The Latin Letters of Aldus Manutius, 1483-1500


The following is a collection of nineteen letters to and from Aldus Manutius, intended to give the reader a sense of the humanist republic of letters as it began to take shape around the printer and his press. They coincide with, and often allude to, Aldus’ publication of landmark works in the history of printing. As such, they are valuable resources for understanding the sorts of material and interpersonal exchanges required of these pioneering efforts, as well as the burgeoning philological methodologies that he helped develop for the sake of his critical editions. The project owes its inception to Professor Shane Butler, whose work on the I Tatti Renaissance Library’s edition of Angelo Poliziano’s Latin epistolaria gave him the impetus to lead a practicum on the subject of Neo-Latin editing for students at Johns Hopkins University in the spring of 2019. Letters 2 and 3 derive from his unpublished work on that same project, supplemented by seventeen others that have been edited and translated by the participants in his course. What you see is the end-product of the combined effort of a team of students, both graduate and undergraduate, of multiple disciplinary backgrounds (Classics, Italian Studies, and History of Science), with the continual guidance of Professor Butler.

The class began as a general study of humanist Latin letter-writing and its manuscript culture. As we proceeded, we found Aldus a particularly interesting figure, and not only because his Latin letters had yet to be translated into English. His prominent place as an authority within humanist circles made his correspondence ideal insofar as it illuminates the working methods of these scholars, how they understood their own activity, and the kind of rhetoric that they used in relating to each other. We have restricted the collection to letters written during and before the year 1500, considering this as the age of the incunabula prima artis typographicae, “the first cradle of the art of printing” as it had been dubbed less than a century later by Hadrianus Iunius. Indeed, we have taken it not only as the cradle from which the printed word was taking its first steps, but as the crucible in which Aldus was actively molding his own identity.

The collection resulting from this collaborative effort reveals an early-modern scholarly network of predictably wide reach, immense devotion to its cause, and a surprising multifacetedness. It is only natural that even in only a small snapshot of Aldus’ correspondence, we find letters from such rinascimento luminaries as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (Letter 5), Marsilio Ficino (Letter 8), and Ludovico Ariosto (Letter 11). The reader will likely not be surprised by the glimpses that it affords of the disinterested reverence of Aldus’ circle for the doctrina and humanitas for which classical literature was considered the ultimate source. What is more striking in these letters, however, is the degree to which these values are caught up in the worldly vicissitudes of material and social exchange. To describe this network as a forum for polite aficionados to exchange ideas freely, or a literary stage on which humanists aimed to immortalize their personalities in imitation of their classical models, would be to miss the elements of reciprocity and utility that figure so prominently in this collection. Correspondents continually appeal to Aldus as both a social sponsor and purveyor of texts, and we cannot forgot how critical these functions were in an age when patronage was precarious and a few rare books could make all the difference for one’s scholarly output.

These favors, however, are always promised in exchange for some other form of capital, social or otherwise (including, in Letter 6, possible payment in kind in the form of Greek manuscripts!). Letter 12, for example, despite its luxuriance of reference to classical authors, is first and foremost a poor scholar’s desperate bid to buy Aldus’ aid in the form of tutors, texts, and dictionaries. The printer’s entanglement in all the practicalities of life is especially evident in Letter 7, where the sole subject of discussion is a bed that Aldus seems to have been engaged to sell. Whether in the form of furniture, books, or letters of introduction, Aldus was inextricably bound up in the very material fortunes of his friends, and these connections were no doubt more decisive in forming the tissue of the respublica litterarum than mere devotion to antique learning alone. As the reader will see, the catchphrases of this set are me ama (“love me,” “stand by me”) and me utere (“use me,” “you can count on my help”)— these are the two sides of very real social coin, without which the humanists were bound to languish in isolation.

About Aldus Manutius

Aldus Pius Manutius was born circa 1450 in the town of Bassiano, some thirty miles southeast of Rome. A few years later, printing by moveable type would be developed for the first time in Europe in the workshop of Johannes Gutenberg, Johannes Fust, and Peter Schöffer. Some time around 1490, Aldus – at this point an accomplished classicist and teacher – established a printing press of his own in Venice and, in the years leading up to his death in 1515, developed a publishing empire whose historical impact can hardly be overestimated. Working with Italy’s nascent community of emigrants from the former Byzantine Empire, Aldus marked himself as the preeminent publisher of Greek letters in Italy. Aldus’ editions have by and large set the standard for modern published texts. In his efforts to largely reproduce the visual appearance of manuscripts, the Aldine press developed conventions which are still used today. The serif typefaces which we recognize in modern printed works are largely based on the book hand prevalent in 15th-century Italy. Our italicized letters are directly inspired by the type developed in house for the first printed edition of Virgil’s Aeneid. Among the incunabula of the Aldine publishing house are some of the earliest printed Greek texts, as well as the first bilingual editions of classic Greek works. Aldus himself was the first to consistently outfit his books with page numbers, as an aid both to his printers and his readers.

During Aldus’ lifetime, his press may have produced over 100,000 copies of works representing the breadth of Renaissance learning. The printer is best known today for his contributions to the circulation of Greek literature. Early editions of Plato and Aristotle were produced in their original language, as were the plays of Aristophanes, Sophocles, and Euripides. Among the works which were printed for the first time ever by Aldus’ printing house, we have the collected treatises of Hippocrates and Galen. Besides embodying a good deal of scholarly rigor, the books put out by the publishing house were also produced with accessibility in mind, as the press put out the first inexpensive “pocket” editions of essential writers like Virgil. Later authors were not neglected, either. Editions of Petrarch’s verse compositions, Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Adages of Desiderius Erasmus, the collected works of Aldus’ friend Angelo Poliziano, Pietro Bembo’s Gli Asolani, and the psychedelic Hypnerotomachia Poliphili were all produced in aedibus Aldi.

Contents of This Collection

About the Text (a discussion of our methods, criteria, and editing conventions)

Letter 1 (Giambattista Scita to Aldus, Nov. 5th, 1483)

Letter 2 (Aldus to Angelo Poliziano, Oct. 28th, 1485)

Letter 3 (Angelo Poliziano to Aldus, 1485)

Letter 4 (Aldus to Catarina Pia, Mar. 15th, 1487)

Letter 5 (Giovanni Pico della Mirandola to Aldus, Feb. 11th, 1491)

Letter 6 (Antonio Urceo Codro to Aldus, Oct. 14th, 1492)

Letter 7 (William Latimer to Aldus, 1492/3)

Letter 8 (Marsilio Ficino to Aldus, Jul. 1st, 1497)

Letter 9 (Aldus to Conrad Celtes, Oct. 13th., 1497)

Letter 10 (Pietro Ricci to Aldus, Nov. 5th, 1497)

Letter 11 (Ludovico Ariosto to Aldus, Jan. 5th, 1498)

Letter 12 (Hieronymus of Munich to Aldus, May 13th, 1498)

Letter 13 (Girolamo Varadeo to Aldus, July 31st, 1498)

Letter 14 (Johannes Reuchlin to Aldus, Apr. 23rd, 1499)

Letter 15 (Aldus to Marcello Virgilio di Adriano Berti, Oct. 28th, 1499)

Letter 16 (Daniele Clario to Aldus, Feb. 29th, 1500)

Letter 17 (Pietro Ricci to Aldus, Mar. 21st, 1500)

Letter 18 (Filippo Beroaldo to Aldus, Jul. 18th, 1500)

Letter 19 (Daniele Clario to Aldus, Nov. 13th 1500)

Sources for the Letters (a list of pertinent manuscript and printed sources)

Acknowledgments (a list of all collaborators with their contributions)