, pp. 75-77.

Merrill, E. T. (1924), ‘On the Agere-Facere Text of Pliny’s Letters’ in Classical Philology, 19, no. 1, pp. 75-77.

Rand, E. K. (1923), ‘A New Approach to the Text of Pliny’s Letters’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 34, pp. 79-191.

Robbins, F. E. (1928), ‘”Impressions” of the 1508 Aldine Pliny’, Classical Philology, 23. no. 2, pp. 185-187.

Stout, S. E. (1955), ‘The Basis of the Text in Book X of Pliny’s Letters’, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 86, pp. 233-249.

Winship, G. P. (1926), ‘The Aldine Pliny of 1508’, The Library March, pp. 358-369.

1 Edward Rand, in his (1923), ‘A New Approach to the Text of Pliny’s Letters’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 34, pp. 79-191, argued that the Pierpoint Morgan manuscript was much earlier and was an ‘ancient’ copy. However, the Pierpoint Morgan catalogue description suggests that it was written at the beginning of the sixth century.

2 Merrill, E. T. (1919), ‘On the Use by Aldus of His Manuscripts of Pliny’s Letters’, Classical Philology 14 no. 1, p. 33.

3 These are now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

4 MS M.462 in the Pierpoint Morgan Library in New York.

5 Ibid., p. 189. Mid twentieth-century scholars such as Stout (1955) shifted the focus of the debate to argue that yes, Aldus did include emendations in his text, but that they were there to enrich the text, rather than detract from it.