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Greek typography from some of our rare books   2 comments

First, an apologia: this post is not directly tied to the regular fare here, but in the belief that the appreciation of cool books is not too uncommon a faculty, I can in perfectly good conscience share these images with you here. And who doesn’t love Greek? In this case, let’s recast Vergil’s “Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis” to “Ecce ego complector Danaos monumenta ferentis!” (Note the meter!)

While he was not the first printer of Greek, Aldo Manuzio stands out clearly as one of the most zealous philhellenes among early printers. Among the issue of his press are, for example, Constantinus Lascaris’ Erotemata (1495), Aristotle (1495), and Aristophanes (with scholia, 1498). The Erotemata, a kind of grammatical catechism, — Chrysoloras wrote a similar work with the same title — had been published earlier in Milan, 1476, the first completely Greek book printed; Constantinus Lascaris is not to be confused with another Greek scholar of the period, Janus Lascaris. Aldo dedicated serious attention to publicizing his plan of Greek printing and encouraged purchasers to buy so that more Greek books would follow. The Aldine Press, during Aldo’s life and after in the hands of his family, was not the only publishing house interested in Greek, of course. The only other one I’ll mention here is that of the Estienne (Stephanus) family (Henri, his son Robert, and his grandson Henri the younger).

As with Latin, early type in Greek, in some fonts at least, was made to mimic a certain kind of handwriting, one which had a plethora of ligatures. Proctor (cited below, pp. 12-13) describes what this mimicry entailed:

In the Venetian type the appearance of continuity is sought by an elaborate system of ligatures, two, three and four letters being commonly cast in one piece, and in an immense variety of forms and combinations, so that the number of sorts found in the two books exceeds twelve hundred, and even this is probably far from representing the fount in its completed state as projected. The effect was unsatisfactory; because the ‘case’ was complicated to an extraordinary extent by the enormous quantity of boxes required, and the use of so many ligatures resulted (in practice, thought not of necessity) in splitting up the longer words into disconnected syllables, a result which makes the books very difficult to read even after considerable experience of them.

Some, but certainly not all, of this difficulty remained for both compositor (typesetter) and reader well into the 18th century. The first time I really took notice of it was several years ago in Daniel Wyttenbach’s (1746-1820) edition of Plutarch, printed at Oxford. Not until, it seems, the Didot-Porsonian types of the 19th century did a more separate and straightforward Greek type become the norm still in wide use today. There is to me, though, a kind of beauty in the convoluted knots of ink found in the ligatures of older printings; no, I would not want it for rapid reading of an unfamiliar text, but there are times when one can appreciate a more familiar text in this type. (Note that Proctor is fairly unsympathetic toward the Aldine type and its subsequent influence; more recent discussion has not been so unfavorable.)

The examples that follow, all from the collections of HMML or Saint John’s University, are from the 15th and 16th centuries, followed by images of two fine press editions from the early 20th century. Since most or all of the abbreviations and ligatures encountered in these printings occur, too, in manuscripts, some of the handbooks to Greek paleography may be useful in deciphering them (e.g. Metzger, Manuscripts of the Greek Bible, p. 30), but the most comprehensive list, for printed works in particular, that I know of is the work of G.F. von Ostermann and A.E. Giegengack listed below. Finally, it should be pointed out that all this is not of any mere historical or aesthetic interest. There are still occasions where one is required to consult volumes printed with this kind of type for everyday research: not long ago while studying some hagiographic material in Christian Palestinian Aramaic I had to compare a Greek text in F. Combefis’ Illustrium Christi martyrum lecti triumphi, vetustis Graecorum monumentis consignati (Paris, 1659), which, while not as difficult to read as some ligatured typefaces, nevertheless requires some acclimation for those who typically read Porsonian or similar type.

ΙΩΑΝΝΗΣ Ο ΓΡΑΜΜΑΤΙΚΟΣ ΕΙΣ ΤΟ ΠΕΡΙ ΓΕΝΕΣΕΩΣ, ΚΑΙ ΦΘΟΡΑΣ. ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ Ο ΑΦΡΟΔΙΣΙΕΥΣ ΕΙΣ ΤΑ ΜΕΤΕΩΡΟΛΟΓΙΚΑ. Ο ΑΥΤΟΣ ΠΕΡΙ ΜΙΞΕΩΣ. Ioannes Grammaticus in libros De generatione, et interitu. Alexander Aphrodisiensis in Meteorologica. Idem De mixtione (Venice, 1527) at the Aldine press, under Andreas Asulanus. The title page has a warning against the book being printed elsewhere in Venice or of being sold elsewhere once printed.

Alexander of Aphrodisias on Aristotle’s Meteorologica

ΔΙΟΝΥΣΙΟΥ ΤΟΥ ΑΛΙΚΑΡΝΑΣΣΕΩΣ ΡΩΜΑΙΚΗΣ ΑΡΧΑΙΟΛΟΓΙΑΣ ΒΙΒΛΙΑ ΔΕΚΑ. Dionysii Halicarnassei antiquitatum Romanorum Lib. X (Paris, 1546) bound with ΔΙΟΝΥΣΙΟΥ ΤΟΥ ΑΛΙΚΑΡΝΑΣΣΕΩΣ ΠΕΡΙ ΣΥΝΘΕΣΕΩΣ ΟΝΟΜΑΤΩΝ, ΠΡΟΣ ΡΟΥΦΟΝ. Τοῦ αὐτοῦ τῆς ῥητορικῆς τέχνης κεφάλαιά τινα, πρὸς ἐχεκράτην. Τοῦ αὐτοῦ περὶ τῶν θουκυδίδου ἰδιωμάτων, πρὸς ἀμμαῖον. Dionysii Halicarnassei de compositione, seu orationis partium apta inter se collocatione, ad Rufum. Eiusdem, artis Rhetoricae capita quaedam, ad Echecratem. Item quo genere dicendi sit usus Thucydides, ad Ammaeum (Paris, 1547) at the press of Robert Estienne (Stephanus). Not listed on any title page, but also included are the sections from Dionysius’ work On the Attic Orators that deal with Lysias and Isocrates.

Dion. Hal., On the Style of Thucydides

Isaac Casaubon, Strabonis rerum geographicarum libri xvii (Paris, 1620). With the Latin translation of Guilielmus Xylander (a.k.a. Wilhelm Holtzman, 1532-1576). Casaubon was responsible for the first critical edition of Strabo (1587?), but this is a later edition. This edition (others too?) has a Latin poem on Casaubon’s edition of Strabo by Theodore Beza (1519-1605), and two shorter poems, one in Greek, one in Latin, by an author I am unable to identify. Casaubon’s text-critical notes are in the margins, and his commentary comes at the end of the book.

Casaubon’s Strabo

Marsilio Ficino, Plotini Platonicorum facile coryphaei operum philosophicorum omnium libri liv in sex enneades distributi, (Basel, 1580). Contains the Greek text, Ficino’s Latin translation in parallel, and commentary.

Ficino, Plotinus

Biblia Sacra Polyglotta, 6 vols., edited by Brian Walton with the assistance of many other scholars.

The beginning of Gen 22 from the London Polyglot

ΑΙΣΧΥΛΟΥ ΟΡΕΣΤΕΙΑ (London, 1904). Typeset by Robert Proctor, who was mentioned above. According to the colophon, printing was finished in March. The Greek type is based very closely on the Alcalá Greek typeface used for the famous Complutensian Polyglot (1514), with some augmentation to make up for some original deficiencies, such as a full set of accents.

Proctor, Agamemnon, first lines

ΟΜΗΡΟΥ ΠΟΙΗΣΙΣ. ΙΛΙΑΣ (Bremen, 1923), edited by Edward Schwartz at the Bremer Presse. A small number of text-critical notes (in Latin) are placed at the end of the book. This copy is no. 300 of 615. The Odyssey was issued the next year, and HMML also has that volume. The typeface of these volumes was first printed at this time: “adhibitis typis quorum forma nunc primum inuenta et excusa est”, in the words of the colophon to the Iliad edition.

The opening lines of the Iliad


Nicolas Barker, Aldus Manutius and the Development of Greek Script and Type in the Fifteenth Century, 2d ed. (New York, 1992).

Martin Davies, Aldus Manutius: Printer and Publisher of Renaissance Venice (Malibu, 1995).

Greek Font Society

Martin Lowry, The World of Aldus Manutius: Business and Scholarship in Renaissance Venice (Oxford, 1978).

G.F. von Ostermann and A.E. Giegengack, “Printer’s & Translator’s Elementary Information on Classical & Modern Greek and Abbreviations in Early Greek Printed Books,” originally in Languages: For the Use of Printers and Translators, 3d ed. (Washington, DC, 1936), reprinted at the end of Al.N. Oikonomides, Abbreviations in Greek: Inscriptions, Papyri, Manuscripts, and Early Printed Books (Chicago, 1974).

Rudolf Pfeiffer, History of Classical Scholarship from 1300 to 1850 (Oxford, 1976).

Robert Proctor, The Printing of Greek in the Fifteenth Century (London, 1900).

Nigel Wilson, From Byzantium to Italy: Greek Studies in the Italian Renaissance (Baltimore, 1992).

________, Mediaeval Greek Bookhands: Examples Selected from Greek Manuscripts in Oxford Libraries Medieval Academy Books 81 (Cambridge, Mass., 1973, repr. 1995).

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