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In aedibus Aldi: classical places and classical texts in Bembo’s De Aetna

Luke Roman

Memorial University of Newfoundland

The modern printed page conveys the words of antiquity with apparent stability and authority to a global readership. Yet today’s standardized, mass-circulated classical text is itself the product of a series of contested historical developments and multiple displacements over time and space. This paper will re-open that history by examining the materiality and spatiality of the classical text in Pietro Bembo’s De Aetna, printed in 1496 by Aldus Manutius in collaboration with the author (Davies; Lowry; Pincus; Dionisotti; Dionisotti and Orlandi). Close reading of Bembo’s classical allusions alongside this edition’s paratextual elements will provide insight into how humanists both cited and modified the classical traditions of literary topography within the emerging dynamics of print culture in Renaissance Italy (Richardson; Eisenstein; Johns; Genette; Smith and Wilson; cf. Jansen).

The De Aetna is a Ciceronian dialogue on the topography and volcanic phenomena of Mount Etna that Bembo wrote upon returning from Sicily, where he was studying Greek (Alfieri, Carapezza, and Sciascia; Kidwell; Chatfield). The two interlocutors are Pietro and his father, Bernardo, who converse at the latter’s villa outside Padua. The dialogue is at once a demonstration of the young Pietro’s education and a model of the humanist transmission of knowledge. At a figurative level, the dialogue enacts a journey from the Greek culture of Sicily to the philhellenic humanist world of late quattrocento Venice, and explores the idea of paideia as a paternal inheritance passed from classical civilization to modern Italy. This complex filiation is intertextually and topologically traced in an extended passage on philosophical trees. Alluding to Plato’s Phaedrus and Cicero’s “Marian oak” (De Legibus 1.1–2), father and son discuss the poplars that frame their dialogue’s fictional setting and regret the absence of plane trees. The textuality of places arises again in the closing scene: they leave the outdoor locus amoenus and enter the villa. In the dialogue’s final words, Bernardo retires to the library (in bibliothecam)—the place where, in a sense, this bookish dialogue was located all along.

Immediately following the text’s closure is the printer’s colophon: IMPRESSUM VENETIIS IN AEDIBUS ALDI ROMANI MENSE FEBRUARIO ANNO MVD. The austere elegance and inscriptional quality of this colophon are unparalleled by other Aldine editions of this early period. This edition pioneered a print version of the humanistic script of the master scribe Bartolomeo Sanvito, who made small-format manuscripts of classical authors for the Bembos. Aldus later claimed in the dedicatory letter to Pietro in his 1514 edition of Virgil that the inspiration for his portable, octavo editions of the classics was drawn from the Bembos’ library (a tua bibliotheca). We can thus appreciate the significance of the transition from the closing focus on Bernardo in his humanist library to the paratextual evocation of the premises (aedibus) of the humanist printer. In that sense, the Aldine printing house is the dialogue’s final locus. But as Erasmus, another humanist collaborator with Aldus, wrote: “Aldus is building a library that will have no other limits than those of the world itself” (Adagia 2.1).

The mass circulation of classical texts is in tension with the trees that, as fixed place-markers, situate classical and humanist philosophical dialogues. Bembo’s De Aetna, a dialogue rooted in the traditions of classical literary places yet on the cusp of the print revolution, affords a fruitful site for examining the changing representation of the spatiality of the classical text at the moment when its material form is undergoing accelerated transformation. If we define the classical as constituted by texts authored by men in imperialist cultures of the West, Bembo’s De Aetna offers a striking degree of confirmation: the classical is a paternal inheritance entrusted to a printing house in the territorially expansionist city of Venice. Yet the expanding geographical reach of the print medium itself offers a further perspective that extends far beyond the confines of the Bembo villa: the global circulation of books.

Session/Panel Title

Theorizing Ideologies of the Classical: Turning Corners on the Textual, the Masculine, the Imperial, and the Western

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