Aldus Manutius is not a household name in the same way that his predecessor by a few decades, the printing-press visionary Johannes Gutenberg, is. Yet by all accounts Manutius (1455-1515) was the greatest Venetian scholar-printer of the Italian Renaissance. He brought “portable” books to the literate masses. He was the first to print the major Greek classics, and introduce italic type. Now, on the 500th anniversary of his death, the communications pioneer is being remembered at the Grolier Club’s “Aldus Manutius: A Legacy More Lasting Than Bronze” from February 25th to April 25th, which is exhibiting 145 of the printer’s rare, influential works.
The phrase “more lasting than bronze,” says the exhibit's curator G. Scott Clemons, comes from Horace’s Odes, Book 3, Ode 30:
I have finished a monument more lasting than bronze
and loftier than the Pyramid’s royal pile,
one that no wasting rain, no furious north wind
can destroy, nor the countless
chain of years and the ages’ flight.
Clemons explains how he “borrowed” the sentiment for the retrospective “not only because [Manutius'] own accomplishments warrant such lofty poesy,” he says, “but also because Horace was one of the earliest books printed by Manutius in his revolutionary italic type and octavo format.” Several copies of the book are on exhibit in the Grolier Club, including one open to this very ode.
Manutius was a supreme innovator who transformed the hallmarks of literacy. It was due to his editions that the works of Virgil, Horace, and Dante became available to a wide audience. Manutius oversaw the typographic innovation of Francesco Griffo’s Aldine (or italic) type, which was used by nearly all editions out of Manutius’ Aldine Press, an operation that predated but was similar to modern commercial publishing houses. Many of the books in this exhibition were originally collected by Jean Grolier, a patron of the press who amassed an historic collection before he died in 1565.
This is not the Grolier Club's first Manutius exhibit: The organization, which was founded in 1884 by New York bibliophiles, mounted a show on the printer in 1994 (“Learning From the Greeks: An Exhibition Commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Founding of the Aldine Press”), timed to coincide with the first publication of the Aldine Press in 1494. The early publications showcased there continue to play an important role in the Club’s current exhibition.
This time around, the Club compasses a larger timeframe and emphasizes Manutius' grander heritage. "'A Legacy More Lasting Than Bronze' tells the story of how his innovations in typography, book design, publication and distribution continue to influence the world of the book to this day," Clemons says. To watch the printed book being reimagined in the exhibit through the beauty of these ambitiously hand-printed volumes is visually striking. It’s also a rare opportunity: Of the 145 items included, 135 are privately owned and have never before been exhibited, and may never be again.
“We see the lasting influence of Manutius primarily in type design and book design,” Clemons says. The exhibit includes several seminal works—some in spectacular bindings, printed on vellum instead of paper, adorned with woodcuts or other decorations, or illuminated, blurring the line between the printed word and art. Included is the first book printed in Manutius’ new Roman type, today called “Bembo.” There are also early versions of the italic type and the octavo, a smaller, portable format Manutius introduced for his Latin classics in 1501, modeled on devotional books but applied by Manutius to secular texts. The octavo helped create the concept of reading as a personal pleasure, and is a direct ancestor of today’s paperbacks.
Ultimately the retrospective seeks to show how Manutius’ developments in typography and book design—which improved the ability of a new technology to capture, preserve, and transmit human knowledge—resonate with today’s mediums. Says Clemons: “The paradigm shift of Manutius’ day has much to teach us as we go through yet another paradigm shift in the 21st century to communicating through an electronic platform."