Stephanos Peri poleōn [Στέφανος Περὶ πόλεων].

Venice, Aldus, 1502


EDITIO PRINCEPS. Folio. 79 of 80 unnumbered ff., 2A8-1 2B-2L8, lacking t-p. Scattered mainly marginal worm holes or trails, couple touching a few letters, very light water stain at lower edge of a few ll., heavier to outer blank corner of final gatherings, with some spots to text, small holes to last couple of ll., crudely repaired on verso of last. A very good copy, on high-quality paper, in nearly contemporary C16 reddish goatskin, later eps, ruled in silver, outer border with ropework in blind painted in silver, centre with sunk panels in the form of almond-shaped centrepieces, two smaller almonds and cornerpieces, all with paper overlays embossed to a filigree pattern bordered with silver paint (somewhat oxidised), small fleurons tooled in silver, tabbed spine with inked title and later label, raised bands, extremities and covers a bit rubbed, traces of label at foot, couple of worm holes. Modern bookplate to front pastedown.

This elegant Islamic binding is unique rather than rare on an Aldine. Despite the influence of Ottoman decoration, which had shaped new types of ornaments when Aldus was operating, few Aldines from the years 1490-1550 are recorded bound in the Eastern style (Mazzucco, ‘Legature rinascimentali’, 135-79; Hobson, ‘Islamic Influence’, 114-15; de Marinis, ‘L’influenza orientale’, 548, 550). On the one hand, unlike these recorded specimens, the characteristics of this binding reflect not only the ornaments (filigree and sunk panels) but also the structure of Islamic bookbinding: the two-piece technique, tabbed spine, primary and secondary chevron endbands, unsupported sewing and (as suggested by traces of repair) doublures (Scheper, ‘The Technique’, passim). On the other hand, the absence of a flap, covers made of thick paperboard not flush with the text, and a raised spine suggest that it was a ‘hybrid’ construction blending Islamic and Western practices. Hybrid bindings were common in C16 Venice—e.g., Greek-style or Islamic specimens built with a typically western structure but preserving the ‘exotic’ ornaments (including lavish gold-tooling) which made them desirable especially for books in Greek. However, a key characteristic of Islamic bindings—unsupported sewing—was not familiar to western binders (Gialdini, ‘Alla Greca’, 35), but is present in this copy. The decoration, with embossed paper overlays, suggests a Turkish-Ottoman influence (Sakisian, ‘La reliure turque’, 286-87; Yıldıray, ‘Kayseri Rasid’, 120, 211; Gacek, ‘Arabic Manuscripts’, 171-72). The absence of gold-tooling points to a place of production which is not Venice, as it defies the obligatory exoticism, or Istanbul, where gold and Islamic structures were omnipresent. It was produced probably in peripheral Greek-speaking areas of the Venetian or Ottoman empires—such as Dalmatia, Greece itself or Macedonia—where long-standing Islamic practices met with Western ones. This binding is thus a rare material testimony to exchanges between the world of Venetian Greek printing and Ottoman Greek communities. In the early C16, Venice was the main centre for the production of Greek books used by Ottoman Greeks (Roper, ‘Printed in Europe’, 271; Barbarics-Hermanik, ‘European Books’, 393); it also hosted a growing community of Greek students attending the nearby University of Padua (Nicolaidis, ‘Scientific Exchanges’, 136). One of them may have purchased this handsome volume there.

A remarkable copy of the fine editio princeps of a most important ancient work of Greek lexicography. C16 editions of Stephanus of Byzantium’s ‘Peri poleōn’ offered an abridged version of the original sixty-book text—entitled ‘Ethnika’ (Ἐθνικά)—fragments of which could be found in the works of other ancient authors like Eustathius. The ‘Ethnika’ was a compendium of ethnic names of gentile peoples from places spanning Greece, Asia Minor, Sicily, and Ireland, enriched with material on topography, local history, and mythology drawn from ancient authors. Aldus’s source was a single C15 ms., albeit with several shortcomings; the resulting text influenced its most famous successor, the Giunti edition of 1521, as well as the Basel edition of 1568.

A unique book with much to tell about the dissemination of early modern printing.

Brunet V, 530: ‘assez rare’; Renouard 60:17.


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