By Dr Karen Attar

In 2015, five hundred years after the scholar printer Aldus Manutius of Venice died on 6 February 1515, Europe and America combined to commemorate his passing, with seminars and exhibitions from London to Melbourne and from Uppsala to New York as well as in his native Italy. Senate House Library (SHL) joined the celebrations with a display, ‘Aldus Manutius and his legacy’.

Two years later, in 2017, the spotlight is falling on Louis Elzevier, who died on 4 February 1617. He founded a family firm which was to be prominent in printing, publishing and bookselling in the Netherlands throughout the 17th century as the Aldine output was in the 16th; whose books, like Aldines, were to spread throughout Europe, and whose output, also like that of the Aldines, would become highly collectable.

The Aldines and Elzeviers have often been paired together. Both were families of publishers stretching for about a century; both are best known for producing classical texts edited by notable scholars in cheap format for the student market (at which the Elzeviers with their duodecimos surpassed the Aldine octavos); both also published modern works, including sometimes works in the vernacular, with their output covering a variety of subjects.

The pairing extends to collectability, with a long history. In literature, the physician and poet John Ferriar’s (1761–1815) versified in The Bibliomania, an Epistle:

The folio-Aldus loads your happy shelves,
And dapper Elzevirs, like fairy elves,
Shew their light forms amidst the well-gilt Twelves.

Andrew Lang noted in 1886 that ‘It is a point of sentiment to like books just as they left the hands of the old printers – of Estienne, Aldus, or Louis Elzevir. (Books and Bookmen, pp. 103-4). In 1956 John Carter, discussing fashions in book collecting, referred to ‘the indiscriminate craze for Aldines, the elevation of a tall Elzevir’ (Books and Book Collectors, p. 120).

Collections now in institutional libraries perpetuate the mental link. For example, the Bodleian Library’s Toynbee Collection notes the presence of ‘many Aldine, Elzevir and Giunta editions’, and the Fletcher Collection of about 1,250 antiquarian editions of classical texts bequeathed to Newcastle University Library by the Classicist G B A Fletcher (1903– 1995) includes books produced by the Aldine and Elzevier presses.

The Directory of Rare Book and Special Collections in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland (3rd edn, 2016) records several strong Aldine collections including at Trinity College, Cambridge, Harrow School (the Bigg Collection), Blickling Estate near Norwich, many the property of Lincolnshire baronet and classical scholar Sir Richard Ellys of Nocton (1682– 1742), who was interested in early printing. And, above all, two volumes at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, the result of the 19th-century bibliophiles Lord Spencer and Richard Copley Christie both having collected Aldines.

But Senate House Library is unique in the United Kingdom for housing a dedicated Elzevier Collection of more than 700 books printed by members of the Elzevier family and approximately 450 books produced by other 17th-century Dutch presses, a collection given by London’s Guildhall in 1950, when it was described in Library Committee minutes as ‘a representative collection of great importance’.

It is for this reason that the University of London led commemorations in Britain of the Elzevier anniversary, with two School of Advanced Study conferences within a month of each other. They were ‘The Elzeviers and their contemporaries: reading, writing, and selling scholarship’, hosted by the Institute of English Studies on 2 June, and ‘The book in the low countries: new perspectives, hidden collections’, which was hosted by the Institute of Historical Research (21–22 June).

A display of Elzevier publications from Senate House Library accompanied both conferences. They were chosen to represent various facets of the Elzevier output: duodecimo classics popular with 17th-century students; the equally popular ‘little republics’ giving the history, geography, and other information about various countries; fictitious imprints; the Elzeviers’ various devices; university dissertations; catalogues, a reminder of their involvement in the retail business; various fonts, including Syriac to celebrate their renown for oriental printing; Galileo’s Discorsi, which apart from being the first edition of a highly significant scientific work serves as an example of the diversity of the Elzeviers’ publishing and of their modern-language publishing (most of their output is in Latin); and folios, to recall that Elzevier volumes extended beyond the small books with which the firm is largely associated.

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Dr Karen Attar is curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies (IES), School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London.