Exe-libris: gleanings from the shelves of Exeter Libraries
5. Errare humanum est : the printer to the reader.
The arrival of the printed word, with its capacity to produce multiple copies of a text, made careful printers especially sensitive to criticism. There are a number of volumes in the early printed book collection in Exeter central Library where the printer seizes the opportunity to answer or forestall criticism. Two examples are given here.
The first is from the scholarly Venetian printer Aldus Manutius (c.1449-1515). In 1513 he printed a new edition of the Cornucopiae of Niccolò Perotti (1429- 1480), an Italian humanist and author of one of the first modern Latin school grammars. Perotti studied in Mantua, in Ferrara and at the University of Padua. When eighteen he spent some time in the household of the Englishman William Grey, who was travelling in Italy and transcribed texts for him. He was a secretary of Cardinal Basilius Bessarion in 1447 and from 1451 to 1453 taught rhetoric and poetry at the University of Bologna. In 1455 he became secretary to Pope Callixtus III and from 1458 he was Archbishop of Siponto. Between 1464 and 1477 he held various papal offices in Viterbo, Spoleto and Perugia, as well as travelling on diplomatic missions to Naples and Germany. Together with the Florentine bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci, he collected books for the Papal library.
He translated Polybius' Roman history, wrote a Latin school grammar, Rudimenta grammatices, printed by Sweynheim and Pannartz as early as 1473, which became a bestseller with 117 editions recorded to 1500. The Cornucopiae, another bestseller, was a commentary on Martial which grew into a massive dictionary and was seen as a standard work of reference on the Latin language. It was completed in 1478 but only printed in 1489, after his death, in 1489, being edited by his nephew Pyrrhus Perotti. It has been described as "a massive encyclopedia of the classical world. Every verse, indeed every word of Martial's text was a hook on which Perotti hung a densely woven tissue of linguistic, historical and cultural knowledge".
The appeal by Manutius for moderation in criticism is ironic as Perotti himself became embroiled in disputes and controversy. In 1453 he even sent an assassin in an unsuccessful attempt to murder the humanist Poggio Bracciolini, then Chancellor of Florence. When the Florentine government protested, he was forced by his employer Cardinal Bessarion to write an apology to Poggio. He criticized Domizio Calderini for his work on Martial and was so incensed by the number of errors in Giovanni Andrea Bussi's printed edition of Pliny's Natural history that the wrote to the Pope asking him to set up a board of learned correctors (such as himself) to scrutinise every text before allowing it to be printed.
Omne inventum, quam vis ingeniosum, et conducibile, adulterari longa die, ac potius malitia hominum, qui se sibi solum natos arbitrati, student semper, ex alienis incommodis sua ut comparent commoda, converti in malum constat. Quemadmodum temporibus nostris accidisse videmus in miro hoc, et quam laboriosiss. modo scribendorum librorum nam quantum quisque commodi ex ea re futurum sperabat, nemo est, qui non perspiciat: quantum item inde incommodi, quanta bonorum librorum pernicies, quanta ruina et iam sit, et futura (nisi Deus prohibeat) videatur, non queo dicere. Primum enim in quorum artificium manus pervenerint sacra literarum monimenta, videmus deinde, qua literatura praediti quidam, libros omneis enarrare: commentari corrigere audeant scimus. Quamobrem periculum non mediocre est: ne beneficium hoc imprimendi libros a Deo immortali hominibus datum, ipsi, cum liceat vel infantissimo cuique pro animi sui libidine temere in quem vult librum grassari, in maximum maleficium convertamus, et interitum literarum. Sed de hoc alias non enim brevi epistola opus esset, si singillatim, et cumulate tractare id velim. Illud nolo silentio praeteriri, me, quod in me erit, pedibus, manibusque (ut aiunt) facturum, ut laboranti rei literariae consulatur quemadmodum hoc in libro fecimus : in quo plurima vulnera ope, et labore nostro sanata sunt licet multa sint praetermissa consulto, quod non esset satis otii ad curandum, quis enim in tanta operarum, ac potius inimicorum (nam tot inimici, quod operae) vel festinatione, vel ignorantia, vel malitia, aliquod mediocri etiam dignum laude queat efficere ? Si diem unum, aut biduum, triduum ve ad summum mecum viveres studiose lector, mirum diceres, sic dare , quae damus, potuisse. Sed si, quo volo tandem hoc saxium volvero si potuero aliquando parere, quod tandiu, et multos annos parturio, spero volente Iesu Deo optimo maximo, unde optimum quodque donum, bonumque proficiscitur, effecturum quod cupio, ac studiosis omnibus, hac nostra laboriosa provincia, satis, abundeque facturum. Habes nunc lector amice diligenter ac miro ordine typis nostris excusum Perotti Sypontini Pontificis cornucopiae in quo si quid vel a nobis, vel ab ipso authore erratum fuerit, ignoscendum est nobis, ob eas ipsas, quas supra diximus, rationes. Authori, quia non ipse, sed Pyrrhus ex fratre nepos hunc librum ediderit. Morte enim praeventus recognoscere non potuit suas has perdoctas, et laboriosas lucubrationes quare et ipse de suis hisce latinae linguae commentariis iure dicere moriens potuisset, emendaturus si licuisset eram. Improbe igitur faciunt quidam in alieno libro ingeniosi, cum in mortuos de nobis benemeritos, invehuntur. Quin potius cum aliquo in loco dormitasse authorem, quae humana est natura, inveniunt, non praedicando gloriari, non scriptis publicare, sed taciti, ac si ipsi opus composuissent, emendare deberent, atque ita gratiam referre benefactori, qui quod habuit, dedit daturus meliora, si potuisset : quique quam maxime potuit, studuit prodesse posteritati. Vale
It is accepted that every invention, however ingenious and useful, is corrupted with the passage of time,
and more particularly through the evil nature of men, who, in their belief that they were born for
themselves only, always endeavour to achieve their own advantage to the disadvantage of others. We see this
has happened just in this way during our own times in this wonderful and industrious way of writing books,
for the great advantage which every individual was hoping would derive from this can be clearly seen by
everyone. I cannot however say how much resultant disadvantage, how much destruction of good books, how much
devastation there already is and seemingly will be in the future (unless God prevents it). For on the one
hand we see into whose craftsman’s hands the sacred monuments of literature have come and on the other we
know the literary qualifications of certain experts who see fit to interpret, commentate on, and correct
Therefore there is no slight danger that this good gift of printing books, given to men by immortal God, we
ourselves may turn to immense harm and the death of literature, since it is permitted for even the most
immature rashly to attack any book he may wish to his heart’s desire. But a discussion of this would require
a long letter some other time, if I wanted to deal with it point by point and exhaustively. I want it to be
on record that I will with feet and hands (as they say) do my utmost to see that due consideration is given
to the man who actually works in creative writing, just as we have done in this book, in which many
blemishes have been put right by our helpful efforts, although there are many which have been purposely
passed over, because there would be insufficient time to attend to them – for who could achieve anything
worth even slight praise in the face of such haste, or ignorance, or malice of so many interested parties or
rather of enemies, for there are as many enemies as interested parties.
If you were to live with me for one day, or two, or a total of three days, zealous reader, you would say it
is wonderful to have been able to produce what we do produce. But, if I eventually roll this boulder to the
place I desire, if at some time I am able to bring to birth what I have been labouring over for so many long
years, with the will of the most great and good Jesus Christ (from whom comes every excellent gift and every
good thing) I hope to achieve what I desire and that I will do enough and with abundance, with the zealous
support of everyone in this industrious province of ours. Now dear reader, you have carefully and in a
wonderful style a publication printed in our types, the Cornucopia of Perottus Archbishop of Siponto, in which, should there be any error committed by us or by the author himself, pardon should be given for the reasons stated above. The author should be pardoned because he did not edit this book himself, but Pyrrhus his nephew. For he was
prevented by death from being able to revise these most learned and laborious lucubrations of his, whereby
he himself, as he died, would have been able to speak rightfully about these commentaries of his on the
Latin language and I was going to make emendations if it had been allowed. Therefore certain clever men act outrageously in the case of someone else’s book then they criticise the dead who have deserved well of us. Nay rather when they discover that the author has nodded off in some places, which is human nature, they ought not to boast in declaring it, not to publish it in print, but quietly emend it as if they had composed it themselves, and to show gratitude to their benefactor, who gave what he had the ability to, and was going to give better things if he had been able – and who strove as much as he could to benefit posterity. Farewell.
Amusingly the book contains a list of sixty-one errata, seven cancelled leaves, four slips pasted in, and a line overprinted by running a sheet through the press a second time. Copyright © Ian Maxted, Ron Impey 2012
This page last updated 22 July 2012