Aldus Manutius Demystified
Aldus Manutius, who operated the successful Aldine Press in Renaissance Venice, is hardly a household name, but he has his enthusiasts. One was Vera Kaestlin-Bock, an early member of the WMF Venice Committee who became involved with the committee and its restoration work because it used Aldus’ symbol, a dolphin entwined around an anchor, as its logo. Another was Franklin Murphy, the protean chairman of the Kress Foundation at the same time, who acquired a major collection of Aldus’ books for UCLA when he was its Chancellor. The inventors of Aldus Pagemaker, an early desktop publishing program, were so inspired by his oeuvre that they named their company for him.
Vera Kaestlin, a tiny but fierce woman with the demeanor of a schoolteacher, was already very advanced in age when I met her in the 1980s. She spoke to me at that time about her desire to bring recognition to Aldus, and told me she intended to leave a bequest to the Venice Committee. This she did when she died 20 years later at the age of 106, expressing in her bequest the wish for some activity in her name to honor Aldus.
WMF found its opportunity with the organization of a major exhibition this spring in the newly opened galleries in the Accademia in Venice, on view through the end of July. It answered a lot of questions that had lingered in my mind for years, above all how to understand the significance of this historical figure, whose contribution was the popularization of the pocket book (octavo).
The premise of the exhibition is that Aldus’ publication of the classics of the ancient world in octavo, and their availability to everyman, transformed the arts between 1495 and 1515 when his press was in its heyday.
To publish Aristotle’s works and those of other Greek philosophers and writers, Aldus needed access to manuscripts that were in the collections of kings and princes. He gained this access through the creation of the Aldine Academy, a group of scholars including Erasmus and others (whom he also published), who provided that access. The books of the Aldine Press became both popular and prestigious throughout Europe. They introduced new ideas, values, and tastes across the continent—stories of mythology, the exaltation of nature, the beauty of youth, and the secular world. The model that Renaissance Europe found in the ancient world became the standard by which Europe would measure its own culture for centuries to come.
Just to see Giorgione’s Three Philosophers, The Tempest, and Sleeping Venus in one exhibition, along with works by Carpaccio, Bellini, Tullio Lombardo, and Giambologna, would be enough reason for me to go to the Accademia. But the exhibition offers much more. It makes the case that the availability of literary works of ancient mythology was the catalyst that inspired these works of art. Painters, sculptors, and architects in Renaissance Venice, reading their pocket editions of the classics, began to depict these themes and to embrace the canons of the ancient world in their work. Paintings and prints depicting ancient themes found their way into princely palaces and ordinary homes where religious subjects had previously dominated.
Then there is Aldus’s greatest achievement—Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, an illustrated erotized romantic fantasy with a story so obscure that no one today has the slightest clue of its meaning. It is, however, considered to be the most beautiful book ever published. The book is present in a beautiful copy lent by Windsor Castle, but also blown up, every octavo pairing, for exhibition-goers to enjoy. It is a beautifully composed book, with every page of script (Italic, invented by Aldus) designed to reflect its content, such as a vase or chalice, and paired on the opposing page with a stunning woodcut illustration.
Guido Beltramini, the exhibition’s principal curator, compares Aldus’ achievement to the digital revolution of today. Never before had so much information been so readily available to so many. Vast knowledge, reduced to small pages, created one of the most powerful intellectual revolutions of world history.
WMF supported the exhibition in memory of George and Vera Kaestlin-Bock, and our support made possible loans from U.S. institutions including the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York as well as the audio guide tour of the exhibition. I have to be grateful to Vera—and to the exhibition’s organizers—for illuminating this pivotal moment in the history of culture.