by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |
Eton College, Windsor
Opening pages of Francesco Colonna's 'Hypnerotomachia Polifili', 1499

The Power of the Press on Display

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 5 May 2016


'It is our lot to live in turbulent, tragic and tumultuous times. Times when men more commonly turn to arms than books. And yet I shall have no rest until I have created a plentiful supply of good books.'

Aldo Manuzio wrote those lines in Venice in 1495, in his preface to one of the first volumes he ever published, a Greek edition of Aristotle.

The French king Charles VIII had invaded Italy the year before and conquered Rome, initiating the decades-long Italian Wars. Venice's very existence was to be threatened in 1509, when an alliance of hostile states seized nearly all the city's mainland territories.

Yet the Aldine press went on to thrive against this background of upheaval, and the books produced by Aldo, as he was to become familiarly known among the cultivated classes in Europe, played a central part in the flowering of the Venetian and European Renaissance.

The 500th anniversary of the founding of the Aldine press was the occasion of a number of exhibitions in 1994, including one at the Marciana Library in Venice.

The organizers of 'Aldo Manuzio and the Venetian Renaissance,' which opened in March at the Galleria dell'Accademia in Venice, meant to commemorate the half-millennium from the publisher's death, on Feb. 6, 1515. They will surely be forgiven for being slightly late with their groundbreaking show, which unfolds for the first time the vast influence that Aldo's books had on Venice's visual arts in the last years of the 15th and first years of the 16th centuries.

The show, curated by Guido Beltramini, Davide Gasparotto and Giulio Manieri Elia, contains nearly 100 paintings, sculptures, prints, manuscripts and books and is the first event to be staged in the Accademia's new ground-floor temporary exhibition space, where it continues until June 19.

A humanist scholar and teacher, born about 1450 in an obscure village south of Rome, Aldo was studying in the city when the first printing presses arrived. But he seems to have had no ambitions to become a publisher until he moved, in his mid forties, to Venice, which with its 150 presses was the pre-eminent publishing center of Europe. Intending to publish only high-quality Greek classical texts, later extended to Latin and Italian classics, he went into partnership with a local printer, Andrea Torresano.

Half the funding was provided by Pierfrancesco Barbarigo, a learned patrician and the son and nephew of Doges, the Venetian Republic's elected heads of state.The opening section of the show displays some of Aldo's key publications, already exceptional for their clear typography and beautiful design, such as a Greek grammar, a vital tool for unlocking the language; his Aristotle; and a copy of Erasmus of Rotterdam's 'Adages,' a compendium of Greek and Roman mottoes that became the first Europewide bestseller.

Also here are pieces that reflect the Venetian context that made it possible for Aldo's enterprise to thrive (he once described Venice as 'a place more like an entire world than a mere city'). Vittore Carpaccio's large canvas 'St. Ursula and the Pilgrims Meet Pope Cyriacus outside Rome,' from his cycle of the legend of the Saint, contains a portrait of the contemporary nobleman, diplomat and philologist Ermolao Barbarigo, an outstanding example of the kind of Venetian humanist, with a thirst for knowledge of the ancient world, who was to buy Aldo's books and underwrite his activities.

Here, too, is an ancient statue restored by Tullio Lombardo, a pioneer of the introduction of the classical style of sculpture and architecture to the city.

There is also one of the woodblocks used to print Jacopo de' Barbari's revolutionary bird's-eye panorama of Venice and the lagoon, from 1500. De' Barbari — painter, engraver, and expert in geometry and mathematics — is just one of a number of highly educated artists who were at home with both scholars and Venice's social elite and who were able to give the new learning vivid form in the visual arts.

The process of translating ancient literature, myths and legends into paintings, prints and sculptures is further demonstrated in the following section, where, for example, Aldo's edition of the Greek novelist Lucian is displayed alongside works by the likes of de' Barbari, Girolamo Mocetto and Lorenzo Lotto.

Numerous Greek and Roman authors lay behind Francesco Colonna's erudite erotic novel 'Hypnerotomachia Polifili' (Poliphili's Strife with Love in a Dream), whose text and 172 classically inspired, skilfully integrated woodcuts provided artists with a compendium of reference materials for ancient architecture, ruins, statues, inscriptions, hieroglyphs, landscapes, gardens, figures and narrative scenes. An entire section is devoted to this, the first modern large-format, printed illustrated book, published by Aldo in 1499.

The principal author of the woodcuts was almost certainly Benedetto Bordon, a Paduan miniaturist, draftsman, geographer and publisher of ancient texts. This view is supported by other examples of his work, shown here alongside Colonna's book.

The diffusion of classical learning in general and Aldo's books in particular stimulated a new demand for secular works of art. Giovanni Bellini and his followers were in the forefront of this new trend, as is illustrated by his enigmatic 'Four Allegories' and Cima da Conegliano's 'Judgment of Midas' and 'Endymion.' Tullio Lombardo also responded with such sculptural works as his 'Double Portrait' (which appears to have inspired one of the woodcuts in 'Hypnerotomachia Polifili'). Giovanni Bellini remained primarily a religious painter, but the younger Giorgione found it possible in this atmosphere to make a living entirely out of secular works.

However, as a section titled 'All'Antica Devotion' demonstrates, classical elements also became widespread in religious images, with the likes of Cima, for instance, depicting St. Helena in elaborate ancient garb against the landscape of his Veneto hometown.

Aldo published the Greek poet Theocritus's 'Idylls' and his 1501 edition of Virgil opened with the 'Eclogues.' The rediscovery of ancient pastoral poetry was a primary force in exciting interest in landscape as a new genre cultivated by Venetian artists and their patrons. Indeed, the words 'paese' and 'paesaggio' were first used in an artistic context to describe Venetian landscape images. Among the examples on display are pieces by Titian and Giulio Campagnola, and perhaps the most enigmatic of all Giorgione's landscape paintings: 'The Tempest.'

The 1501 edition of Virgil, followed within the year by volumes of Horace, Juvenal, Persius, Martial and Petrarch, marked a revolution in publishing. These books were produced in a handy, pocket-sized octavo format that is still a standard today. They were also printed in a new cursive or 'italic' typeface to increase ease of reading while making it possible for more text to be fitted onto fewer pages, while still allowing generous margins. The letters were engraved by the finest punch cutter of the age, Francesco Griffo, and their effect on the page was of unsurpassed elegance. These innovations indicate that Aldo's books were now aimed at the general reader as much as they were at scholars.

Aldo's issuing of Petrarch, and other titles in the vernacular, including Dante's 'Divine Comedy' and Pietro Bembo's 'Gli Asolani,' was also significant in implicitly conferring on them the status of 'modern classics,' to stand alongside texts from the ancient world.

Aldo clearly intended his books to be not just vehicles of knowledge but beautiful objects in their own right — as the array of them in the last room of the show shows. Contemporary appreciation of these aesthetic qualities made the Aldine press books the collectors' items that they have remained ever since.

The exhibition ends with four portraits from the first decades of the 16th century: two men, by Titian and Parmigianino, and two women, by Palma il Vecchio and Lorenzo Lotto, all four with Aldine pocket books in hand. By this time these little volumes, often with attractive customized bindings, had become for the educated classes must-have fashion accessories, suitable for all occasions. Indeed, the great publisher even commended his small format books to Bartolomeo d'Alviano, the scholarly mercenary commander of Venice's forces, as perfect for taking on military campaigns.

First published: New York Times International Edition

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024