Simon Fraser’s Wosk–McDonald Aldine Collection

Ralph Stanton

I would like to introduce you to Simon Fraser University (SFU) Library’s Wosk-McDonald Aldine collection. First, we need to define what an Aldine is. By common agreement of the scholars in this field, an Aldine is a book published under the editorial direction and usually under the imprint of Aldus Manutius between 1494 and February 1515 and by his successors. For the period March 1515 to 1529, this successor was Andrea Torresani, his main business partner; then, after 1529, Aldus’s son Paulus and grandson Aldo II.

Martin Lowry identified four stages in the printing and publishing career of Aldus the elder. They are: first, a period of investment and preparation, 1494-1500; second, a period of innovation and exuberant fulfillment, 1501-1503; third, a period of difficulty, 1504-1511; and finally, a period of cautious renewal, 1512-1515.

To assess the importance and value of any collection one requires a measuring instrument. The instrument normally used is the other collections one is familiar with. However, this collection cannot be measured against any local yardstick; it requires the use of collections in other parts of Canada, and reference to the worlds of the bookseller’s catalogue and the auction house.

Other Canadian libraries that hold Aldines include: the University of Alberta at Edmonton, founded 1909, which has five volumes; the University of Toronto, founded 1827, with one hundred and six volumes; McGill University in Montreal, founded 1821, with eighty-two volumes; and the University of King’s College, Halifax, with twenty-two volumes. Twenty-six of the University of Toronto’s books were published during the period of Aldus’s life, and McGill’s collection includes the 1501 Petrarch and Francesco Colonna’s extraordinary work Hypnerotomachia Polifili of 1499 with its marvellous woodcut illustrations which are atypical of Aldus’s productions. SFU was founded in 1965 and has 106 volumes, with thirty-nine of them from the period of Aldus’s life.

To conclude: McGill has the best collection of Aldine incunabula (pre-1501), the University of Toronto is stronger in the post-1515 volumes, and the SFU collection has its strength in the period 1501 to 1515. Happily, the three largest Canadian collections complement each other.

Another way of assessing a collection is to look at the marketplace. The last of the large sales was held in London in 1971 when Christie’s auctioned 223 Aldines. In 1977, sixty-eight items from the private library of Thomas Phillipps were auctioned. In 1981, the American book dealer, Laurence Witten, offered sixty-one titles by catalogue. John Rylands University Library in Manchester sold their forty-four duplicate Aldines in 1988. The Roman book dealer Fiammetta Soave catalogued one hundred Aldines in 1991, but only ninety-five were genuine – five were counterfeits published in Lyon, interesting examples of the so-called “contrefactions de Lyon.” Then there was nothing until the Christie’s auction sale in May of 1995 to mark the five-hundredth anniversary of Aldus’s first dated publications, which mustered just eighty-six volumes. Major sales since 1971 allowed only 354 books onto the world market, an average of just fourteen a year. Is it any wonder that prices have been rising and are predicted to rise even faster?

It is appropriate to point out some highlights of the SFU collection. For the period of fulfilment, 1501-1503, SFU holds eight of twelve Greek works. Our Latin Horace of 1501 is probably the rarest of a triumvirate that includes similar volumes of Virgil and Petrarch that we have yet to acquire. The 1502 Pollux in folio is one of the finest Greek productions; it is a vocabularium, one of the finest reference books published to assist scholars in mastering Greek. The 1502 Sophocles is the first book to use the fourth and best Aldine Greek type. It is also the first Greek book in the octavo format, and the first edition of Sophocles ever printed. It has always been praised for its accuracy and elegance.

There are several instances where we have both the first and second edition of a work. For example, we have the Juvenalis of 1501 and 1512-1515, beautiful little books that demonstrate the subtle changes Aldus made as he proceeded from edition to edition. The two copies of Valerius Maximus (1502 and 1514) are a second example.

The folio Origen of 1503, which includes the first edition of his commentaries on Pentateuch and the Book of Judges, is also notable for its preface. It outlines the business relationship between Aldus and his partner Andrea Torresani, who became his father-in-law in 1505.

The thick folio of Demosthenes orations dated 1504 was a difficult production with a small press run, but it was regarded by Aldus as his best production to that date. It was a first edition that ensured the survival of this master of Greek rhetoric. We also have two copies of the later 1520 edition.

Plutarch is the last great book printed before the press closed temporarily in early 1509, due to the ruinous wars which developed between Venice and the League of Cambrai. It is a magnificent folio production, a first edition, and likely the most valuable book in our Library.

The 1513 Cicero is poignant in its preface, where Aldus announces his frustration with the visitors who will not leave him in peace. One can sense his short temper and exhaustion.

There are other more subtle pleasures to be had with this collection. Pietro Bembo's 1515 Gli Asolani has the short preface, often missing, dedicating the book to Lucrezia Borgia (Bembo wrote her a series of superb love letters). There are at least five contemporary bindings. There are two books with fine woodcuts: the 1519 Caesar Commentaries on the Gallic Wars includes wonderful woodcut maps, while Hero and Leander by Musaeus, the 1517 reprint of Aldus’s first book, portrays the tragic story in several woodcuts. There are also books with two vellum flyleaves front and back, which are a sign that they were once owned by and bound for Antoine-Augustin Renouard, the nineteenth-century French bibliographer of Aldus. He is still the primary source for Aldine studies, and his three-volume bibliography was donated to the Library by Hugh and Jerry McDonald.

Finally, there are the fifteen recently completed bindings by Courtland Benson, which constitute a small encyclopaedia of sixteenth-century Italian binding styles. It is hard to imagine a more sensitive replication; all they need now is a couple of hundred years of use to look their best.

I hope this gives you some impression of what has been accomplished and why we are celebrating today. We are confident that the books will be the object of much study and provide stimulation for all the practitioners of the arts of the book in British Columbia and throughout the world. We are going to go on building our library as time and resources and friends permit. But because of the way the market for rare books is moving, we will consider ourselves very lucky indeed if we ever receive another collection of this beauty, importance, and quality. A collection like this appears once in a lifetime, and I’m extremely thankful to be associated with its acquisition, to have met so many fine people in the process, and to have made so many good friends. Let us say thanks to Aldus and to his successors.


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