Saturday, 26 March 2016

Have You Ever Read a Book? Aldo Manuzio - Renaissance in Venice

Aldo Manuzio at the Accademia Gallery
(Venice, Italy) Have you ever read a book? If so, you can thank Aldus Manutius, the wizard who invented the modern book and the concept of publishing itself, for that. Thanks to his innovation, Manutius helped to transform Venice into the publishing capital of the world during the Renaissance, revolutionizing the access of knowledge to the masses, similar to what the digital revolution has done for humanity today.

The long anticipated exhibit Aldo Manuzio - Renaissance in Venice opened to the public last Saturday at the Accademia Gallery, and it is spectacular. After years of preparation, Renaissance in Venice focuses on some of the important players in the Veneto at a decisive moment in the development of humanity during the time of Aldo Manuzio. Woven throughout the rare volumes of Aldine editions in the freshly-restored ground floor section of the Accademia are masterpieces and works by Manutius's contemporaries like Giorgione, Titian and Giovanni Bellini.

Le Cose Volgari by Petrarch - illuminated by Benedetto Bordon - published by Aldo Manuzio 1501
Two centuries before Aldo Manuzio arrived in Venice, Petrarch, inventor of the sonnet and the Father of Humanism himself, was in the lagoon from 1362 to 1367, invited with the specific intent of turning Venice into the greatest center of art, culture and spirit of modern Europe.

Thanks to her relationship with the Eastern Empire, Venice already had a solid foot in both Hellenic and Greek culture. In 1345, Petrarch had discovered the lost collection of personal letters from the Roman statesman Cicero to the Greek statesman Atticus dating back to 68BC. This discovery -- letters filled with a wealth of material between two distinguished men from antiquity, written in a deeply personal way -- blew Petrarch's mind, which many credit as kicking off the Renaissance. One passion the humanists had was to rediscover ancient Greek and Latin texts and apply the knowledge to their own time.

De Architecture by Vitruvius edited by Giovanni Giocondo, published by Giovanni Tacuino 1511
For example, one book included in the exhibition is the first illustrated edition of Vitruvius's De Architectura, originally written around 15 BC. In 1414, the Florentine humanist Poggio Bracciolini rediscovered the work without the illustrations in the Abbey of St. Gallen in Switzerland, and brought it to the attention of important Renaissance thinkers.

The world learned how the ancient Romans built stuff -- temples, civil and domestic buildings, aqueducts, central heating, etc., and how they planned their towns. Vitruvius declared that architecture should have three conditions: it should be sturdy, useful and beautiful. He also studied human proportions, inspiring Leonardo da Vinci to create Vitruvian Man, which is at the Accademia, but rarely shown to the public, and not part of the exhibition.

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci (1490)
Giovanni Giocondo, who constructed the Fondaco dei Tedeschi in 1508 -- which is now in the process of morphing into a luxury shopping center at the foot of the Rialto Bridge designed by starchitect Rem Koolhass, due to open on October 1 -- edited the first illustrated edition of De Architecture published by Giovanni Tacuino in 1511, which introduced the knowledge of ancient temples to Venice.

The great architect Palladio (who would be deemed a super starchitect today) was deeply inspired by De Architecture, following the principles of classical Roman architecture based on mathematical proportions to construct his works. Palladio then wrote The Four Books of Architecture, published in Venice in 1570, which inspired architects all over the world, including Thomas Jefferson, who designed Monticello using the principles of Palladian architecture.

Accademia - Photo: Alessandra Chemollo Studio ORCH – courtesy Sop. per i BeniAmbientali e Architettonici di Venezia
That is just one example of how just one book can inspire great thinkers thousands of years after it was written.

Books like that can inspire an entire exhibition in 2016 -- the event itself, Aldo Manuzio - il rinascimento di Venezia, is staged in a building designed by Palladio, the monastery of the Canonici della Carità, built during the 1560s, which is part of the Accademia Gallery. Books like that can also inspire me to write a blog post on the Internet, which you are now reading, after I stepped foot into the Accademia and felt that mystical Palladian energy.

The printing press was invented in Germany by Johannes Gutenberg around 1440, but Venice was where the publishing industry was born. The first printing press came to Venice in 1469, and soon hundreds of printers opened shop in Venice, an international, multicultural center of wealth, trade, literacy, banking and freedom of expression. And it was teeming with humanists.

Aldo Manuzio, Latinized to Aldus Manutius, was born in 1449 in Bassiano, part of the Papal States. He had studied the classics, and then tutored the princes Alberto III and Lionello Pio of Carpi. His mission was to spread the Ancient Greek culture and its language.

Manuzio changed careers at the vintage age of 40, coming to Venice around 1490 at a time when the world was in crisis, with Europe at war with itself, believing that the power of books were a way out of the bedlam. He hooked up with Andrea Torresano, a wealthy and well-known bookseller, and together they founded the Aldine Press in 1495 with 50% of the start-up capital coming from Pierfrancesco Barbarigo, a Venetian nobleman who was the son of the former Doge and nephew of the current Doge; 40% from Torresano, and 10% from Manuzio's own funds.

The Aldine Press began printing ancient Greek manuscripts in book form, which were very expensive to buy, targeting professional scholars. Manutius stood above the other printers. To him and his associates, printing a book was an art form. He hired the best translators and copy editors; he created that semi colon I just typed. The top craftsman illustrated his books.

Then Manuzio had the radical idea to produce smaller pocket-sized books that appealed to a broader audience, and to add punctuation marks, making books more user-friendly. He transformed the bulky handwritten codex into a mass-market pocket book that readers could carry with them wherever they went, allowing reading to become a pleasurable occupation.

The Aldine Press pocketbooks were a huge success, so much so that everybody started ripping off his idea despite the copyright protection that had been granted to him by the Venetian Republic. So he branded his books with a logo, the famous diving dolphin wrapped around an anchor, which was inspired by a Roman coin given to him by his friend Pietro Bembo, and meant "hasten slowly" or festina lente (and you can thank Manutius for inventing those italics). To this day, anyone involved in the publishing business understands what that means; it means quality.

Flora (Lucrezia Borgia?) by Bartolomeo Veneto (1505-10)
Pietro Bembo, who was a Venetian aristocrat, scholar and poet, was greatly responsible for reviving the works of Petrarch. He had a passionate love affair with the thrice-married Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI, while she was married to her third husband, the Duke of Ferrara. Lord Byron deemed the love letters between the two "the prettiest love letters in the world." The eye-catching Flora portrait is plastered all over Venice right now as advertisement for the exhibition.

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili
The star of the show is the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a book that has fascinated mankind for centuries, and is considered by many to be the most beautiful Renaissance book. Published by Manutius in 1499, the hero, Poliphilo, falls asleep and dreams of finding his beloved Polia. According to the stunning catalogue published by Marsilio that accompanies the exhibition, 'In a quest full of dangers and "labors," he flees from monsters and fierce beasts, sees marvelous architecture, takes part in occult rituals and is forced to choose between three doors with descriptions in Greek, Hebrew and Latin.'
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili illustration
There are 170 top quality woodcut prints that complement the text, whose author is not explicitly referred to in the book, but if you join up the first letters of each of the 38 chapters, it says "Francesco Colonna greatly loved Polia." Colonna was a Dominican monk who lived in Venice and Treviso, but much like the real identity of William Shakespeare, the authorship of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is a topic of debate. Nor is the identity of the artist of the woodcuts known, and has been attributed to a variety of celebrated artists, or a team of illustrators.

Portrait of Eramus by Quinten Massys (1517)
The international renown of Manuzio prompted Eramus of Rotterdam, one of the greatest European humanists, to make the trip to Venice in 1507 to have his Latin translations of Euripides' Ihigenia at Aulis and Hecuba printed by the Aldine Press, which was promptly done.

Portrait of a Gentleman (Jacopo Sannazaro?) by Titian (1514-18)
Reading became all the rage, and the nobility started having portraits of themselves painted holding a book. The "pocketbook classic" became a status symbol and anybody who was anybody in the Italian and European elite had to have them. Small and easily transportable, you could read them anywhere; it was an exciting novelty, much like owning an iPhone is today.

In his introduction to Aristotle in November 1495, Aldo Manuzio wrote: "It is our lot to live in turbid, tragic and tumultuous 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."

Five hundred years later, we can be sure that Aldus Manutius achieved his goal.

Aldo Manuzio. Il rinascimento di Venezia runs through June 19, 2016 at the Gallerie dell'Accademia.

This post is dedicated to the spirit of Christopher Cooley, who would have loved the exhibition and brought home lots of postcards and brochures. For those of you who knew him, his death is in the New York Times. May all the truth come out. The world has lost another good man. Rest with the angels, my friend.

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog


  1. Have you ever read a book? If so, you can thank Aldus Manutius, the wizard who invented the modern book and the concept of publishing itself, for that. Thanks to his innovation, Manutius helped to transform Venice into the publishing capital of the world during the Renaissance, revolutionizing the access of knowledge to the masses, similar to what the digital revolution has done for humanity today.

  2. I've seen it...highly reccomended. One of the most interesting exibitions I've seen lately

  3. Today, the first Sunday of the month when it was free, there was a long, long line that went on all day.