Tuesday, August 2, 2016


N. G. Wilson, Aldus Manutius: The Greek Classics. I Tatti Renaissance Library, 70. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016. Pp. xvii, 395. ISBN 9780674088672. $29.95.

Reviewed by Anne Mahoney, Tufts University (anne.mahoney@tufts.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Aldus Manutius (ca. 1451–1515) surely needs no introduction to BMCR readers. He gave the world the first printed editions of Aristophanes, Sophocles, Euripides, Thucydides, and more. As an editor, a scholar, and the center of a network of Hellenists, "he can reasonably claim to be the first person to deserve the title of publisher" (p. xv). In this volume are collected the prefaces and dedicatory letters Aldus wrote for his editions of Greek texts, mostly in Latin. An appendix includes prefaces by Marcus Musurus, a couple of letters to Aldus, and other related texts. Aldus's prefaces to Latin texts have appeared in another volume of the same series, edited by John N. Grant.

While this book is clearly of historical interest, it is also a fun collection of essays for browsing in. It gives a reader some sense of the excitement of reading Greek at the dawn of the 16th century, when each new publication in Greek was an event. Aldus publishes several Greek grammars by contemporary scholars between 1495 and 1498; his principle is nihil praemittere … quod utile credamus futurum iis, qui Graecas litteras discere concupiscunt optimeque scire Latine (preface I B, p. 4). It is amusing to observe that in 1498, just as today, beginners were finding εἰμί "be" and εἶμι "go" confusing: Aldus boasts that the Treasury of 1498 includes copiosae ac perutiles formationes of those verbs along with all the rest of the ways to say "be," "go," or "sit" (pref. VI, p. 32).

In 1497, Aldus issues a Greek-Latin dictionary by Joannes Crastonus. It had been published before, but Aldus adds a Latin-Greek index, apparently an unusual feature because he spends some time explaining how to use it. A reader looking up a Latin word finds references to one or more corresponding Greek words, by page and line. Aldus carefully explains "Note that the letter c in the index means charta, and the numeral immediately after the c is the leaf number; the number which follows indicates the line, and all the rest indicate the number of the line if after the line number there is another numeral before the next c. For it often turns out that the rendering of a word into Greek in two or three ways can be found on the same leaf" (pref. X, p. 61–62). He goes on to give an example. We take indexes and cross-references for granted; it is striking to realize that they were once an innovation.

Among the first classical Greek texts to come from the Aldine Press are the works of Aristotle, starting with the Organon in 1495. For this text Aldus provided a short epigram in Greek — "not metrically impeccable," comments Wilson (p. 326, fn. 26), observing that humanists had not yet mastered the differences between Greek and Latin meter. The epigram is followed by a letter to Alberto Pio, prince of Carpi, a former student of Aldus, now a patron, to whom several more volumes will be dedicated. This is the first letter in the volume to a patron. Over the 20 years covered by this volume, Aldus will dedicate volumes to other patrons, scholars, and friends, including Giovanni Francesco Pico della Mirandola (the nephew of the better-known Giovanni Pico della Mirandola), Janus Lascaris, Guidobaldi da Montefeltro (later immortalized in Castiglione's Book of the Courtier), Marcus Musurus, and Pope Leo X. We see Aldus within a network of scholars of Greek and of Venetian aristocrats.

Aldus is always pointing out how very hard he works to produce his books (for example, pref. III B, p. 12, pref. VI A, p. 28), and how his only motivation is love for humanity (for example, pref. I B, p. 6, pref. VIII A, p. 46). He also reminds readers to buy more books, so he can have money to print more (pref. II, p. 8). He admits that there may be errors, but claims that they usually come from the source manuscripts (for example, pref. V, p. 24; pref. VII, p. 42). "Anyone who criticizes me is quite unjust and ungrateful; I would not wish them anything worse than that they too should one day print Greek texts; they would certainly change their minds" (pref. V, p. 25). Reading the 47 prefaces one after another makes Aldus sound a bit whiny, but that impression is unfair.

The prefaces do not necessarily say much about the books they are prefaced to, rather praising the dedicatee or encouraging the casual reader to buy more books. For example, preface XLIII, to the complete works of Plato, issued in September 1513, is a long encomium of the newly elected Leo X and his late father Lorenzo de' Medici, barely mentioning Plato. But occasionally Aldus does discuss the book at hand. A particularly striking example is preface XXVIII, to the Life of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus, issued in May 1504. Aldus begins by saying he had hoped, when he started reading this book, to learn useful things from it, but was gravely disappointed: Nihil enim umquam memini me legere deterius lectuque minus dignum (p. 130). But as he had committed to publishing it, he pressed on. As a corrective, though, he includes Eusebius's Against Hierocles, which corrects and refutes Philostratus and in particular chastens Hierocles for comparing the magician Apollonius to Christ. Aldus is particularly dismayed that St. Jerome seems to have accepted Philostratus's work uncritically or at least read it too carelessly (p. 133). Aldus proceeds to show that Jerome's discussion of Apollonius in letter 53 is not consistent with what Philostratus says. Therefore, he concludes, no one should be misled by Jerome's work into giving credit to Philostratus: "he should rather treat Philostratus as a liar, Hierocles as insolent, Apollonius as a charlatan and a fraud" (p. 147). After some 8 pages of this (p. 132–148, 8 of Aldus's Latin and 8 in English), Aldus points out that the Latin translation (by Alamanno Rinuccini, as Wilson explains in note 288) is "not only barbarous but unfaithful" (p. 149), and gives several pages of examples of the translator's mistakes. He concludes by pointing out that most translations have problems, so "for this reason one must study Greek" (p. 157). This is the longest preface in the volume and a thoroughly amusing demolition of Philostratus and of the translation.

Wilson's own translations are lucid, and in the few places where Aldus's Latin doesn't quite make sense, he simply says so. The footnotes are helpful, identifying the people Aldus mentions as well as his various addressees, identifying Aldus's quotations and allusions to classical authors, and occasionally pointing out a mistake.

After Aldus's own prefaces, Wilson includes some related texts. The last of these is a surprise, a poem by Marcus Musurus included in the complete works of Plato, published in 1515. It is a hymn, 200 lines long, in elegiac couplets, calling on Plato to descend from heaven to earth to "give support to the study of the ancient Greeks" (p. 313, l. 153–154) but primarily to restore peace and good government (p. 309, l. 91). The poem is full of allusions to Plato's works, couched in epic language. It's not clear whether Plato would have been flattered or appalled, if he could have read it.

As we expect from the I Tatti series, the book is attractive, a suitable tribute from a modern publisher of classics to one of the men who started it all. It's a pleasure to look over Aldus's shoulder as he produces these Greek texts, and to recall the excitement of reading these authors in convenient printed editions for the first time. Any lover of Greek literature will find much here to savor.

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