Wednesday, August 16, 2017


John N. Grant, Aldus Manutius: Humanism and the Latin Classics. I Tatti Renaissance Library, 78. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2017. Pp. xxxi, 414. ISBN 9780674971639. $29.95.

Reviewed by Anne Mahoney, Tufts University (

Version at BMCR home site

Look at your bookshelves. If you are like most readers of BMCR, you probably have a handful of OCT or Teubner editions: moderate-sized volumes containing just the text of a favorite classical author without commentary, notes, or marginalia. Aldus invented that! To be more precise, he was the first to print secular texts in the small format previously used only for missals and breviaries and in plain, uncommented editions. As Grant says, "it is difficult for the modern reader to imagine the significance of what Aldus did with this presentation of the text of a classical author, unencumbered by any surrounding commentary and printed in an attractive font with familiar letter shapes, in a book whose size and weight allowed it to be carried and read when was one was away from one's library or home" (p. xiv). Aldus was justifiably proud of this new style of book and lost no opportunity to tell his readers so (pp. 17, 21, 32, and so on). Starting with the Aldine Vergil of 1501, classical texts became portable.

The volume under review is a companion to the anthology of Aldus's prefaces to Greek texts (Wilson 2016; reviewed BMCR 2016.08.04). The first section contains twenty-eight prefaces to editions of classical Latin authors; next are a dozen prefaces to modern authors, including Erasmus, Angelo Poliziano, and Aldus himself; and finally, there is an appendix of relevant letters. Aldus Manutius (ca. 1451–1515) here appears as a publisher, a friend and client of influential humanists, and a teacher of Latin. He dedicates books to such well-known figures as Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, Alberto Pio, Giovanni Pontano, Marcus Musurus, and Lucrezia Borgia, though some of the prefaces are letters to the reader, to students, or even to teachers.

As in the Greek volume, there are many delightful short essays. For example, preface ANT XVIII, to the letters of Pliny, argues convincingly (and correctly) for the authenticity of book 10, the letters to and from Trajan. In the same volume, Aldus prints the Panegyric of Trajan, legendus ille quidem assidue omnibus (p. 78), along with the fragments of Suetonius's De grammaticis et rhetoricis and the De viris illustribus, which he attributes to Pliny, correcting the common attribution to Suetonius, though with no discussion (p. 80); in fact, it is not by either author. The preface is full of praise of Pliny's style.

Preface ANT XXIII, to Caesar, argues for the accuracy of Caesar's writings, observes that the Spanish War is too crude to be the work of either Caesar or Hirtius (he calls these commentarii admodum quam inconditi ac barbari, p. 104), and quotes the famous passage from Cicero's Brutus 262 in praise of Caesar's style. The second preface to this book is the surprise. Aldus has included a map of Gaul, labelled with the ethnonyms of Caesar's text, and the preface is an extended legend, explaining that each nation's territory is in a different color. There is also a digression on the color words in Greek and Latin (pp. 108–10).

Preface HUM V, to the 1501 edition of Aldus's own Latin textbook, addressed to literarii ludi magistris (p. 194), is a manifesto about teaching Latin. Aldus insists that the teacher's main concern is to develop the students' character: potior mihi ratio vivendi honeste quam vel optime discendi videretur. Malo enim eos nullas scire literas ornatos moribus quam omnia scire male moratos (p. 198). Regarding teaching Latin, Aldus sensibly argues against making students memorize grammatical rules that they will only forget and become discouraged. He warns: Praterea difficultate tum materiae tum stili eo desperationis veniunt ut et scholas et literas fugiant, et studia quae amare nondum possunt maxime oderint (p. 198). Instead, he proposes that students should learn some easy, striking passages from literature.

Most of the ancient authors are the same ones we still teach today — Cicero, Catullus, Tibullus, Propertius, Vergil, Ovid, Horace, and so on — and it might be interesting for intermediate to advanced students to read the prefaces as a window into who was reading these texts and why. For example, the edition of Catullus, Tibertius, and Propertius is dedicated to Marino Sanuto, a young historian, not yet 40 years old, who had also written on Ovid. Cicero's letters to Atticus, Brutus, and Quintus are dedicated to Filippo Csulai Móré, the Hungarian ambassador to Venice. Sallust is dedicated to Bartolomeo d' Alviano, an important Venetian general. Aldus dedicates some books to fellow humanists and scholars, some to politically powerful patrons, and some simply "to the reader" (for example, Caesar is so dedicated) or "to students" (as in the third preface to Ovid's love poems, ANT XIV C).

Aldus also brought out editions of late antique and medieval Christian authors: Prudentius in 1501, along with Prosper of Aquitaine and John of Damascus; Sedulius, Iuvencus, and Arator in 1502; and Origen in 1503. The humanist authors are Lorenzo Maioli, Angelo Poliziano, Niccolò Perotti, Gianfrancesco Pico, Giorgio Interiano, Giovanni Pontano, Adriano Castellesi, Erasmus, Tito and Ercole Strozzi, Jacopo Sannazaro, and Aldus himself; some of these are still familiar while others have become more obscure. Lorenzo Maioli and Giorgio Interiano, in particular, are obscure enough that they don't even figure in the indices of standard references.1 Grant supplies what information he can in footnotes, but must admit that "not a great deal is known of Maioli other than what Aldus tells us" (p. 361, n. 24). Interiano was a well- known merchant in his day, but now "few details of his life are known" (p. 367, n. 70); the book Aldus publishes is in the vernacular, rather than Latin ("vulgari lingua," p. 204). These prefaces help suggest a broader canon of Renaissance authors beyond the big names that get anthologized (such as Pontano and Erasmus).

The appendices include five prefatory letters by people other than Aldus that are included in Aldine editions. I was particularly pleased with the fifth, a letter from Giovanni Giocondo dedicating his edition of Caesar to Giuliano de' Medici: it is an essay in praise of textual critics. We also have Aldus's polemical "Warning to the Typographers of Lyons" of 1503, in which he complains that his texts are being pirated. Not only is he losing sales, but the pirated editions are harming his reputation: they are full of errors, in a less attractive font, and on smelly paper (p. 246)!

Two further appendices are part of a continuing argument about the authenticity of the Rhetorica ad Herennium. Raffaele Regio argues that it is not by Cicero (APP VIII, 1491), while Niccolò Angeli argues that it is (APP IX, 1515). Aldus himself concludes that the work is not Ciceronian (pp. 134–40, in the preface to Cicero's rhetorical works) and tentatively suggests that the actual author is "M. Gallio," a name that may have been found in a copy of the text in the Vatican library, and who may be identified with the addressee of Ovid's Pont. 4.11. Grant comments: "Here Aldus is very unconvincing" (p. 355, n. 306).

Another appendix is Giambattista Egnazio's letter in praise of Aldus just after his death in 1515, printed as part of the preface to the new edition of Lactantius. The last appendix by Randall McLeod includes Aldus's instructions for interleaving a bilingual text with diagrams. Aldus had included the Greek poet John of Damascus in a volume of Christian poets, giving both the Greek text and a Latin translation. He printed the Greek and the Latin on separate sheets, so that a reader could either keep the two languages separate or interleave them, putting original and translation on facing pages. His instructions for interleaving appear as the third preface to the volume (p. 14), but are elliptical and not entirely clear: he says posse te pro arbitrio tuo Latinum Graeco insertare et ex duobus quinternionibus unum et ex uno duos facere, which Grant translates as "you can insert as you wish the Latin into the Greek and combine the two quires into one (and enlarge one into the size of two)" (p. 15). McLeod fills in the details and also notes that "Aldus was wedded to interbifoliation", producing several bilingual books this way, though the technique "did not survive Aldus' death" (p. 311).

Grant's translations are clear, occasionally making Aldus's Latin more explicit. The copious and helpful footnotes identify all the addressees and the people mentioned in the prefaces, give the references for Aldus's quotations and allusions to classical literature, and provide cross-references, for example, when the addressee of one letter is mentioned in another.

As with the volume of Greek prefaces, this is a fun book to browse, whether one is interested in the history of the book, Renaissance humanism, or classical Latinity. It is still true, as Egnazio says in his eulogy, that "there is today no nation in the whole of Europe, no matter how uncultured or remote, to whom the name of Aldus has not been well known and highly celebrated" (p. 269) — and these prefaces show us why.


1.   Joseph Ijsewijn and Dirk Sacré Companion to Neo-Latin Studies, Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1990-1998; Sarah Knight and Stefan Tilg, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Neo-Latin, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015; Victoria Moul, ed., A Guide to Neo-Latin Literature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

1 comment:

  1. To have these prefaces available is exciting, but the importance of these portable Aldine editions extends to shaping the rise of humanistic opera in Italy. Pierluigi Petrobelli points out the popularity of the Heroides, which everybody had in his pocket. It is the basis of Monteverdi's second opera, *Arianna* (on a libretto by Rinuccini), of which her "Lamento" is the only part that survives. -- Vivian Ramalingam


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