Aldus Manutius and the Aldine Press

In the middle of the 15th century, in the space of a few years, two events took place which would permanently change the course of human history. The first event took place on the sixth of April, 1453, when the Sultan Mehmed II marched from his fortress in Edirne to besiege the city of Constantinople. The result of this 53 day campaign would be the capture of the city and fall of the Byzantine Empire, marking the end of a Roman Empire which had existed for over 2,000 years. Two years later, in the quiet city of Mainz, a German inventor named Johannes Gutenberg completed his 42-line Bible, the first book printed in Europe using metal cast movable-type. The introduction of the printing press would make the written world affordable widely available within Europe, leading to the Age of Reason in the 17th and 18th centuries.

However, none of this would have had the effect that it did if not for the work of one man, Aldus Manutius, who would bring these two distant events together through his printing company, the Aldine Press, and save the fruits of Hellenic civilization from ruin. Through his tireless effort, Aldus would revolutionize the publishing industry, and lay the necessary groundwork for the Renaissance, modern democracy, and the bourgeoisie revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. At the time, his work was so well recognized that Erasmus stated “the city of Venice, with its many claims to distinction, has none the less become distinguished through the Aldine press, so much so that any books shipped from Venice to foreign countries immediately find a readier market merely because they bear that city’s imprint.”

The genius of Aldus Menutius was that he made Greek texts, for the first time, widely available for European readership, and in the process, saved many of these texts from extinction

The fall of Constantinople, the renaissance, and Venice in the 15th century.

If you walk into any center of learning in the Western world, or around any major city, you will find many allusions to Greco-Roman civilization. Doric columns adorn the White House, the Austrian Parliament Building, the British Museum, and innumerable other civic structures across the Western World and abroad. If you pick up any history book purporting to tell the “The Story of Civilization” you will undoubtedly come across the idea of a “Classical Heritage,” beginning in the Hellenes, skipping over Persia, China, India, Axum, and Egypt, marching right on through Ancient Rome, and drawing a straight line to the present era. Nietzsche believed we could trace our very morality along this historical arc. Spengler railed against it as “one-sided, superficial, prejudiced, and limited.”

But in the 15th century such ideas were hardly so widespread. The Colosseum was a pile of rubble and stone, inhabited by bandits and often pilfered for the building of churches and hospitals. The ruins of Pompeii were nothing but cattle pasture. The heritage of Greek thought was much better preserved in the Islamic world, where found fertile soil in the teachers of al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and Ibn Tufayl, but in Western Europe it was all but forgotten. The rediscovery of Hellenistic texts and language can be traced to the Byzantine scholar Manuel Chrysoloras, who in 1397 was invited to Florence by Coluccio Salutati the then Chancellor of Florence. It was one of his students, Leonardo Bruni, who ambitiously pioneered the now-common practice of dividing history into the Classical, Middle Ages, and Modern period. At this time Manuel Chrysoloras was the only teacher of Ancient Greek in Italy, and it was through him and his circle of students that the Renaissance, the rediscovery of Greek texts by Western Europeans, began.

The spark that lit the fire, however, was the fall of Constantinople and the flight of many wealthy and learned men from the Byzantine Empire to Western Europe, and particularly, to Italy. These refugees brought with them an incredible number of Greek manuscripts, which allowed scholars in Florence, Rome, and Venice wide access to Greek literature and philosophy for the first time.

The Republic of Venice in particular had a large Greek diaspora, being both a wealthy Republic and controlling a number of territories bordering the Byzantine Empire. It was also an incredibly unique state for the time, Venice being a commercial hub where wealth was not based on landed aristocracy. It was ruled by merchants, and there were opportunities for enterprising and educated men become rich. The Venitian printing industry was one such example of this, and had gone through several periods of boom and bust, due to investments flooding into it, then flooding out of it just as quickly. It was an incredibly cutthroat industry, not like the easy money and luxurious lifestyle offered by publishing today, and the average print shop at the time lasted only 18 months and ended in bankruptcy.

Despite this emerging interest in Greek thought, and a rapidly growing printing industry, the practical limitations of Ancient Greek made printing in this language extremely difficult. The first Greek text printed using movable type was the Grammatica Graeca, sive compendium octo orationis partium, printed by Constantine Lascaris in 1476, nearly 25 years after Gutenberg, and by the time Aldus arrived in Venice, less than a dozen books had been published in Greek. The reason for this is owed to the complexity of the Greek alphabet. Aside from the 24 distinct letters, it also features diacritic marks denoting pitch, stress, and breath. The total number of permutations required for accurately transcribing Greek is over 1200, no small feat when remembering that movable type printing requires cutting a unique type for every character used. The first printers to cut Greek type simply ignored diacritical marks, or used Latin approximations of Greek letters. Some printers only used capitalized letters in their publications, inspired by temple inscriptions such as the Temple Balustrade warning. Due to these difficulties, the Greek scribal tradition continued for over half a century after the invention of the printing press, and while new manuscripts continued to be produced, they were extremely slow, labour intensive works of art that were far too expensive to be purchased by private collectors.

It was in this context that Aldus Manutius, at the age of 40, left his comfortable job as a tutor in Carpi and moved to Venice, to make his mark on the world of letters.

Aldine Press and Contributions to the preservation of Greek literature

Aldus Manutius arrived in Venice around the year 1490, and quickly set to work making contacts in the publishing industry. Around this time he met Andrea Torresano, a Venetian printer, and in 1943 hired him to produce the first edition of his Latin grammar book the Institutiones grammaticae. They would become lifelong business partners. In 1494 Manutius and Torresano established the Aldine Press, and published Constantine Lascaris’ Erotemata cum interpretatione Latina. The first major Greek publication by Aldine press was a five volume edition of Aristotle, published between 1495-1498. He also published nine comedies by Aristophanes around the same time.

To solve the problem of Greek type, Aldus Manutius hired the type cutter Francesco Griffo to develop a font based on the handwriting of the renowned Greek scribe Emanuele Rhusotas. The Aldine Press distinguished itself through the beauty of craftsmanship, using wide margins and high quality illustrations to imitate the look and feel of a proper manuscript, and by basing the font on the handwriting of a known scribe Aldus Manutius was able to give an air of legitimacy and prestige to his work. The real stroke of genius however came from his type cutter Griffo, who devised a new system of horizontal kerning to apply diacritic marks without having to cut new type for every permutation of a letter. Unfortunately Griffo and Manutius had a falling out, and Griffo left Aldine Press to form his own print shop, which performed poorly. In 1518 Francesco Griffo was accused of bludgeoning his son to death with an iron bar, and either fled or was executed. In either case there is no mention of him in the historical record afterwards.

Aside from the many Greek dictionaries, thesauruses, and grammars, Aldus Manutius worked with the scholars Marcus Musurus, Ioannis Grigoropoulos, and Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus to translate many Greek texts copied from the Biblioteca Marciana and private collections. They also founded the “New Academy,” a society of Hellenistic scholars with the intended purpose of promoting Greek studies. Within this society, members would speak in Greek, and were fined for mistakes (the proceeds being used to throw parties and events). Manutius spoke Greek in his household, and hired employed many Greek speakers at Aldine Press. Several more Greek fonts were also created, one based on the hand of Marcus Musurus and another based on the handwriting of Aldus Manutius himself. In total, the Aldine Press published 75 texts by Classical Greek and Byzantine authors under his direction.

Without this immense work, many of these texts would have likely been lost. Aldus Manutius took manuscripts, many of which existed in the single digits, and made them accessible to an entire generation of Greek scholars, whom he himself nurtured through the New Academy. After the fall of the Byzantine Empire Venice became a center for Greek expats, but it was Aldus Manutius’ steady hand that Venice became a new Athens, and a center for humanist thought and philosophy.


Beyond his work in preserving Greek literature for posterity, Aldus Manutius also contributed greatly to typography and the development of print. In working on a publication for Pietro Bembo he created the Bembo font, which is still in use today. The first example of italic type appears in an Aldine edition of Catherine of Siena’s Epistole. Aldine’s portable books, called enchiridion, are considered by many as the first examples of modern pocketbooks. The Aldine logo, featuring a dolphin and an anchor and first suggested to Aldus by Erasmus, continues to be used by various publishing houses.

Many of the conventions which we take for granted in printing today were first innovated in the Aldine Press, and without the incredible legacy of Aldust Manutius great authors such as Herodotus, Aristotle, Theocritus, and Plato might only exist as names. Despite the difficulties and expenses involved printing during those days, the Aldine Press that Aldus founded would last for 102 years, under the stewardship of his son and grandson. Many Aldine editions still exist, and they are highly valued by book collectors.


How Aldus Manutius saved civilization with G. Scott Clemons

Festina Lente, Adam G. Hooks

Greek into Arabic, Richard Walzer

History of Greek Printing, Gennadius Library

Make Haste Slowly, John Willinsky