Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Dolphins in the Bodleian

After a long, busy autumn term of teaching and running a research project (hence the gap in blog posts, apologies), last week I finally ventured back into the Bodleian Library, and found a new exhibition in the entrance hall. Aldus Manutius:The Struggle and the Dream marks the 500th anniversary of the death of the pioneering Venetian Renaissance printer (c. 1450-1515), who created distinctive editions of classical texts treasured by humanist scholars across Europe, and in the process set a new standard in the printing of learned books. The exhibition is curated by my Somerville History colleague, Dr. Oren Margolis, with assistance from current Somerville History undergraduates Jennifer Allan, Anna Clark and Qaleeda Talib, whose own work on Aldus will be showcased at an event at the Bodleian in February.

At a time when academic publishing is again going through a major metamorphosis, and experiencing another technological revolution, it seems apt to reflect on the printer Aldus and his legacy. The Bodleian exhibition stresses that Aldus’ Venetian workshop gave the world the italic font: the display includes the first printed books in which it was seen. Probably few of us, when pressing Control I on our computers, know or think of the great copyright squabble which the discovery of printed italic triggered between Aldus and his punch-cutter, Francesco Griffo. The exhibition includes too a Roman denarius from 80AD, showing a dolphin and anchor, which Aldus adopted as his own device. Modern academic publishers must surely remain envious of the little surge of delight, the flash of excitement, the joy of possession, which the sight of Aldus’ dolphin logo seems to have instantly provoked in the learned 16C reader.

Aldus printed for the republic of letters, for those anywhere in Christendom who, at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries, were serious about scholarly and beautiful books. So it was a particular pleasure for me to see in The Struggle and the Dream an Oxford copy of Aldus’ Erotemata, by Constantine Lascaris, a key text for those learning ancient Greek. I’ve been working for some years on Piotr Tomicki (d.1535), bishop of Kraków and a key advisor to the Polish Crown. In Kraków’s Jagiellonian Library, I have examined Tomicki’s own diligently, neatly annotated copy of Aldus’ Erotomata, which he had purchased as a student in Italy, very far from home, and kept throughout his life, even once he was a great statesman. Aldus’ volumes – whether in Venice, Kraków or Oxford - still have the ability to make people, now as in the sixteenth-century, feel they are holding in their hands very special books.