All About Glass

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Aristophanes' Nine Comedies and Aristotle's Works printed in Greek by Aldus Manutius in Venice, 1498

All About Glass

One of the most learned scholar-printers in Venice was Aldus Manutius (1449–1515). He designed a Greek type font that, beginning about 1495, he used to print a series of texts by the ancient Greek masters. The Rakow Research Library has two of these original Aldine editions in its collection. One is a group of comedies by the playwright Aristophanes (about 450–about 388 B.C.), and the other is a multivolume set of writings by Aristotle (384–322 B.C.).

Aristophanes, Nine Comedies. Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1498. CMGL 96927.

In The Acharnians (425 B.C.), a biting satire on the Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.), Aristophanes wanted to expose the deceptive politicians and generals who had led Athens into a protracted, mismanaged conflict with its rival Sparta. The hero is an ordinary Athenian farmer who, fed up with the war, embarks on the ultimate unilateral peace initiative by brokering a private truce with the Spartans for himself and his family. Embedded in the play’s dialogue is one of the earliest references to glass drinking vessels in a fictional work. The Clouds (423 B.C.), Aristophanes’ later satire about Socrates and his school known as the “Thinkery,” involves a lot of mischief, including some with a magical “burning glass.” Described as “that stone, that splendidly transparent stone, by which they kindle fire,” this glass vessel was purportedly used to collect solar heat to ignite the wick of an oil lamp.

An astute businessman, Aldus published books he knew would sell well in the Renaissance market. He probably chose the work of Aristophanes because he knew readers could relate to the Humanist themes—decency, peace in preference to war, the individual’s power to make a better world—and still enjoy the entertainment of spoofing a serious subject.

In an effort to achieve historical accuracy, Aldus employed as editor the Greek Humanist scholar Markos Mousouros (1470–1517), whose relationship with the Aldine press lasted into the 16th century. For this edition of the Nine Comedies, Mousouros provided extensive commentary, or scholia, which surrounds the text of each play like a vast network of footnotes. However, he probably was not involved in the production of Aristotle’s Works (at least, there is no internal evidence to indicate that he was).

One of the most influential thinkers in the history of Western civilization, Aristotle wrote about an astonishingly broad range of subjects, and these five volumes of his Works certainly reflect that breadth. In the volume Problemata (Problems), Aristotle poses questions on every imaginable topic. He also speculates on the answers, which can be very close to a scientific truth or quite (unintentionally) comical. For example, in a long section about the voice, Aristotle describes how both sight and voice can penetrate glass, then explains why by comparing the properties of glass with those of a fennel stalk. Glass is also mentioned in the volume titled Meteorologica, which touches on meteorology, astronomy, physical geography, geology, and seismology, and in the essays “On Colors” and “On Plants,” where glass is likewise a reference point for philosophical and scientific discussion.

Right up to his death in 1515, Aldus continued to print Greek and Latin texts surviving from Roman antiquity. He also published contemporary authors. The place of prominence he merits in the history of books and printing derives not only from his book production but also from his contribution to the promotion of literacy. He was the first to make books affordable. By reducing production costs, he could sell books for less money to more people—a strategy that benefited both his business and the expanding population of readers. The Aldine press continued to operate under family management until the last decade of the 16th century.

Diane Dolbashian

This essay is part of a series on Treasures in the Rakow Research Library.

Aristophanes. Acharnians. 2nd ed. Translated and edited by Jeffrey Henderson. Newburyport, Massachusetts: Focus Publishing, 2003.

——. The Acharnians. The Clouds. The Knights. The Wasps. Translated by Benjamin Bickley Rogers. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1924, repr. 1978.

——. Clouds. Wasps. Peace. Translated and edited by Jeffrey Henderson. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998, repr. 2005.

Aristotle. Meteorologica. Translated by H. D. P. Lee; edited by Jeffrey Henderson. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1952, repr. 2004.

——. Minor Works. Translated by W. S. Hett; edited by Jeffrey Henderson. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1936.

——. Problems, Books 1–21. Translated by W. S. Hett; edited by Jeffrey Henderson. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1936, repr. 2000.

Published on January 7, 2014