A detail from the Florentine Homer, featuring a white vine initial M at the opening of the Iliad.

Printing Greek in the 15th century

The development of printing in the 15th century signalled huge changes for the spread of Greek knowledge in Western Europe. Here, Eugenia Russell describes the key events in the early years of Greek printed books.

The first real printed book, Johannes Gutenberg’s Bible (Mainz, c. 1454; print run about 180 copies), is regarded as so monumental in the history of technology that historians describe it as a revolution. The Gutenberg Bible was in the Latin Vulgate, largely the Latin of St Jerome, which the Council of Trent (1545–1563) later accepted as the official Latin Bible of the Catholic Church. It was produced in the gothic font, also called black letter. The subsequent invention of Greek fonts facilitated the production of Greek New Testament editions as part of emerging Christian Humanist scholarship.

Gutenberg was not blessed with financial success and his innovations benefited his successors. Amongst other things, the sack of Mainz in 1462 devastated his home town and reduced him to adversity. It also drove many other printers, punchcutters and craftsmen into exile, to countries such as Italy. One of them, the most important early printer in Italy, Nicolas Jenson (c. 1420–1480), studied with Gutenberg in Mainz and for the last 10 years of his life worked in Venice, publishing his first editions in 1470. Like his teacher Gutenberg, Jenson was a former goldsmith, and so approached printing with the eye of the sculptor. He endeavoured to reproduce the character of Rome and Roman etchings in the simple majesty of his lettering. His roman fonts are distinguished by their attractive readability and place him alongside Gutenberg and Aldus for the acclaim they gained him.

Aldus Manutius of Venice

What is known today as the italic font was created as an extension of the roman font by the press belonging to Aldus Manutius (1449–1515). His contemporaries called the font simply Aldine; in Spanish, they are still letra grifa in honour of Francesco Griffo, the typesetter of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499), an enigmatic romance with lavish illustrations that have long been regarded as the jewel of Renaissance printing. Greek fonts were created in line with the roman aesthetic. Therefore, even in our day there is no version of the Greek font with any gothic influence.

Aldus Manutius is remembered for two important contributions to printing culture: the production of attractive type – with many fonts invented by his printing house used even today in modified form, e.g. Bembo – and the mass-market production of Greek books, arguably the single most important factor in spreading Greek learning and scholarship outside the Greek-speaking world. Moreover, Aldus’ pocket editions changed the nature of how books were read. Portable editions without lengthy editorial notes were designed not for long hours in the scholar’s study but for everyday reading anywhere. In terms of print runs, Aldus took up the norm from 100 to 1,000 books per run, thus introducing economies of scale to printing.

In order to promote Greek learning, Aldus established what became known as the Nea Akademia (New Academy), where Greek alone would be spoken. Participants became known as the Aldine circle, and many of them had a profound influence on the intellectual landscape of Europe. Only Cardinal Bessarion’s (1403–1472) earlier circle in Rome could have boasted a similar depth of activity, creativity and dissemination of Greek learning.

How steeped the members and associates of the Nea Akademia were in their Greek learning is evident in their self-representation. Johannes Reuchlin (1455–1522) signed himself Καπνίων (‘Smoky’), a loose etymological translation of his surname. The ‘prince’ of the Renaissance, Erasmus (1466–1536), who worked as a proofreader at the Aldine press, gave himself the additional name Desiderius as a Latinising play on the Greek meaning of his birth name (ἐράσμιος, which means ‘beloved’). Aldus Manutius used his first name and profession for exercises in learning Greek (ἄλδος and ὁ βιβλιοπώλης = the bookseller). Aldus’ friend Johannes Cuno (c. 1463–1513) included this most un-Greek name in a glossary of Greek words alongside names such as ἀριστείδης and στησίχορος. This is included in what is known as the Notebook of Johannes Cuno at the British Library.

Notebook of Johannes Cuno

A text page from the Notebook of Johannes Cuno listing Greek and Latin words in parallel columns.

Written mostly between 1506 and 1508, this collection of notes provides valuable insight into the intellectual world of the circle of Greek-speaking scholars of Italy around the turn of the 16th century (Arundel MS 550)

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Perhaps the finest achievement of the Aldine Press was the Aldine Aristotle, a work in five volumes. The first volume contains Aristotle’s Organon, a collective name the ancient Peripatetic philosophers gave to his six works on logic. This choice exemplifies Aldus’ belief that logic was at the heart of all knowledge, something he also expressed in letters to his patrons and friends. Although Latin translations of Aristotle had been printed since the late 1460s, this first Greek edition of Aristotle was published between 1495 and 1498. Given the centrality of Aristotle to the curriculum, this major and expensive project was a good marketing decision for the press. It also involved some of the best work in the design of fonts, decorations and lettering that would become their trademark. For a modern readership, however, the fact that the ligatures of Byzantine handwriting were preserved in these editions makes them that little bit less user-friendly.

With a hungry intellectual audience at the University of Padua and many other Universities across Italy, the project had the support of scholars and patrons of the highest calibre. These included the distinguished English humanist and founder of the Royal College of Physicians Thomas Linacre (who learned Greek with Demetrius Chalkokondyles and Angelo Poliziano and stayed in Italy up until 1499) and Greek printer Marcus Musurus. Alberto Pio, Pietro Bembo and Marino Sanudo provided Manutius with both scholarly and financial support. Musurus, Janus Laskaris and other Greek scholars also supplied manuscripts from their collections and travels back to their native land.

Other printers in Italy

On 25 February 1496, Aldus Manutius secured a 20-year monopoly for the printing of Greek in Venice. In the years that followed he secured many similar privileges for his printing, both within Venice and for the whole of Italy. The fact that there was an apparently rival press producing Greek books in Venice, that of Zacharias Kallierges (1473–1524), Nikolaos Blastos and Anna Notaras (d. 1507), can be explained by the fact that Kallierges and Blastos were also copyists for Manutius. The press founded by the three Byzantine émigrés is the first known Greek-owned press in existence. With Venetian links to colonised Crete, it comes as no surprise that many of the employees of Kallierges’ press came from the island. A manuscript of the Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus, partly copied by Kallierges himself, likely comes from this press.

Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae

A page from a 16th-century manuscript of Athenaeus' Deipnosophistae, featuring an elaborate decorated initial and headpiece.

Copied by Zacharias Kallierges and an anonymous collaborator, this manuscript of Athenaeus most likely derives from the context of the Kallierges printing-house in Venice (Royal MS 16 C XXIV)

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A later but important press is that of Andreas Kounadis (c.1480–1522). This was the printing house of Kounadis of Patras, who employed the da Sabbio brothers because of their expertise with Greek. They were well-known in the industry and associated with Andrea Torresani (also known as Andreas Asulanus), father-in-law of Aldus Manutius. They were the main suppliers of reading material to the Greek-speaking world, specialising in liturgical books and vernacular writings.

Two Italian cities in particular vied with Venice for the production of early modern Greek editions: Milan and Florence. The first printed book entirely in Greek was produced in Milan in 1476, in the printing house of Diogini da Paravicino (Dionysius Parvisinus). The Greek font was created by Demetrius Damilas. The work itself was the Erotemata or Grammatica of Constantine Lascaris (1434–1501). Lascaris was one of a string of Greek humanists who produced grammars for use in the classroom. This text was also the first Greek book printed by the Aldine press at Venice in 1495.

A more dominant figure of the era, Theodore Gazes (1378–1475) from Thessalonica, wrote a grammar in four volumes, Grammatica introductiva (Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1495), much praised by Erasmus, who translated some of it in 1521. Both Lascaris and Gazes are mentioned amongst the classics of Greek literature in Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), alongside the ‘Sophocles of Aldus’s edition’, a reference to the 1502 Aldine edition of the tragedies of Sophocles.

In Florence, Demetrius Chalkokondyles (1423–1511) and Demetrius Damilas produced the first printed edition of the works of Homer (1488–89), using typefaces that the latter had used before in Milan. The production included all that was then believed to be Homeric, i.e. the Homeric Hymns and Batrachomyomachia (The Battle of Frogs and Mice), a parody previously attributed to Lucian. The Chalkokondyles Homer is probably the most famous editio princeps (first edition) in the history of philology.

Florentine Homer

The frontispiece of the Florentine Homer, painted in colours and gold and depicting Homer seated in a landscape, encircled by a laurel wreath with the eight muses in medallions and a ninth on his shoulder.

Produced in Florence two decades before the first printed edition, this fine manuscript of the Iliad demonstrates the increasing interest in the Homeric Greek texts in Italy in the early years of printing. The scribe, Ioannes Rhosos, later associated with the Aldine circle (Harley MS 5600)

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Printers in France

The French type designer, Claude Garamond (c.1505–61) is well-known for his roman font, which was later adopted by the Aldine Press. What is less widely known is that Garamond came to prominence for the elegance of his Greek designs. Amongst Greek fonts Garamond’s were the most admired in the early 16th century and were used for editions of the New Testament and Greek authors. His fonts are thought to have been commissioned for King Francis I of France by Robert Estienne (1503–1559). The latter, who also acted under the name Stephanus, was an important editor of the Greek New Testament (Paris: 1546, 1549, and 1550; and Geneva: 1551) based on the Erasmian Textus Receptus, first published by Johann Froben in Basel, 1516. The 1550 edition by Stephanus is of great importance, as it was used both by the Geneva Bible (the Bible of Shakespeare and Donne) and the Authorised Version.

The royal font created by Garamond was used in the 1550 Greek New Testament and was inspired by the handwriting of the Cretan calligrapher Angelos Bergikios (d. 1569), librarian to the French king, who was known to the family from teaching Robert’s son, the distinguished printer and classicist Henri Estienne (1528–1598). The hand of Henri, too, may have been an aesthetic influence on the work of Garamond. Angelos’ hand survives in several British Library manuscripts, some of which likely share a royal commission with Garamond’s fonts.

Greek bestiary

A page from a 16th-century manuscript of a bestiary by Manuel Philes, featuring painted drawings of a lizard and a sea urchin.

Angelos Bergikios’ calligraphy is clearly visible in this 16th-century manuscript (Burney MS 97)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.


Paul Botley, Learning Greek in Western Europe, 1396–1529: Grammars, lexica, and classroom texts (Philadelphia, 2010)

M.J.C. Lowry, ‘The “New Academy” of Aldus Manutius: A Renaissance Dream’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 58 (1976), 378–420

Eugenia Russell, ‘Two Greek excerpts by Johannes Cuno (1463–1513) in London Arundel 550’, Renaissance Studies 24 (2010), 472–81

  • Eugenia Russell