500 years of Aldines in Europe: A View From St. Andrews

By Michela Petris |

Every summer an international group of students visits St Andrews for six weeks to work on the Universal Short Title Catalogue and experience the inner-workings of a large research project. Michela Petris volunteered this past summer and attended our 2018 book conference on ‘Print and Power’.

Produced by one of the most prominent Renaissance printing houses, from the beginning Aldine editions were highly collectable, both in Italy and abroad. They remained collectable over the centuries, and today they can be found in libraries across the world. Although these books are far from rare, they epitomise the wide European distribution that was characteristic of Renaissance books. A volume of the Epistolae, written and printed by Paolo Manuzio and later published by others, is representative of the broad and continuous circulation of Aldine editions across borders. A rare copy is held at the University of St Andrews Library, our home institution and Preserving the World’s Rarest Books partner.

The epistolary genre was extremely successful in the sixteenth century. The rise of the book of letters is evidenced by the publication of a large number of anthologies dedicated to the epistles of classical authors, such as Pliny, Seneca, and Cicero (whose letters were, incidentally, among Paolo Manuzio’s finest editorial work). Alongside classical authors, contemporary collections were also very popular. Some of these collections were written by the great humanist authors of the day, such as Erasmus, Juan-Luis Vives or later Justus Lipsius; others, with an eye to providing models in the vernacular; others still were technical manuals, addressing the need for letter-writing in individual trades. The genre was particularly successful in Italy, with the important anthologies containing the letters of prominent humanists such as Marsilio Ficino, Angelo Poliziano, Pietro Bembo and Lodovico Dolce. Italian books of letters in Latin and vernacular alike were distributed widely throughout Europe, and some, such as Paolo Manuzio’s letters, had a programmatic value, to demonstrate the author’s worthiness.

The Latin Epistolae by Paolo Manuzio went through a substantial number of new editions throughout the sixteenth century, both in Italy and across the Alps. Editions appeared in Cologne, Leipzig, London, Lyon, Geneva, and several other printing centres. The edition produced in Cologne (featured above) by Arnold Birckmann in 1575 is an excellent example of the European circulation of the text (USTC 649363). Birckmann, a publisher with strong international networks, evidently saw the potential of this Latin text for the northern markets and must have assessed that the reach of the Italian editions was insufficient to meet demand. The edition was undoubtedly distributed in Germany, as well as abroad. The St Andrews copy (Mor PA6139.E7M3) testifies to this wider circulation both through its production and, as it crossed the Channel early on, through its consumption.


Ownership signature
The signature of Guillielm Bodleius [William Bodley] appears on the final endpaper. St Andrews, Mor PA6139.E7M3. USTC 649363.
I was able to identify at least two contemporary or near-contemporary owners of the St Andrews copy: William Moore [Will. Moore] and William Bodley [Guillielm Bodleius], whose names are present respectively on the title page and on the final free endpaper of the book. The title page also presents the note of ownership of St Salvator’s College at St Andrews, from which it came into the University Library. The final free endpaper, in addition to including the signature of William Bodley, also provides relevant data allowing us to analyse the circulation and the use of the book. We learn that the book, at a certain point, was purchased for 20 ss (to be read as soldi or more likely shillings). The book itself contains handwritten marginal notes throughout, indicating that past readers were eager to study the whole text, as it appears from the underlining, both horizontal and vertical, as well as the manicules and comments to the text. Furthermore, the presence of two different types of ink, as well as of two very distinct hands (one from the sixteenth century and one from the seventeenth century) indicate that at least two readers have used this text for the purposes of study. The sixteenth-century notes are in fact the better preserved, probably due to the superior quality of the ink.


Marginalia, including manicule
Evidence of readership, including a manicule. St Andrews, Mor PA6139.E7M3. USTC 649363.

In all, the analysis of this copy would suggest that the European circulation of Paolo’s Epistolae had its roots in the didactic purpose of the work, with the text used as a stylistic model. However, there is no doubt that the Aldine cachet attached to the text played a key role, first in prompting its reprint in Cologne, and then in its northern circulation. Even this German reprint was widely distributed, with copies surviving today in Germany, Italy, Canada and the United Kingdom. The cultural prestige and material quality of Aldine editions have ensured their popularity with readers and collectors ever since they were first produced.


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Michela Petris studies at the Università degli Studi di Udine in Italy and was a member of the USTC team of volunteers in the summer of 2018.


Images: All images are used with the permission of the University of St Andrews Library Special Collections.

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