2012 September Etymologicum Magnum

The Etymologicum Magnum of 1499

Edward Worth’s copy of the Etymologicum Magnum, printed at Venice in 1499, is one of the jewels of his collection. It was the first book to be printed by the newly established Greek press of Venice and is one of the most famous examples of early Venetian printing, incorporating as it does a flowing Greek script and ornate capitals and headings in red ink.


It proved to be a costly work, taking six years to complete, necessitating as it did the construction of a new Greek type. For such an undertaking financial backing was necessary and an inscription records that this was given ‘by the noble and esteemed Cretan Nicholas Vlastos, on the recommendation of the most distinguished and most modest lady Anna, daughter of … Loukas Notaras, once Grand Duke of Constantinople.’ Anna Notaras (d. 1507) and her sisters Theodora and Euphrosyne  had escaped the Fall of Constantinople due to the foresight of their father, Grand Duke Loukas Notaras who had provided them with an ample fortune. By 1475 Anna had settled at Venice and was concentrating her attention on the promotion of Greek culture. The new art of printing offered her an ideal method by which to promote Greek studies and so it was that she underwrote the cost of printing the Etymologicum Magnum. As Nicol (1996) relates, it has even been suggested that the ornate fretwork of the ink headings and capitals may have been based on embroideries by Anna and her niece Eudokia Cantacuzene.


As this ornate heading demonstrates, the role of Nicholas Vlastos as publisher received rather more attention throughout the work. Vlastos was the manager of Anna Notaras’ estate, and had played an instrumental role in the printing of the Etymologicum Magnum. On 21 September 1498 he applied for a ten year privilege for a new Greek font which he described as ‘unide cum i suo’ accenti’, ‘with accents joined on, a thing never done before so well or so beautifully’. Barker (1992) is undoubtedly correct in arguing that this was an attempt by Vlastos to distinguish the Greek type of this Greek (almost exclusively Cretan) printing press, with the Aldine Greek font. But (as Barker suggests), the new Greek-Cretan press was not setting itself up as a competitor to the Aldine press: the books outlined in its patent of 28 November 1498 (the Etymologicum Magnum and commentaries on Aristotle) were the only products of a short-lived endeavour which lasted from 1499 to 1500 – at just the time when the Aldine press were taking a break from Greek printing. Indeed it appears that Aldus may simply have taken over the distribution of the Vlastos-Kalliergis press’s works when he resumed printing in Greek in 1501. The Vlastos-Kalliergis press output may, therefore, have been designedly small, but it was of a staggeringly high quality. Given his role in financing the press it is unsurprising to find Vlastos’ name throughout the book and in an ornate device on the penultimate leaf.



But Vlastos’s endeavours were only one part of the story. As the dedication of the Etymologicum Magnum makes clear, it was printed ‘by the labour of Zacharias Kalliergis the Cretan, for the benefit of learned men and those set on [the study of] Hellenic literature’. Kalliergis (fl. 1499-1524), like his ally Vlastos, came from Rethymno in Crete and both had worked for the Aldine press as copyists. Indeed, the font used in the Etymologicum Magnum was in fact based on Kalliergis’ own hand-writing. Sometime in 1493 the two men decided to devise their own Greek type. The length of time it took to complete this work is not surprising – not only had Kalliergis to design and carve his new Greek font but the topic he had chosen, to recreate in print the famous twelfth-century Byzantine etymology, was a challenge in itself. In fact it might have proved too much of a challenge for the press. Paul Botley (2006) reminds us that the Etymologicum Magnum was a very demanding work of scholarship, which would only appeal to a small circle of scholars. Whether because of this or because of an agreement with the Aldine press, the Vlastos-Kalliergis press had closed by 1501. After this Kalliergis initially moved to Padua but by 1509 was back in Venice where he resumed printing in Greek type. Sometime between 1511 and 1514 he moved to Rome and settled there until his death in 1524. As Mosconas (1974) argues, Kalliergis’ Greek type influenced Johann Froben’s 1516 Greek New Testament, printed in Basle, and was later passed on to the famous Giunta press of Florence. His choice of printer’s device on the Etymologicum Magnum, the imperial double-headed eagle, emphasises the importance of the work to the refugee Byzantine community. As Markos Musurus (c. 1470–1517), the author of the preface to Etymologicum Magnum said, Kalliergis was ‘the man who brought truly Greek letters to the Greeks’.



Apostolakou, Lito (2009), ‘Anna Notaras. A Byzantine Lady in Venice’ [Accessed 13 September 2012 available at: http://suite101.com/article/anna-notaras-a96159].

Barker, Nicholas (1992), Aldus Manutius and the Development of Greek Script and Type in the 15th century (Fordham University Press).

Botley, Paul (2006), ‘Renaissance scholarship and the Athenian calendar’, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 46 (no. 4), pp 395-143.

Mosconas, D. T. (1974), ‘The Etymologicum Magnum and its values’, Analecta (Publications of the Institute for Oriental Studies of the Library of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria), no. 23, 71-102.

Nicol, Donald M. (1996), The Byzantine Lady. Ten portraits, 1250-1500 (Canto).

Rance, Philip (2007), ‘The Etymologicum Magnum and the ‘Fragment of Urbicius’, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 47, pp 193-224.


Text: Dr Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library.

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