Renaissance Italy's Powerful Press ; Exhibition Showcases Vital Cultural Role of Aldo Manuzio's Books

By Morris, Roderick Conway | International New York Times, May 5, 2016 | Go to article overview

Renaissance Italy's Powerful Press ; Exhibition Showcases Vital Cultural Role of Aldo Manuzio's Books


Morris, Roderick Conway, International New York Times


A show in Venice reveals the vital role Aldo Manuzio's books played in Europe's Renaissance.

"It is our lot to live in turbulent, tragic and tumultuous times. Times when men more commonly turn to arms than books. And yet I shall have no rest until I have created a plentiful supply of good books."

Aldo Manuzio wrote those lines in Venice in 1495, in his preface to one of the first volumes he ever published, a Greek edition of Aristotle.

The French king Charles VIII had invaded Italy the year before and conquered Rome, initiating the decades-long Italian Wars. Venice's very existence was to be threatened in 1509, when an alliance of hostile states seized nearly all the city's mainland territories.

Yet the Aldine press went on to thrive against this background of upheaval, and the books produced by Aldo, as he was to become familiarly known among the cultivated classes in Europe, played a central part in the flowering of the Venetian and European Renaissance.

The 500th anniversary of the founding of the Aldine press was the occasion of a number of exhibitions in 1994, including one at the Marciana Library in Venice.

The organizers of "Aldo Manuzio and the Venetian Renaissance," which opened in March at the Galleria dell'Accademia in Venice, meant to commemorate the half-millennium from the publisher's death, on Feb. 6, 1515. They will surely be forgiven for being slightly late with their groundbreaking show, which unfolds for the first time the vast influence that Aldo's books had on Venice's visual arts in the last years of the 15th and first years of the 16th centuries.

The show, curated by Guido Beltramini, Davide Gasparotto and Giulio Manieri Elia, contains nearly 100 paintings, sculptures, prints, manuscripts and books and is the first event to be staged in the Accademia's new ground-floor temporary exhibition space, where it continues until June 19.

A humanist scholar and teacher, born about 1450 in an obscure village south of Rome, Aldo was studying in the city when the first printing presses arrived. But he seems to have had no ambitions to become a publisher until he moved, in his mid forties, to Venice, which with its 150 presses was the pre-eminent publishing center of Europe. Intending to publish only high-quality Greek classical texts, later extended to Latin and Italian classics, he went into partnership with a local printer, Andrea Torresano. Half the funding was provided by Pierfrancesco Barbarigo, a learned patrician and the son and nephew of Doges, the Venetian Republic's elected heads of state.

The opening section of the show displays some of Aldo's key publications, already exceptional for their clear typography and beautiful design, such as a Greek grammar, a vital tool for unlocking the language; his Aristotle; and a copy of Erasmus of Rotterdam's "Adages," a compendium of Greek and Roman mottoes that became the first Europewide bestseller.

Also here are pieces that reflect the Venetian context that made it possible for Aldo's enterprise to thrive (he once described Venice as "a place more like an entire world than a mere city"). Vittore Carpaccio's large canvas "St. Ursula and the Pilgrims Meet Pope Cyriacus outside Rome," from his cycle of the legend of the Saint, contains a portrait of the contemporary nobleman, diplomat and philologist Ermolao Barbarigo, an outstanding example of the kind of Venetian humanist, with a thirst for knowledge of the ancient world, who was to buy Aldo's books and underwrite his activities.

Here, too, is an ancient statue restored by Tullio Lombardo, a pioneer of the introduction of the classical style of sculpture and architecture to the city.

There is also one of the woodblocks used to print Jacopo de' Barbari's revolutionary bird's-eye panorama of Venice and the lagoon, from 1500. De' Barbari -- painter, engraver, and expert in geometry and mathematics -- is just one of a number of highly educated artists who were at home with both scholars and Venice's social elite and who were able to give the new learning vivid form in the visual arts. …

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