We like to celebrate the Jobs’s and the Musks of this world, but we often forget those without whom none of it would be there to celebrate. One of them is Aldus Manutius. If you’re not a bibliophile, a book scholar or a walking encyclopedia, you’ll be like ‘what, who?’
We have much to learn from Aldus. A role model for his own 16th century and subsequent centuries, Aldus, or Aldo, as he was known in Venice, his homebase, and the rest of Italy, gave us the book as we know it.
The world’s first editor-printer-publisher, he is also, as Italian historian Alessandro Marzo Magno dubbed him, an inventor of books.
Forget e-books, audiobooks and Amazon for a second. Aldo is the source of all that, of how we relate to books, of what books are – and can do. If you’re having a glass of wine while reading this, please spare a toast to Aldus, for without him, it’s unlikely I’d be writing/typing here, and that you’d be reading your books at all the way you do. So go ahead with that libation, and keep scrolling.
Born in the early 1450s in a town near Rome, Aldus grew up to become the face of printing in Italy, and to achieve European renown. The printing press using moveable type had been developed in the 1440s by Johannes Gutenberg, that’s well known and well rehearsed. By the 1490s, Germans working close to Gutenberg established presses in Rome. By the 1490s, Aldus, imbued with the humanist spirit of the late 15th century, opened his own printing press in Venice. He wasn’t the only printer in Italy, but his vision, strategy and achievements made him and his Aldine press synonymous with the high-quality printed book across the West.
His success story is by no means the stuff of antiquaries. Though more than 500 years old, it holds a lesson for the 21st century. I’ll try to show that in three parts.
I. A humanist with a marketing-driven mind
Aldus started his publishing career by editing and printing books in Greek. A bit of context. The end of the 15th century was a treasure trove of opportunities for the humanist reader. For the last century or so, Western men and women of letters had started to look back to ancient Rome for new models and new ways of writing and thinking.
The medieval mind was shifting, and many were rediscovering the world before their own, a world of eloquence, good Latin and fabulous literary models, like Cicero, Lucretius and other ancient Roman authors. And through the Roman authors, they were starting to find out about ancient Greece, to which Rome had been overwhelmingly indebted. But the language as well as the skills were missing. Ancient Greek had but completely disappeared from the West. Fortunately for the humanists but unfortunately for the 16th-century geopolitical balance, Byzantine Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, and with the conquest came an influx of Greek-speaking scholars who found refuge and forged brilliant careers in the Italian states. Venice was closest to the epicentre, so it quickly became a centre of Greek letters in the West. Aldus saw the opportunity, not so much, or not primarily for business reasons, but for making a hefty, the heftiest, contribution to the humanist effort of disseminating Greek letters in the Latin-speaking West.
His first printed books were of Ancient Greek authors printed in Greek. Now, printing in the 16th century was not a File-Print-OK kind of operation. It required the type, the metal letters, the font, as we call it today, and that was a gargantuan thing to achieve technologically. But he did it, thanks to key people close to him. I’ll come back to this later. His editions of the Greek classics became instant bestsellers in a literary culture marked by Hellenistic draught. The market developed like a tsunami, and an entire generation of litterati flocked to his bottega veneta, the Aldine Press, to buy the expensive, yet accessible, volumes. A stroke of genius of commercial proportions.
To be continued. Part 2 this Wednesday.
When in the midst of our life’s way I’d crossed,
I found myself inside a forest drear,
Because the direct path was long since lost.
I took a look around and I could see it was no mere forest. There were no trees blocking the view, no overgrowth hiding the path. I was in the middle of a sentence. A suspension point, words hanging, not like fruit, but like gallows. I was surely afraid.
The ancients used to call it silva rhetoricae. I call it the forest of eloquence, the forest of signs. But there was no eloquence therein. Instead, a wilderness of letters scattered on the verdant ground. Deadly signs all around.
I could see the ivy-like leaves of parelcon, a species of tautology, superfluous words adding nothing, doing little, hampering my walk.
Raising my head, I glimpsed traces of soraismus, a rhetorical vice long identified as the throwing together of words from different languages, without purpose and without skill, only for the sake of affectation. A kind of kitsch rising itself against morphological beauty.
Next, I marvelled at the fruits of acyron, that which happens when a word is abused to mean something contrary to its established significance.
It felt senseless, and I kept walking, silence covering me like a protective cloak. I felt safe, but I knew I wasn’t. For standing just a few feet from me was the spectre of bomphiologia, the enemy of humility, which sees that everything is described in a bombastic manner, beyond measure, sense and logic. Compared to it, hyperbole, its erstwhile handmaiden, stands not much higher than litotes, its ancient adversary.
I couldn’t stop. I knew that if I did, I’d succomb to hypallage, which reverses the order of words in an unnatural way.
All these creatures of ineloquence and inelegance stared me in the face as I made my way through the thicket.
The presence of paroemion gave me pause. Introducing itself as an extreme kind of alliteration, as when every word in a sentence starts with the same consonant, it was unbearable to hear its plea. I bowed in silence and made my way to what soon revealed itself as the centre of the forest.
There stood a table made of black marble. On it were offered for sacrifice, by the invisible hand of a pontifex, all the sons and daughters of stylistic beauty and grammatical propriety. A repulsive cacophony floated over this solecismic Mass, twisting every word and every phrase in a sad contorsion.
I turned around and it was all gone. I opened my eyes and my hands grabbed the edge of my bed, in horror. Punctuation failed me.
If Jacques Derrida’s famous dictum that ‘there is no outside text’ may hold true for postmodern readers, it was quite the opposite for the books of the middle ages. There is always an outside text. There is never a single text.
Against the simple-mindedness which is often assumed with respect to the medieval period, the texts written and published during the Middle Ages give a picture of such complexity that one is constantly tempted to multiply the comparisons between those distant texts and the ones we access today, in print or online.
‘We have never been modern’, concluded the French philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour in 1991. In 2022, following his argument, we may say with renewed confidence that we’re quite medieval. That we’ve always been medieval.
At least when it comes to texts and the way we read them.
Medieval readers rarely read a text in isolation. To them, reading was a networking activity – placing the text in a mesh of relationships with other texts, other authors and contexts, letting the mind take off in all directions, engaging itself in literal, figurative, metaphorical or allegorical keys and significances. Texts connected through active mental links, and on the manuscript page, they were often placed side by side.
The medieval manuscript page manifested the mind’s inclination for connection. The main text of a poetic, philosophic or historical text was quite often framed, both physically and figuratively, by other texts which enhanced the construction of meaning and completed the reading experience.
The practice of inscribing a manuscript page with texts and hypertexts alongside each other was a complex operation, which often went bad, as when subsequent scribes, tasked with copying the text of a given work, would copy the side texts as though they were part of the main text, rewriting the original text, thus leading to such confusion that a great part of the modern philological muscle has been devoted to disentangling the threads.
In the age of social media, text platforms and blogospheres, are things any different? As we focus our eyes on a text on our screens, are we really limiting our attention and awareness to one text alone? Aren’t we rather accessing, at the same time, a network of adjacent and affiliated texts, all referencing each other, locked in webs of meaning and linked relevance? Aren’t we doing the same textual networking, hopping from one piece of text to another, by means of scrolling or hyperlinking?
Like the internet, the medieval textosphere was messy, complex and decentralised. If you think commenting on a blog, an editorial or a post is a modern thing the founders of Web 2.0 came up with, you couldn’t be more wrong. The medieval commentarius, the compilers, the flower-pluckers (authors of digests, known as florilegia, or bouquets of flower(ing) texts) set a machine in motion that is still running to this day.
There are books that break the mold and there are times when you need to break the mold to open some books. There are books that trailblaze, others that blaze in the dim fires of oblivion.
Modern book cultures are so mechanized that they may give the illusion they’re self-running. And to a certain extent they are. Manuscripts get submitted, editors get hired, paper is printed, tomes are bound and sold in every bookstore and online, away from the tired eyes of eager readers. It all happens behind the scenes. Because we don’t see it, it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
It wasn’t always like that. The mechanization of book production revolutionized Western culture, but it would have achieved nothing without centuries of organic, small-scale growth, unmechanical and un-streamlined, with thousands of scribes and bookbinders doing, nonetheless, the impossible: turning hours into words and natural produce into readable products called books.
Every time a medieval abbot decided to send a monk to the scriptorium rather than in the fields, to the stables or into the workshop, it unwittingly created the distant conditions for what makes mould-breaking possible. Only a culture rich in books and conversant with the silent conversation of inked ideas can dare to reinvent itself, to seek out new possibilities at its margin and outside of itself. Such a culture can hope to transcend its own anxieties with purpose and confidence.
Not going for the hit is not always a bad idea.
Deciding against the most obvious choice may be the sign of a better, yet unsuspected, judgment.
At the end of the 15th at the beginning of the 16 century, the pioneer editor and typographer Aldus Manutius of Venice refused, and categorically so, to print a book which had been a bestseller for the last 300 years. The grammar book known as the Doctrinale puerorum, had been a standard textbook for teaching Latin to European schoolchildren since the early 13th century. It was a book anyone with a business mind would’ve wanted to make copies of, by hand or by using the latest technology, the moveable-type printing press developed by Johannes Gutenberg.
Aldus passed over the opportunity to print a book which would’ve helped his business for the reason that the Doctrinale represented a dying age. As a man of the Renaissance committed to putting in circulation books which represented, in his estimation, the future of European letters, or as we would say today, European culture – Aldus sacrificed profit on the altar of ideas.
If you like to read books, then you have a debt towards Aldus, as it was him who standardised the book, endowing it with all the features we take for granted: index, page numbers, the semicolon, title and cover pages, etc. He also developed the small-book format, the libellus portatilis, which is no small feat in the long history of the book.
Aldus was a genius who understood that the future value doesn’t depend on past performance. He was a humanist in the deep sense, who became acutely aware that he was straddling two worlds, and that he had to make his choice between the two.
He chose innovation, and at least in the world of books and letters he set himself up for succes. A success that it would be for us, rather than for him, to measure the full extent thereof.
The genius of the medieval period, among all the ages of European history, is that it explored and experimented, innovated and playfully manipulated all the literary genres, styles and modes we have and conceive of today – the (super)heroic-epic, the lyric, the dramatic, the burlesque, the historical account & chronicle, the panegyric, the satire, the novel, the novella, the rythmic poem, the blank-verse, the vulgar, the obscene, the irreverent as well as the most solemn and ceremonious.
Name one style, and you’ll find it roaming in the enchanted forests of medieval Europe.
Some styles were inherited from the ancient period, which was itself unspeakably prolific, others were created in the thousand years or so which, conventionally, separate Late Antiquity from the Renaissance.
The medievals didn’t perfect any of these styles. They brought them into existence, and set letters on a completely different path. The Renaissance and the humanism on which it was founded claimed to recover the ancient world – which in so many ways it did. But fundamentally, it was a reaction to the medieval culture which it attempted to denigrate, not least by describing it as medieval, an uncomfortable intermission between two glorious acts, the distant past and the all-too-near, all-too-self-imposing present time.
Adopting a historical perspective is not so much about recovering the truth about the past than reducing the errors involved in the action of looking back.
The blessings and the curse of hindsight.
Things becomes much clearer when seen after they’ve occurred, after the fact. Yes, but what things?
The power of hindsight is the availability of evidence, the multiplication of points of view and time.
The driver and the witness are both key, but their points of view are restricted. Lots of dead angles. In fact, most of the 360 degrees are dead. Only a narrow band is live and active.
Post-factum-looking collects all the available points of view, constantly rebuilding the picture in the light of new evidence. But the picture keeps shifting because the frame keeps shifting. It’s not that the past is unrecoverable, but that the recovery is incomplete, always open to revision.
The end of the sentence keeps getting farther away from us.
And so we arrive at the curse. In hindsight, things always look different. History is different from what makes history what it is. We think of the past as that which has happened but in fact the past is what we can say about what has happened in the past. However, what happened a few minutes or centuries ago, remains bafflingly elusive. Some spend a lifetime trying to catch a glimpse of it, but even then, the conclusion is disappointing.
One fact about the Middle Ages that only surprised people is that the great majority of books written in the medieval period were left unbound. In a technical sense they were unaccomplished codices, leaves and pages piled together but not sewn, glued or fastened in any way. Flyers in the deep sense of the word.
The medieval book was truly free. Free to scatter itself to the winds. Free to end up on a shelf and nowhere else. Free to be forgotten.
With few exceptions, all of the books we have from the medieval period are bound, spine, covers, warts and all. And that is a minority of the books written during that period. But one thing was to fill parchment with inked words, quite another to turn those parchment leaves into a codex, a bound book. The scribe and the book binder may not always be the same person, and the latter was not always available, and the resources required not readily at hand.
The relative loss of ancient and medieval manuscripts is due to many factors, like destruction and neglect. But it is also because some books never acquired a spine and were endowed with hard covers that we will never know them.
Written by hand, they were undid by time. And their words flew into tue night, unwitnessed but free.
The single most consequential development in human thought, which proved to be humanity’s engine of growth, was the power of abstraction.
Moving from some to all, from physics to metaphysics, from now to tomorrow.
Looking beyond the visible, beyond the current moment, beyond the individual, in order to see what cannot be touched, cannot be seen. But that which can held in the mind, almost as firmly as in a grip.
In philosophy, it was the logos, the principle of all principles, the principle itself being an abstraction of all observable, understandable, phenomena. In theology, it was the soul, transcending the body, the gods transcending humanity, humanity transcending the individual. In political thought, it was the body politic, the polis, the res publica, the common weal.
As the world witnesses the passing of recent history’s longest reigning monarch, it is worth recalling what the historian Ernst Kantorowicz called ‘the king’s two bodies’ in his book by the same title.
According to medieval political thought, which is the basis of our current understanding of the concept of kingship, the king, or queen, never dies. The king has two bodies, the Body Natural and the Body Politic. The first is subject to the constraints of nature, but the second isn’t. The first is biological, the second is cultural. The king may be dead, but long live the king. For medieval and early-modern jurists, political theologians and theorists, the doctrine of the king’s two bodies guarantees permanence, continuity and immortality. Whatever you and I may think about the monarchy, about the kings and queens whose reigns fall within this centuries-old framework, one thing is clear: the modern state, and with it modern culture was shaped and continues to be shaped by the idea that, through a kind of mystical abstraction, something survives when everything dies. And all the -isms of the world, whether social or political, are part of the same dual-bodied scheme. Otherwise, we’d always go back to square one, never moving forward, but circling around, indefinitely.
There are self-effacing texts, like the ancient epics, which put the reader in control of the text, where every engagement with the text is different, where, even after centuries, the textual energies are inexhaustible, like the hydrogen in the stars. Those texts don’t get old, because they look the reader, rather than themselves, in the face. And the face is always different.
But there are other texts, which are self-regarding, where the reader is a superfluous agent, texts that only need themselves to run, automatons rather than living beings. These narcissistic texts have been proliferating over the last half-century, and have been powering the shift to meta: texts that don’t talk to us, but to themselves. Postmodernism at its finest.
Personally, when a text, whatever it might be, fiction, non-fiction or anything in between, tells me how to read it, when it urges me to check out its entrails without glimpsing its beauty, I politely put it back on the shelf.
The same is happening elsewhere. Apple TV’s The Morning Show is a product of TV entertainment about TV entertainment. It’s a good show, but altogether narcissistic. We watch, but without being acknowledged.
As readers, we want to feel like we’re eavesdropping on the voices in the text while at the same time being recognized for who we are, the breath of life circulating through the text, the makers of its fortune.
Does a tree really fall in the forest when there’s no-one to hear it fall? Does a text really exist without a reader to read it?
There is no outside text, Derrida once decreed. He meant it in a different way, of course, but the words turned prophetic. Just as Narcissus glimpsed his reflection in the water and was entranced, forgetting about everything else around him, so texts stare at themselves in their own textuality and forget about the reader and why they’re there.