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Dolphin-and-Anchor device of Aldine Press, ca. 1500

Aldine Press device. Click to enlarge.

This image shows the printer's mark for the Aldine Press—the publisher's symbol used to identify its books. Perhaps the most important printer ever of Greek and Roman works, Aldine Press operated in Venice for about a hundred years, from the 1490s to the 1590s, and was named after its founder, Aldus Manutius. The design of a serpent-like dolphin curled around an anchor was highly meaningful to Manutius: With its combination of swiftness and weight, it made a fitting image of the press's motto Festina lente ("Hasten slowly"), and it was even taken from the back of a Roman coin, given to Manutius by his friend Pietro Bembo. The image first appeared in the Aldine edition of Dante's Divine Comedy in 1502, and has been an influence on publishers' emblems ever since. Even today it can still be seen in bookstores, as the design for Doubleday books.

Manutius was a lover of classics in all forms, but he especially loved the ancient Greeks, and did everything he could to spread knowledge of them throughout Europe. He opened his new press in 1494 for this purpose. The first book he published was a Greek grammar, and it was quickly followed by the first print edition of Aristotle, in five volumes. He recruited famous scholars, including Erasmus, to edit his books, and even founded the New Academy, a pan-European society of Hellenists, to bring scholars together to talk about the Greeks. It is no coincidence that Aldine editions were a key stimulus to studying ancient texts and an important support of intellectual life during the Renaissance. Manutius continued to run the press until his death in 1515, publishing as many as 132 books in that time. Afterward the press continued to be an important publisher of classics, and it was operated by his family until the 1590s.

Today the Aldine Press is perhaps better known for some firsts that continue to have an effect on modern publishing. Aldine was the first printer of books in the smaller octavo size, making the books both more affordable and easier to carry in your pocket. For these new editions, Manutius had the first italic type designed, based on the simplified cursive handwriting favored by scholars in 1400s Italy. The new type gave the books a distinctive look all their own, and likely an added prestige. These innovations appeared first in the 1501 edition of Virgil, which spread far and wide across Europe.

The Aldine collection at the Harry Ransom Center is outstanding for both its size (over 900 volumes) and its many notable copies. Many of these came to the Center in 1983, as a gift from collector Giorgio Uzielli. Among the most significant titles are the Greek grammar first issued by the press; the first edition of Aristotle; the first edition of Plato, on vellum; two copies of the elaborate 1499 Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, with unique woodcut illustrations; and the compact Virgil from 1501.   —Emilio Englade

Aldine Press Books at the Harry Ransom Center: A Descriptive Catalogue