restricted access Royal-Paper Copies of Aldine Editions, 1494–1550
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Royal-Paper Copies of Aldine Editions, 1494–1550

The question of royal-paper copies of Aldine editions, of which the bulk of the surviving copies are printed on smaller paper, first impinged on my consciousness a few years ago, in the course of a collaborative research project on the first edition of Baldassar Castiglione’s Il libro del Cortegiano, a folio printed by the Aldine press between the end of November 1527 and the beginning of April 1528. In a letter sent from Spain in April 1527 to his factor, Cristoforo Tirabosco, Castiglione expressed the wish to have an edition of 1000 copies, for which he did not specify a paper size, plus thirty copies to be printed on the best quality royal paper available in Venice at the time. In a further letter to Tirabosco, written in April 1528, after the publication of the edition, Castiglione again referred to the thirty copies on royal paper, indicating that some at least were intended as presentation copies to important figures, such as the marquis of Mantua, Isabella d’Este and Elisabetta Gonzaga, “quelli più principali”, as he explained.1

Our census of surviving copies of this edition brought to light 147 copies,2 none of which was distinguished by its leaf height, but which were printed on two different paper stocks, 136 on stocks (predominantly anchor paper) which [End Page 85] we know from the evidence of an uncut copy in the library of the Diocesan Seminary, Padua, to be super-chancery, and eleven, all bound and trimmed, on another sort of anchor paper, easily distinguishable from the stocks used in the majority of copies by having no countermark.3 It was tempting to assume that these eleven copies were the survivors of the thirty copies on royal paper ordered by Castiglione, but to have been reduced to their present size all eleven must have undergone a savage trimming over the centuries, reducing the leaf size of an untrimmed royal folio (c.445 × 307 mm) to that of a trimmed super-chancery folio (c.315 × 220 mm). Since the royal-paper copies, or some of them, were destined originally for illustrious personages, it seemed odd that not one of our eleven should have leaf dimensions which indicated that it might have been printed on royal paper. But because of the pressure of other work I put the problem to one side.

My interest in the question was rekindled recently by the chance encounter, in the pages of the catalogue of the Aldine collection of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas at Austin, of an entry relating to the 1536 folio edition of the commentary by the Byzantine philosopher and theologian Eustratius of Nicea on the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle. Alongside a first copy of the edition, for which, in accordance with the general practice of the catalogue, no leaf size was given, the collection also contained a second copy, on “very large paper”, measuring 425 × 270 mm.4 The discovery of a folio edition published by the Aldine press less than ten years after the Cortegiano, containing a copy printed on what seemed like royal paper, led me to reopen the question of the eleven copies of the Cortegiano printed on paper different from that used in the main run. And the first step was clearly that of finding out whether, in the production of the Aldine press, there were other known examples of this usage.

In the last fifty years many important studies have been published on the press, particularly for the period from 1494 to 1515, when it was directed by the great Aldus. These studies have given us a much deeper knowledge of the cultural importance of Aldus’s publication programme, of his relations with the international world of scholarship, of the commercial organization of the press, of the various series of types created by and for him, and of the links between [End Page 86] the press and the Venetian art world. But in all this activity there has been a notable absentee—a serious interest in the descriptive bibliography of the Aldine press. One of the obstacles is...