‘Aldus Manutius: Renaissance Printer in Venice’ promotes Special Collections

Exhibition pieces from "Aldus Manutius: Renaissance Printer in Venice" are pictured. Sadie Leite / The Tufts Daily

Elettra Conoly (A’21) wants the students of Tufts to read more early printed books. Conoly works full time for Tisch Library’s Special Collections. She started her job at the end of January and works with social media, programming and more to support the section she fell in love with during her sophomore year.

Conoly described the special collections students can access through Tisch Library.

“All you have to do is wash your hands before you sit down, and you can find yourself looking through a 500-year-old book,” Conoly said. “I think [Special Collections] is underutilized just because not enough people know about it.”

Special Collections held a pop-up exhibit titled “Aldus Manutius: Renaissance Printer in Venice” in collaboration with an art history course titled Renaissance Venice, taught by Professor Chiara Pidatella on March 8 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Tisch Library. 

The show featured early printed books and extended the niche collection beyond Pidatella’s class.

“Rather than just setting up all these wonderful materials and just having one class have access to them, we thought it would be great to open it up to the broader Tufts audience and get as many people in to see these beautiful books as possible,” Conoly said.

The exhibit was curated by Curator of Rare Books and Humanities Collections Librarian Christopher Barbour and focused on Venetian printer Aldus Pius Manutius. Manutius lived in the 1400s and 1500s, and he printed books for about 15 years of his life.

Manutius founded the Aldine Press in 1494. Conoly explained that Manutius “was working off of humanist texts that were basically coming back into vogue during the Renaissance.”

After studying Greek and Roman texts, Manutius invented the italics font for printing. Additionally, he designed a Greek typeface to make Greek texts accessible to a wider community of readers.

Barbour, Conoly and Pidatella guided viewers as they digested the information. Pidatella’s class took place at its normal time — 1:30 p.m. to 2:45 p.m. — in the room showing the work.

The students used a worksheet to study the books. It encouraged them to find the authors, analyze the typographical layout and evaluate the effects of certain images.

“I think a lot of these students haven’t ever worked with rare books,” Conoly said.

Students mulled over pages with magnifying glasses and other special tools that opened pages carefully. There were manuscripts, such as Albert of Saxony’s “Sophismata” (1398) commonly used by logic students in medieval universities. Incunables, which Conoly described as “books printed in the first half [of the] century basically of the existence of printing, so from 1450 to 1500,” were also on display.

The incunables and manuscripts acted as comparisons to Manutius’s work from the early 1500s. His sons’ prints added to the study too, as they continued working with the Aldine Press ­­— which was rare. Most presses closed quickly due to the overestimation of production; there was not enough money to sustain the practice. The acclaimed Johannes Gutenberg press that printed the “Gutenberg Bible” (1455) fell to this fate. However, the Aldine Press persevered for three generations with Manutius, Paulus Manutius and Aldus Manutius, Jr.

Conoly said she was excited about “the chronological progression from manuscripts to incunabula, to then early printed books.” She continued, “It’s striking to see how similar the incunables are to how manuscripts were structured, and then seeing sort of a departure from that as you move forward in time.”

The exhibit is a step forward for Special Collections. In the time Conoly has been with Tisch Library, Special Collections has worked with individual classes, presenting sources for classes’ subjects.

“The Aldine Press was a pretty influential force in the development of typography and early printed books in general,” Conoly said. “We thought it would be great to show more people.”

Conoly hopes to continue more in-depth programming for the Tufts community. Special Collections is collaborating with the SMFA on an exhibit called “Manuscripts: Medieval and Modern.” The show will position older books from Special Collections alongside SMFA’s contemporary artist books with the help of Darin Murphy, assistant director of the SMFA Library.

When Conoly was a sophomore, she took a class with Professor Melinda Latour on music up to 1750. Latour took the class to Special Collections for sources. Conoly enjoyed working with the texts so much she continued with an independent study the following semester to continue the research.

“When I came to Tufts, I had no idea we had any manuscripts … let alone the fact that as a sophomore, I would be allowed to handle and research them,” Conoly said. “I had no idea that that was an opportunity until it was literally presented right in front of me as a project for a class. And I think a lot of other students are in the same boat.”


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