Academic journal article Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada

Aldus and Greek Learning

Academic journal article Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada

Aldus and Greek Learning

Article excerpt

For all its narrow specialization, my topic has broad implications, treating a crucial period in the history of the transmission of learning in the West, one rich in dominant personalities, major geopolitical developments, and intellectual and cultural movements that would begin to change the face of society and ultimately produce the world we have inherited. Aldus with his achievements was at the heart of some of the significant parts of these changes; perhaps more importantly, however, he was perceived by the learned world of his time as a, or perhaps even the, focal point. (1)

Two areas concern us: first, the Renaissance and its guiding principle, humanism; second, the origins of printing from movable type in the West, and its migration across the Alps to Italy and then specifically to Venice. The broad canvas on which we view Aldus, his successes and failures, consists of Italy, the Renaissance, humanism, and the revival of classical learning in the West -- in particular the reacquisition and dissemination of the works of Greek antiquity in their original texts.

For our purposes, the Italian Reniassance may be summed up in the concept of humanism. (2) Humanism involves scholarship applied to works of literature, the transmission of literature, the cultivation of a literary hand with by extension the writing of manuscripts of fair text, and, finally, printed books. It also involves holding human affairs at the centre of one's activities, of being concerned with the things of this world, of taking human nature for the core around which all one's constructs are drawn. It developed out of the rediscovery of the Graeco-Roman world, especially Greek literature and philosophy. (Let us note, too, if only as an aside, that humanism would lead shortly to a scientific revolution: the wider sense of critical inquiry, whereby textual criticism led, in part, to the conviction that a human being could use human senses to investigate the corporeal world.)

The origins of humanism may be found in Padua in the second half of the thirteenth century, in the circle of Lovato Lovati (1241-1309), a judge devoted to the literature of antiquity, especially poetry. Humanism's two strands, literary and scholarly, were first united by Petrarch (1304-1374). His vision and influence spanned Western Europe, or what tended to think of itself as Western Christendom, and Petrarch sought to revive the ideals of the ancient world within the framework of Christian Europe. He is the bridge that makes possible Europe's transmission from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. He found in the works of Cicero and Varro a means to define educational ideals. (3)

Humanistic scholarship addressed primarily the matter of restoring classical texts; this scholarship was further developed in restoring Scripture to its original form and in its original languages, and, by extension, patristics. This latter area would become a specialty in Basel, where it would be very important for Amerbach and for Froben and the Erasmian circle, in the years that followed Aldus's death.

Reynolds and Wilson in their excellent Scribes and Scholars summarize the period thusly:

A cultural movement which is recognizable as humanism, the stimulating force of the Renaissance, was at work in certain parts of Italy by the end of the thirteenth century; by the middle of the sixteenth it had spread to most of Western Europe and had transformed, among so many other things, the transmission and study of classical antiquity. The scholar of the late Renaissance had at his disposal almost as much of the literature of Greece and Rome as we possess ourselves; most of it he could read, at ease and at no great cost, in print; and the translation of Greek into Latin, and of both into the vernacular languages, had made a large part of ancient literature available to the public at large. On the scholarly side, the foundations of historical and textual criticism had been securely laid. …

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