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Book Review: Humanism and the Latin Classics

By (April 13, 2017) No Comment

Humanism and the Latin Classics

by Aldus Manutius

translated by John N. Grant

Harvard University Press, 2017

The I Tatti Library of the Harvard University Press, dedicated as it is to creating a new and impeccably scholarly dual-language collection of the literature of the Renaissance, digresses in its new volume Humanism and the Latin Classics from giving readers the books of esteemed poets, philosophers, theologians, and humanists to present in English for the first time the voice of the man who made a great many of those books possible: Aldo Manutio, the Venice-based printer who knew everybody in the literary world of his day, wrote letters of encouragement to authors and literati all over Christendom, dealt patiently with the particular kind of thin-skinned prima donna only the literary world can produce, acted as cheerleader, banker, amateur psychologist, talent scout, and impromptu innkeeper to every scholar coming to his printing business in order to see their babies through the presses. Indefatigable Aldo, born in a small town and saved from a lifetime of tutoring petty princelings by his introduction to the booming Venetian book-printing world – and by the aptitude for the trade, which he began demonstrating almost immediately.

He was established in Venice by 1489, and the first book that can reliably be traced to his presses is a humble grammar – hardly the type of thing to get the savants talking in Leiden and Louvain, but just the sort of thing to generate some sales, thereby foreshadowing a comment made to one such savant by the 20th century’s closest Aldine equivalent. “Unless I publish at a profit a pile of the books you never read,” Bennett Cerf told a Nobel aspirant in decades gone past, “I can’t publish at a loss the books you always read.” The aspirant won the Prize, and Cerf built his Random House into a legitimate force in the reading world.

The man who styled himself, in good humanist fashion, Aldus Manutius would have nodded with understanding, and he was out there in the book stalls himself to urge things along. This priceless I Tatti volume collects and translates into English, many for the first time (although with the I Tatti Library, that almost goes without saying), the prefaces Manutius wrote for the volumes that came off his presses, the allurements intended for potential customers, the introductions to often complex subject matters, and, delightfully, some of that extensive correspondence, which lays bare both the artful flattery that comes with the territory when doing business in Venice and the knowingly public confidentiality in which every arriviste revels when they find themselves hob-nobbing with household names.

It was indicative of the good-natured humility for which Aldo was nearly universally loved that it’s so seldom possible to intuit, from that correspondence, just how often he was responsible for those names becoming household. He ran his business with a far-ranging acumen carefully hidden right where all the humanists hid their acumens: under the guise of literary high-mindedness. He made contacts; he finagled deals; he paid close attention to his rivals; he paid even closer attention to the talk in shops and eateries. And it worked; the big, bustling concern that came to be known as the Aldine Press could, in short order, make an author’s career, and Manutius dealt with hardly any authors who were blockheaded enough not to know that. There is a world of subtle, fascinating business being conducted just beneath the surface of these witty, chatty letters and prefaces; Aldus would celebrate an author as celebrated in order to make them celebrated, as in the case of the preface he wrote to his 1508 edition of the Adages of a well-enough-known but not-yet-celebrated scholar, a preface that addresses itself to “devotees of learning, greetings”:

I wish only to be of assistance to you, my scholarly readers, and so when I obtained this learned, wide-ranging and most informative collection of adages put together by Erasmus of Rotterdam, a man of erudition in every discipline, I put aside for the time being the classical authors that I had prepared for publication, and undertook to print this instead. For it is a work that can stand comparison with this product of antiquity. I thought you would profit from it, not only because of the huge number of adages that he has collected so conscientiously – and indeed with much toil and assiduity – from very many authors, both Greek and Latin, but also because of many passages in the authors of both languages that he has brilliantly corrected in passing or explained with such learning.

The tone of congeniality was no less genuine for also being exceedingly calculated, and it coincided with the inimate feel of so many of the exquisite little books that the Aldine Press produced. The Introduction to this I Tatti volume captures something of that feeling, here in association with Manutius’ April 1501 octavo edition of Virgil:

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 one was away from one’s library or home (hence the name for such a volume was enciridium, literally “what can be carried in the hand”).

Humanism and the Latin Classics makes the perfect bookend with the earlier Aldus Manutius volume The Greek Classics, and taken together or separately, they bring to the reader the whirring and clacking of the printer’s shop, the wheeling and wheedling of the time’s book industry, and most of all the burbling and rumorous and striving intellectual atmosphere of the Renaissance in its full flower, when books and learning and reading and writing seemed to awake from centuries of slumber and begin ferociously multipling again in every town and city and seat of learning from London to Bhagdad. Aldine books were everywhere during that explosion, carried in pockets, bought and traded, discussed by all, and these I Tatti volumes take readers inside the tornado and introduce them to the man in the eye of it all.