PhD Student and Researcher Alessandra Bordini discusses the Aldus@SFU project

September 01, 2023
Alessandra looking ecstatic after visiting the exhibition “Aldo Manuzio. Il rinascimento di Venezia” held at the Gallerie dell’ Accademia in Venice in July 2016. (Photo Credit: Leda Cavalmoretti)

Master of Publishing (MPub) alumnus Alessandra Bordini is the lead researcher for Aldus@SFU, an ongoing digital humanities initiative that began with the partnership of the Canadian Institute for Studies in Publishing (CISP), the research arm of SFU Publishing, and Special Collections and Rare Books, a department of Simon Fraser University's (SFU) library that provides researchers access to unique archival materials. 

While Alessandra already has an illustrious academic and professional career, which includes translating works by award-winning Canadian poets Margaret Avison and Maureen Scott Harris, she continues to challenge herself and strive for something greater. Last year, she started her PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies under the guidance of SFU Publishing Associate Professor and Director John Maxwell. As she enters the second year of her doctoral program, she discusses the legacy of Renaissance Italy’s most renowned scholarly publisher Aldus Manutius, and how he reimagined publishing as a form of art.  

For Alessandra, the connection between publishing and art is deeply personal, and is intricately linked to her childhood. In our interview, we spoke about the Aldus@SFU project, why it matters to her, what led her to this pivotal point in her life, and much more. 

Your research work at CISP is extremely fascinating and equally important. Can you briefly discuss the projects that you are, or were, a part of? 

During my involvement in the CISP’s activities, two projects in particular came to occupy a special place in my academic and professional journey. The first was part of a larger scholarly communications initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, on the evolution of the monograph publication ecosystem. As part of the CISP research team, I collaborated with Dr. John Maxwell in the initial consultation process and the preparation of the evaluation report.

The second project, Aldus@SFU, began in 2015 as a joint effort of the CISP and Simon Fraser University Library Special Collections to observe the quincentenary of the death of Renaissance Italy’s most influential scholarly publisher, Aldus Manutius (ca. 1451–1515). The project involved digitizing and contextualizing selected volumes from the prized Wosk–McDonald Collection, one of Canada’s largest Aldine collections, which is housed at SFU’s Bennett Library. What began as an event-based, short-lived initiative grew in scope and significance over time. Since 2015, more volumes have been digitized and the collection has grown with the acquisition of several significant titles

In the fall of 2022, the project entered a new phase, becoming the primary focus of my interdisciplinary doctoral research at SFU. It is my hope that this milestone will contribute to the long-term success of the initiative.

SFU Library's fine copy of the Aldine Decameron (1522). (Photo Credit: Alessandra Bordini)

Starting out as a research assistant for Aldus@SFU, which is, of course, an incredibly important project, must have been enriching and surreal. Since the project aims to be an accessible and equitable educational resource, how would you describe it to someone unacquainted with Aldus Manutius’s work. Why does it matter? 

Aldus@SFU is a public-facing digital resource bringing a remarkable collection of printed books from Renaissance Italy—the Wosk–McDonald Aldine Collection—to broader audiences within and outside academia. 

In digitally (re-)presenting and (re-)contextualizing these important works from the dawn of printing, the project aims to facilitate a deeper understanding of their cultural and historical significance as well as their present-day relevance, while encouraging new forms of engagement with the past: critical and playful, scholarly and creative. Many of these editions embody a range of innovations—technological, cultural, scholarly—that have shaped, in essential ways, not only the form of the book but also how readers interact with it. We might not be aware of it, but every time we type a comma or semicolon on our computer keyboard, or whenever we carry a portable book for leisurely reading, we are benefitting from Aldus’s contributions.

An important principle guiding this project was a more inclusive and democratic notion of rare books, and special collections materials in general. Beyond this or that innovation associated with the Aldine press, there was the larger idea—which, to some extent and with due caution, can also be considered key to Aldus’s publishing program—that only by opening up these primary materials to a much broader public would we be able to truly unleash their potential as both scholarly resources and teaching tools. For us, then, leveraging digital technologies to increase access to these precious volumes was not a matter of adding prestige to the institution; rather, it was a matter of lowering, if not breaking down, barriers to knowledge and learning for the public good. 

To borrow Aldus’s own words (from his famous preface to the Thesaurus Cornucopia, 1496), I hope that our efforts will be “of great benefit to all”1 in the near and distant future.

1Preface to Thesaurus Cornucopia (1496), in Aldus Manutius, The Greek Classics (Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press, 2016), 29.

As you mentioned previously, Aldus@SFU explores the work and legacy of a historic figure in the world of publishing and literature, while embracing and incorporating technological advancements that are powerful and inevitable. Besides your professional commitment, responsibility or motivation, how personal is this project for you?

Among the many—at times exceedingly—grandiose epithets used in connection with Aldus Manutius that I have encountered, one in particular has stuck with me. It’s from a beautiful book (The Art of the Publisher, 2015) by the great Italian writer and literary publisher Roberto Calasso, who dubs Aldus “the Nadar of publishing.” Calasso tells us that just as Felix Nadar revolutionized photography in the mid-eighteen hundreds, Aldus, a few centuries earlier, transformed how books were presented and experienced. According to Calasso, Aldus was the first printer in Western Europe to imagine publishing as an art—“the capacity to give form to a plurality of books as though they were the chapters of a single book.”What I find fascinating about this is the notion of publishing as an artistic pursuit: a publisher is someone who, besides deciding which books to publish, also imagines the form they should take when they reach the reader. Obviously—and this is no trivial detail—publishing books is also a business, but without this element of creativity, foresight, and imagination, it would be like any other business producing commodities for profit. And, from my perspective, this is neither a feature inherent to, nor a destination desirable for, book publishing.

Returning to your question, all of this is to say that everything about my commitment to publishing, as both a profession and an academic discipline, is personal. It was a profound sense of vocation that guided me to this field years ago, when I started my editorial internship at a mid-sized legal publisher in Naples. Further, the connection between publishing and art, publishing as art, has another personal connotation for me. My mother, Paola Pinna, was a talented artist, and her creative energy and sensibility helped me cultivate an artistic disposition of my own from early childhood. This is why, I believe, whenever I look at a finely printed book, I am immediately drawn to its visual elements. What I mean is not only the images—photographs or illustrations—but also, as in the case of Aldus’s books, the sinuous shapes and proportions of the typographical characters and their harmonious arrangement on the page, among many other things.

2Roberto Calasso, The Art of the Publisher (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 9.

Alessandra in one of her favourite spots in Vancouver: Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park (Photo Credit: Amy Van Wyk)

It is heartwarming to learn about your mother and how she has always been a creative force in your life. Thank you for sharing that with us! Along with being a researcher at the CISP, you are currently pursuing a PhD at SFU. Although you enrolled in the Individualized Interdisciplinary Studies (INS) program only last year, is there anything about the process that you can share with aspiring graduates?

As an interdisciplinary doctoral student at SFU, I was able to take an active role in designing my own course of study, which afforded me greater independence and flexibility while pursuing a rigorous academic curriculum. So far my experience has been stimulating and enriching, thanks largely to the generous support and guidance I have received from my interdisciplinary PhD committee. In particular, my senior supervisor, John Maxwell, has been a steady source of encouragement, inspiration, and practical advice. 

Entering a PhD program is a serious commitment, and my first recommendation, as trite as it might sound, would be to research your graduate school options in depth and well in advance of applying. This doesn’t mean your research proposal has to be etched in stone from the get-go; it means you should invest time in identifying a program where the unique combination of your experience, interests, and qualifications—what makes you, you—is truly valued. Strive to go beyond the general information on a program’s website and reach out to people—students, faculty, advisors—for an inside (and more personal) perspective. A PhD is a long and often non-linear path, and talking to the people involved in your program of choice—first and foremost the professors—can help you decide whether that program is a good fit for you.

You will also need support on this journey. Pursuing a doctorate is not merely intellectually challenging; it can also be emotionally draining. Surround yourself with friends (ideally both within and outside academia) who can be there for you when you need encouragement and perspective.

I am certain our students will appreciate and listen to your advice. Prior to entering the PhD program, you graduated from the Master of Publishing (MPub) program at SFU. Has the MPub helped shape your career in any way? Were there any learnings that you utilized, or reflected on, since graduating from the program?

Soon after my coursework as an MPub student ended, I began my summer internship with the Canadian Institute for Studies in Publishing. Working in a vibrant, interdisciplinary academic setting, I had the opportunity to build on my digital technology skills through hands-on activities while exploring research interests connected with the early history of Italian publishing and, significantly, my own background. This experience proved crucial to defining my intellectual and academic path later on. It is no exaggeration to say that had I not joined the MPub program, I would not be where I am now.

The program taught me so many lessons from which I continue to benefit. An important one was stepping out of my comfort zone (editorial work, in my case) and experimenting in areas of publishing that were new to me (marketing and graphic design, for instance). Versatility is crucial for a successful career in publishing, and I graduated from the MPub program with much greater versatility than I’d had when I began. Also valuable was learning how, amid the various iterations of a project, to filter and incorporate feedback from different sources (industry experts, instructors, peers). 

Last, but certainly not least, in joining the MPub program I became part of a rich, diverse, and widespread network of professionals across Canada and beyond. Many of the bonds formed in the classroom, indeed, endure and bloom long after graduation, and that, in itself, is a marvelous thing.

Learn more about Alessandra here

Learn more about the Aldus@SFU project here

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