Demosthenes Agrafiotis

BASSIANO. Origins and life-course of Aldo Pio Manuzio.

In the last days of January, 2017, I was in Rome for a photography show and two performances, and took the opportunity to visit Bassiano, Aldo Pio Manuzio’s birthplace.This medieval village of 1,600 inhabitants, sixty kilometers southwest of the Eternal City, fortified in the system of a different technology and defensive strategy, built on the top of a large hill, still impresses with its picturesqueness.

As we leave behind the Roman plain, the landscape becomes hillier. We cross the Castelli Romani, the realm of goddess Diana, where the emperors of ancient Rome spent their summers. In lake Nemi, archeologist have found the specially constructed ship of Caligula in which he spent his vacations along with his peculiar entourage. (The ship is displayed in a museum built by Mousolini.) In more recent times, popes spent there their summers, in impressive buildings and gardens full of brooks and lakes and shaded spots.

Alvipio Carvalho Neto, a musician and poet from Brazil who lives in Rome at the time, drives very carefully, as the roads follow the contour of the hills. We leave Nemi on our left and pass by the impressive Norma, a village perched on a rock, that gazes imperiously down on the plain. I get a feeling that Renaissance has not yet come to this corner of Lazio. Finally, we arrive at Manuzio’s village, which occupies the top of the hill and it’s surrounded by higher mountains. Everything is made of stone: houses, embrasures, stairs, alleys. The narrow streets twist like spirals leading to the top where we find the church of St. Erasmus. Houses of up to six floors are interlaced with archways, squares and alleyways, like a complex biological sculpture. In every opening between the buildings, you see the mountaintops all around, and some are still covered with snow.

The streets – Sunday afternoon – are empty. The village is all shut up and looks like an orphan. Now and then we hear talk and the sound of silverware around the Sunday family table. Suddenly we come across an elderly woman (Mrs. Maria Ragna) walking her little dog, and we ask if she knows where Manuzio’s house is. She answers that it’s right across and that “it’s the house where I live, although I’m no relation of his.” When I asked permission for a photograph she said “…I’m not properly dressed, I’m not beautiful today.”

Manuzio’s house, three stories high without anything special. We read, however, on the wall plaque… Propter bonorum librorum copiam guibus (ut speramus) fugabitur tandem omnis barbaris… Per l’abbondanza di buoni libri con I quali (come speriamo) sarà finalmente allontanata ogni barbarie…) [For the abundance of good books that (as we hope) will finally chase away all barbarities.] We are encountering again the basic ambition of the publishing adventure of the “Aldine Press.”

The Manuzio Museum, housed on the second floor of the Palazzo Caetani (also housing the city hall and other public services,) unfortunately was closed, even though the sign said that it is regularly open on Sundays. An important element, the main street of the village is named after Manuzio. The Caetani family was predominant in the area and has also given a Pope. It is interesting that the village patron saint has the same name as Manuzio’s dearest friend, Erasmus.

The entire area enjoys a significant gastronomic tradition. Bassiano for its prosciutto, Nemi for strawberries, Sezze for artichokes, and Frascati for its wine. The village has a high-quality restaurant, “Ristorante Belvedere”, from which the view of the village is “exemplary.” According to Alipio, the restaurant team (Mauro, Vincenzo, Marco,) in their strict attention to detail are inspired by Manuzio. (And besides, Vincenzo learned the art of pastry in the Veneto, where Manuzio also learned the art of publishing.)

The visit to Bassiano gave an opportunity for a historic assessment of the course of its son, (the most famous one) of this medieval village, to the illustrious position of being the first innovating publisher – not only a printer. Manuzio (1453-1615, Venice,) with his publications and his deep knowledge of ancient Greek literature, made a vital contribution to the emergence of the European Enlightenment, even though he came from a small village of the Cita Aperta area, and not from any of the era’s powerful centers. Certainly, he became known as a publisher in Venice, and was active around Florence, Ferrara and the Serenissima, but he saw the first light in the hills outside Rome.

Looking at the village and musing about the enormous cultural contribution of the man, suddenly the structural austerity, the compactness of the stone construction, the binding cohesiveness of the houses to the city walls, the “proud” take-over of the hill top, illuminated for me the character and the work of the creator-producer of “Hypnerotomachia Polyphili,” that grand allegorical tale of European literature. Perhaps his village was the defining quality that finally determined his strong character and terrible severity in his professional life. Undoubtedly an easy explanation, but during our drive back to Rome on the Appian road, it filled me with confidence about the human race and its passions.

          [Translated by Angelos Sakkis.]

Demosthenes Agrafiotis (b. 1946) is the author of dozens of books in over 5 languages including Bêtises (Fidel Anthelme X, 2011), +-graphies (Veer Books, 2011), Maribor (The Post-Apollo Press, 2009: 2011 NCBA Northern California Book Award, Poetry translation), monogatari, ii (EL, EN, JPN, 2017), The broken equilibrium. On crisiology (Bibliotheque, Athens, 2018: essays, in Greek) from which this essay comes, and Sauver Venise (L’ Harmattan, Paris, 2019: photos and text, in FR and GR).
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