500 Years of Greek Printing

By James D. Georgiles

An extremely important event in the annals of Western Civilization has passed almost uncelebrated. The year 1976 was the 500th anniversary of the first book ever printed entirely in Greek.

The book “Grammatica Graeca” printed in Milan in 1476 was written by Constantine Lascaris, a Greek scholar and grammarian from Constantinople. The type was designed by Dimitrios Damilas a native of Crete, and resembled the cursive Greek handwriting of the time.

Lascaris’ grammar made a vital contribtion to the development of “European Culture” by forming the basis on which Europe was introduced to the wisdom and beauty of Ancient Greece.

The Ottoman Turks, paradoxically, were partially instrumental in the Hellenization of the West. Their conquest of Constantinople in 1453 caused many Byzantine scholars to flee to Italy at a time when the rise of Humanism was driving scholars to read the Greek classics in the original lanquage.

The number of books Oublished in Greek soon increased, and by 1493, Aesop, Theocritus, Isocrates and a Greek Psalter had been published in Milan, and several others, including a reprint of Lascaris’ grammar, in Venice, Vicenza and Florence.

The printing of Greek texts did not really gain momentum until Aldo Manutius, the great Italian scholar and publisher, set up his publishing-house in Venice in 1490.

Aldo Manutius was born in Sermoneta in 1450. He received a classical education and studied Greek at Ferrara under Guarino da Verona. In 1482 Manutius moved to Mirandola where for five years he continued his studies in Greek Literature. He then took the post of tutor to Lionello and Alberto Pio, princes of Capri.

Aldo’s ambition was to save the literature of Greece for posterity by committing its major works to type. His dream was made possible by Alberto Pio, who gave him the funds needed to start his own press.Choosing Venice as his base, Aldo assembled a staff of Greek scholars and compositors and soon produced his first Greek editions. These were Musaeus’ “Hero and Leander”, the “Galcomyomachia” and a Greek psalter.

Such was Aldo Manutius’ involvement with Greek, that the “Aldine Press” was staffed almost entirely by Greeks, and the working language of the plant was Greek. Cretan calligraphers were employed to design type faces for casting in metal, while other Greeks collated manuscripts, read proofs and operated the presses.

During the next 10 years Aldo’s publishing schedule was interrupted several times by war or political disturbances. Nevertheless he was able to publish an edition of the minor Greek orators, and the works of Pinclar, Hesychius and Athenaeus.

Aldo’s enthusiasm for Greek literature extended beyond the printing of books. He founded an academy of Hellenists in 1500. The purpose of the “New Academy” as it was called, was to promote Greek studies. The house rules were all written in Greek, and the members were all required to Hellenize their names and speak only Greek. Among those enrolled at the academy was Desiderius Erasmus. It was Erasmus who was mainly responsible for the accepted transliteration of the Greek alphabet: his system has had a profound influence on English orthography.

Manutius died in 1515, a poor man, but leaving the priceless legacy of Greek literature as an inalienable possession of the world.