Encountering the Original

The Chapin has a 1499 edition of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, considered the quintessential book of the Italian Renaissance.

February marked the 500th anniversary of the death of Aldus Manutius, a man considered by many to be the grandfather of the liberal arts. A Venetian scholar, teacher, editor and publisher, Aldus was the first to publish Aristotle in the original Greek, and he had a hand in determining which texts the scholars and students of his time would encounter.

The Chapin Library of Rare Books has upwards of 250 works from Aldus’ publishing house. Among the larger collections of “Aldines” in this country, the Chapin has all of the press’s important editions of the classics, including the first edition of Aristotle’s Opera, the 1499 Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, considered the quintessential book of the Italian Renaissance, and a 1501 pocket-sized edition of Vergil’s Opera.

Aldus was different from earlier publishers because he was, first and foremost, a scholar. “Printers before Aldus were metalsmiths and craftsmen,” says classics professor Edan Dekel, who helped organize an exhibition of the Aldines at the Chapin as part of the yearlong Book Unbound initiative celebrating the dedication of Sawyer Library. “Aldus made books because he believed they were the center of every cultured person’s life, because he believed having knowledge was essential.”

When Aldus was a student and teacher in Italy, most scholarly works were available only as handwritten manuscripts. There were variations in tone and interpretation in each, and there weren’t many copies in circulation.

The printing press allowed for both the standardization and the mass production of texts. “As a scholar himself, Aldus chose to print those texts he knew scholars needed,” says Robert Volz, custodian of the Chapin.

Says Dekel, who points to annotations made by an early owner in the margins of the Aristotle: “This is the lived book. It’s the first link in a chain that culminates with our own students in the 21st century reading Aristotle and making notes in their own texts, then coming here to read the original.”

Aristotle's Opera
A first edition of Aristotle’s Opera has annotations from an earlier owner in the margins.

The Aristotle is just over 12 inches tall and would have been expensive. But in 1501 Aldus introduced editions of important authors, such as Vergil, that were smaller and more affordable, made possible in part by a newly invented “italic” type. “Aldus ensured that the texts he printed would enter the educational pipeline,” Dekel says. “And in privileging certain texts, he helped form the foundation of Western thought, art and culture.”

Just as Aldus broadened student access to the classics, Dekel says that, at Williams, “We privilege unmediated experience, asking students to encounter the original, be it the results of a scientific experiment in the laboratory or coming into the Chapin to read a first edition of Aristotle.

Vergil's Opera
A 1501, pocket-sized edition of Vergil’s Opera was made possible by using a new italic typeface.

“These books represent the history of education and the study of the classical tradition,” he adds. “They emphasize the interaction between scholarship, teaching, printing and publishing and a democratization of knowledge.”

—Julia Munemo

The exhibition “Aldus Manutius, Scholar, Printer, Publisher: A Quincentenary Celebration” is on view through March 20 in the Chapin Gallery.