05 February 2015 Blogs, Academic, Community College, Faculty, Librarian, Student/Researcher

Aldus Manutius: Innovator of the pocket book, and the semicolon

February 6, 2015, marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Aldus Manutius the Elder, the founder of the Aldine Press and Renaissance pioneer of the printing and publishing industry

By Simon Hudson,
Editor/Content Operations

February 6, 2015, marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Aldus Manutius the Elder, the founder of the Aldine Press and Renaissance pioneer of the printing and publishing industry. At the time, his death was an occasion of public mourning for the people of Venice, and Aldus was placed on view at the now-demolished church of San Paternian, the coffin surrounded by books his celebrated press had published.

Today, Aldus Manutius is not exactly a household name, and his final resting place is no longer known. Nevertheless, he remains a renowned figure in the history of printing, and developed innovations that today’s reader would easily overlook.

Born Aldo Manuzio around 1450 in Bassiano, approximately fifty miles south of Rome, he began his adult life as a scholar and teacher. He found work as a tutor of Latin and Greek, teaching a friend’s nephews. Aldus moved from Ferrara in 1480, and spent the next nine years living in Carpi, where he penned a Latin grammar book and also published an anthology of Latin elegies.

It is not known exactly what led Aldus to turn to a publishing career, but it seems that a key factor was his dissatisfaction with the quality of printed classical Greek and Latin literature.

Around 1489 or 1490, Aldus moved to Venice, which was already a locus for the new industry of printing, since German printers moved there in the mid-15th century. The city's relatively liberal atmosphere also allowed production of the printed word to flourish. It was here Aldus entered into partnership with the Venetian printer, Andrea Torresani, whose daughter, Maria, Aldus later married.

Establishing the Aldine Press in 1494-5, Aldus first embarked on an ambitious project to publish scholarly editions of the Greek classics, including the complete works of Aristotle. Over the years, Aldus's extended this project to include Latin texts by Virgil, Catullus and Cicero, among many others. Significant ventures into Italian were also achieved, with early editions of works by the likes of Dante and Petrarch. Finally, Aldus's fascination with language led him to become a print pioneer by working with Hebrew, and he even experimented with Arabic.

While setting new standards in scholarly publishing and linguistic diversity, Aldus also established new modifications in the look and shape of the book. With its earliest publications, the Aldine Press had emulated ancient codices by, for the first time, printing two-column pages.

Working over a period of years with the goldsmith and punchcutter Francesco Griffo, Aldus further introduced variant renderings of the Roman typeface. They developed italic script, a typeface which nicely mimicked the natural flow of handwriting. It also had the benefit of taking up less space on the page, and therefore less paper, which was very expensive then.

Other innovations from the house of Aldine that have since become conventions of modern typography were to follow: accents; the semi-colon; the hooked comma; and the apostrophe.

Aldus was the first publisher to introduce to the wider reading public the idea of libelli portatiles, or the pocket book. Although clerics already made use of smaller, octavo-size versions of religious works to carry with them on their journeys, it was Aldus who adopted this form for classical texts and secular works. In doing so, it could be argued that Aldus introduced the concept of reading as a pleasurable pastime. No longer did readers need to consult large textbooks placed on a heavy desk or sturdy lectern: books were now portable.

As a consequence, Aldus ushered in the phenomenon of the popular bestseller. His editions of Petrarch's Canzoniere sold as many as 100,000 copies.

Personally, Aldus survived an attack of the plague, lived through wartime, and went on to found an academy dedicated to the pursuit of Greek studies. Through his press, however, he reached out to a much bigger world to make reading a vital part of our culture and society. The legacy of his innovations and achievements extend even into our time, as the old certainties of print culture are being questioned and reconfigured.