Books are such a rich accompaniment to life. A trip or holiday is so often enhanced by what we are reading. I can still recall what I was reading when I got engaged to my wife whilst in Florence. I don’t really understand the kindle as anything other than a device to beat the weight limit of our airport luggage. For me there is a simple unadulterated joy in placing the finished book, preferably hardback, on the shelf. Not very enjoyable – and the book may eventually make the second unseen row. A great or interesting tome might also find a place next to classics like Brideshead Revisited, to which I have returned again and again.
So when I realised there was an exhibition about books and art on whilst I visited Venice, I couldn’t wait to go. Two twin passions of mine were almost perfectly intertwined so as to draw me in. The exhibition is compact and yet contains a varied number of treasures – not least the splendid wood cut map of Venice from something which is still recognisable today all these centuries on.
I’m a book lover but still nothing more than an amateur. So I knew nothing of the man at the centre of the display. Aldo Manuzio is not a household name yet he ought to be because his contribution to European culture and the Renaissance is significant. The small yet important exhibition Aldo Manuzio Renaissance in Venice at the Accademia goes some way to addressing that.
It’s the story of the man who invented the modern book and the very concept of commercial publishing as we understand it today. In 1501 he also published the first pocket book. He was producing highly accurate books; even the first ever book printed on blue paper. It was a commercial mindset that drove him and spread the ideas and dissemination of knowledge, which was a prerequisite for the Renaissance.
He was both in the right time and place. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 provided Venice with a vast influx of Greeks and with them came numerous manuscripts of lost works – not least the complete works of Aristotle, published by Aldo in 1495. Neither was it all about ancient Greek or Latin texts: he also played an important role in publishing Dante, Petrarch and Erasmus.
What this fine exhibition did above all was to explain to me why so many portraits from this period have books in them. What Aldo Manuzio did was start a craze – it’s the equivalent today I guess of being photographed with the latest smartphone or tablet in hand so the viewer see how great we are. To be captured in paint with one of his books was the height of sophisticated fashion.
The portraits are perhaps slightly more elevated in their approach, often bringing a connection with the classics in the true sense of the word of ancient lost texts rediscovered. There is also a connection to our society today. What they are trying to say is ‘look at me: I’m clever and cool’. That’s something we can all relate to. After, all who hasn’t posed by something just to make themselves look good to friends and colleagues at home? Isn’t that in part what Twitter is all about?!