Too Big to Fail? Life on the Edge for Aldus Manutius

Rebecca Romney

In 1495, an aspiring printer could look no further than Venice. In the four decades since the Gutenberg Bible, presses had sprung up across Europe. There was no shortage of entrepreneurs ready to take the risk of setting up shop with the latest technology. Increasingly, those entrepreneurs were drawn to Venice, the trade city extraordinaire. Or was it? When Aldus set up shop at the end of the fifteenth century, Venice was only a few years away from disaster.

Venice had much to recommend itself. Famous trade routes snaked out of the heart of the city-state, not only to the rest of Europe, but to distant cities in the Middle East and Asia. Its economic underpinnings were supported by a robust trade infrastructure – and in the undertone of risk associated with commerce outside Europe. In short, Venice was primed for the risks and gains of the infant printing press like few other cities.

Moreover, Venice was ideally suited to the needs of a printer. Because of the healthy trade routes and nearby mills, paper (one of the largest expenses of a printer’s work) was cheaper, yet better quality. Venice had unprecedented access to newly discovered manuscripts (in both Latin and Greek) and incidentally benefitted from the tragedy of Constantinople’s fall in 1453, which brought Byzantine scholars west to the city-state. For an aspiring printer, Venice must have been an extremely attractive option.

In the 1470s printers flocked to Venice. Soon the city’s output dominated all other centers of print, producing 25 percent more than its closest competitor, Paris. One estimate puts the number of active printers in the city at 230 before 1501, a staggering number for the time. In such an environment, innovation thrived. It’s not just that Venice’s status led to cheaper books; the competition seems to have led to better ones, with better paper, better type, and better design. Before the innovations of Aldus, for instance, Venice was the home of the printer most associated with the creation of a (gorgeous) roman typeface, and of the printer who issued the first “modern” title page (Nicholas Jenson and Erhard Ratdolt, respectively).

When Aldus Manutius embarked on an ambitious printing program to bring the Greek classics into print, he naturally set his eyes on Venice. In fact, his choice of Venice over Florence, an established center for Greek scholarship, is telling. Aldus planned an entire program around printing the Greek classics, yet chose the city with the stronger economic structure, rather than the city known for its academic strengths. Aldus was not blind to the financial needs of his business.

Of course, history is more than a triumphant narrative. Despite this rosy picture, the booming activity taking place in Venice was still part of a larger context which included entrepreneurs’ experimentation with a new technology. In the first fifty years, print failed to lodge itself permanently in more Italian cities than those in which it succeeded. Many printers went out of business, or moved to another city in hopes of establishing a solid foundation in a new environment. Famously, the first press in Italy was established by two printers who fled Mainz, the birthplace of printing, after it was sacked in 1462. Venice was not immune to trouble, even with its commercial empire. 

Moreover, the sheer success of Venetian printing led to its own problems. When a book sold well, a printer would naturally print more in order to keep up with demand. But the time and materials required to produce a book can be immense, and were particularly difficult to measure in the unstable infant days of print. Even today it is tricky to estimate the ideal number of copies for a print run: the publisher wants to produce enough copies to meet demand, yet has to weigh the possibility of the costs associated with printing more copies than can be sold. Printing, bestsellers included, was uncertain business. Furthermore, it required significant outlay of capital – often years in advance of the return and profits. Cicero might be in high demand, but book glut could put a printer in a tight spot. His financial assets would remain stuck in his inventory until sold. Every print run was a risk.

In retrospect, Aldus's name looms as a shining beacon of success in an unstable period of print’s development. Yet Aldus was subject to the vicissitudes of life as much as the rest of us. He must have stayed awake at night, wondering whether he ordered too much paper in one instance, or too many copies for a print run in another. His success was by no means certain to him. He had financial backers to please in addition to accomplishing his own ambitious agenda. Meanwhile, fellow printers all around him were struggling – and failing.

Even rather early in Aldus's career we detect hints that his shop was by no means a guaranteed success. He had aspirations to print Plato for more than two decades before he was finally able to get the project off the ground, and that was an example of a happy ending. There were a number of other authors, including major Greek writers like Galen, whose work he intended to print but never did.

Many good intentions disappeared in the hard practicalities of running a printing shop, even a successful one. And in some ways, the problems a printer faced in this period were exacerbated for Aldus. Books were extremely expensive to produce. Even more expensive to produce were books in Greek. The costs of production  – developing and casting the type, editing, and proofreading – were much higher for books in Greek. Moreover, the audience for such texts was significantly smaller. Aldus made a valiant effort to increase the audience – one of his earliest projects was a Greek dictionary – but potential buyers were nevertheless limited.

Even if one were to succeed in selling a Greek edition, profits inevitably drained to the pirates. Because production costs included the time and labor of casting off type – essentially, arranging how the text from the manuscript would fit on a printed sheet – pirates could print an edition more quickly and easily  than the first printer: they could skip the most difficult parts of casting off by copying the printer who had already fit the manuscript to the needs of the press. Success came with its own problems. Aldus had to adapt to each situation or face the very real possibility that his press would not remain economically viable. While facing the issues plaguing his fellow printers, Aldus continued to take major risks and innovate. The courage to pursue his ambitions in the face of so much uncertainty is one of Aldus's most exceptional traits.

And then, the storm. Venice teetered on the brink of war. The panic running through the city – a city build upon trade – cracked through to its economic foundations. At the start of 1499, one of the largest banks in Venice crashed. In less than six months, another followed. It was a catastrophe. And the war hadn’t even started yet.

No matter how good the printer, it was nearly impossible to survive without credit. Supplies and labor, no small expenses, had to be paid for up front. Yet a book took months to print, and even successful books could often take years to sell. No credit meant no people or paper to make books. Although Aldus enjoyed unusually strong financial backing, that would have meant very little if his backers’ bank crashed. Every day must have been filled with anxiety, waiting to hear the news that his backers could no longer support his program. Aldus's bank was one of only two which survived the devastation of Venice’s financial infrastructure in this period, but just barely; it hobbled along for almost a decade more before it too eventually stopped trading in 1508.

The decimation of the financial system began in years which were in fact quite peaceful in comparison to those to come, when foreign troops would pillage right up to the borders of the city. But within a span of five years the number of printers working in Venice was cut in half. In the same period, the number of editions produced was reduced by two thirds. Aldus kept printing while one out of every two competitors went out of business.

Ironically, these years were some of the most productive for Aldus. He produced seventeen editions in 1502, a career high. Yet his progress would not last. The Greek editions which were his ambition and his legacy soon faced trouble. There are indications that his financial backers were pressuring him away from Greek editions towards cheaper, safer books. The number of publications began to drop off. In 1505, his backer Torresani explicitly stated that the Greek texts were to be abandoned. 

But it was war which, in the end, broke Aldus like the rest. In 1508 an agreement between Spain, France, Rome, and the Holy Roman Empire formed the League of Cambrai. The following spring Venice’s celebrated General d’Alviano was soundly defeated in battle, and the Venetian holdings in Italy began to dissolve. Venice itself was next.

In the summer of 1509, Aldus fled Venice with his family. His press was left behind. Aldus was simply a scholar again, looking for work as a tutor.

Today we know that Aldus would begin printing books again at the end of 1512, three years after he left Venice just a step ahead of the French troops. But in 1509, Aldus knew no such certainty. When he left his press behind, he could only hope his property and connections stayed intact. We are not even sure Aldus planned to print ever again. Like the death of Sherlock Holmes, what we see now as a great hiatus was probably meant, at the time, as a permanent solution.

Upon his return, most of his estates were gone, but his press remained. Once more, Aldus began printing in the midst of uncertainty. The wars engulfing Venice were far from over. In 1511, Venice formed a league with Spain, England, and Rome – two of whom had just attempted Venice’s destruction through the League of Cambrai – to repel the French. A year and a half later, Venice sided with the French, only to see its dreams crushed along with the French arms at the Battle of Novara. These wars burned for the rest of Aldus's life, a new normal through which Aldus had to lead his already risky, expensive business.

Aldus spent the last few years of his life, as Martin Lowry says so memorably, “a crushed and disillusioned man, tragically unable to see the successes that are so obvious to us today.”[1] His work was perhaps the zenith of Venice printing, itself the period’s most famous example of a thriving community of print. If the best of the best struggled so hard and so long, one shudders to think of the hardships faced by less successful printers (which in this case meant nearly everyone). To us Aldus is the apex of the scholar-printer, a perfect mix of idealist academic and practical entrepreneur. But beneath the narrative written by historical distance, we see a flesh-and-blood man, who must have suffered doubts through an endless series of obstacles, while pirates sucked away the profits of his successes. Some say Aldus's reputation is overblown. Yet Aldus persisted through risk and uncertainty in pursuit of a vision, and despite it all, he succeeded.



Lowry, Martin, The World of Aldus Manutius: Business and Scholarship in Renaissance Venice. Oxford: Blackwell, 1979.

Harris, Neil, “Italy,” in The Book: A Global History, edited by Michael F. Suarez, S.J., and H. R. Woudhuysen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Pettegree, Andrew, The Book in the Renaissance. Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2010.




[1] Martin Lowry, The World of Aldus Manutius: Business and Scholarship in Renaissance Venice (Oxford: Blackwell, 1979), 110.