Who Was Aldus and Why Should Book-Lovers Care?

"Aldus Manutius". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Aldus Manutius“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

What do italics, semi-colons, commas, and the pocket-sized book have in common? They were developed or enhanced by Aldus Manutius, a printer and publisher who lived from 1449 to 1515 in Venice. Sometimes he is referred to as “The Elder” to distinguish him from his grandson (“The Younger”).

You may be wondering how I became interested in Aldus. Remember that post the other day about bookstore crawling in Columbus? It turns out there is a group of book-lovers in Columbus who host book crawls for their members. They operate under the name The Aldus SocietyThey describe themselves as “an organization for people who appreciate the many facets of text and image through various media, but principally the book, past, present and future.” They host  “a wide variety of programs and activities on book collecting, the history of printing, publishing, and book selling, book illustration, book design, book bindings, paper making, typography, calligraphy, and libraries.”

It turns out that many book societies have chosen names honoring great figures in the history of the book and Aldus is high among them. One of the Aldus Society members, Jay Hoster, has written a biographical sketch on the life of Aldus, from which I’ve drawn much of the information in this post, along with the Wikipedia article on Aldus.

One of the key innovations of Aldus was to develop italic print which enabled him to print books in a more compact format, about the size of today’s pocket paperback, yet printed on quality vellum with innovations in the book-binding process. His first edition in this format was an edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy without all the commentary that obscured the text and made for large, burdensome editions. His, while elegant, was portable. Subsequently he published a series of the Greek and Latin classics in the same format, contributing to the Renaissance rediscovery of these classic works while making corrections and improvements to the texts.

Whether you like punctuation or not, Aldus was an innovator here as well. The semi-colon first appears in his works, and the comma in its present form as well. His grandson published the first book on principles of punctuation, Orthographiae Ratio, in 1566.

The Aldine Press had a distinctive printer’s mark that continues to have influence down to the present day. It consists of an anchor entwined with a dolphin, symbolic of the motto, festina lente or “make haste slowly”, an apt representation of both the quality and prolific output of his press. Versions of this were used by William Pickering, a nineteenth century London publisher and by Doubleday (which publishes an Anchor line of books). Aldus’ design has even been incorporated into the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress.

Modern typography also reflects the impact of his work. In addition to italics and punctuation, one of the type faces he commissioned Claude Garamond to develop serves as the basis of our modern Garamond typeface, one of the most readable typefaces. There is also an Aldus typeface, developed by Hermann Zapf that is similar to Garamond and based on a typeface developed by Giambattista Palatino, another type face developer associated with Aldus.





What learning about all this has done for me is help me appreciate the craft that has gone into book-making, something we take for granted today. And yet, when we sit down with a book that is comfortable to hold, made with good paper and bound well, and with a pleasing and readable type face, we owe our reading pleasure to the innovations and craft and traditions of book publishing laid down by people like Aldus Manutius.

2 thoughts on “Who Was Aldus and Why Should Book-Lovers Care?

  1. Pingback: Review: Erasmus and the Age of Reformation | Bob on Books

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Erasmus and the Age of Reformation, by Johan Huizinga | Emerging Scholars Blog

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