Aldus Manuitius (1449 – 1515) – pioneer of printing

Aldus Manutius - pioneer of printing
Aldus Manutius – pioneer of printing

Aldus Manutius, the man who invented it, died almost 500 years ago, and his type is still in use. The type in which this sentence is written is called “italic”. Today publishing a manuscript is almost instantaneous. A new bestseller can be placed on Amazon, and I can buy a copy minutes later.  To look at the books which came off the Venitian presses of Aldus Manutius is a strange experience.

Early life

Aldus Manutius was the Latin name for his Italian name Teobaldo Manucci or Aldo Manuzio born in Sermoneta, Italy.  He studied in Rome and Ferrara and became proficient in Greek.    He invited Greek scholars and compositors to live in his house.  He employed Francesco Griffo to cut a distinctive roman type that tended towards the cursive, known today colloquially as italic.

Despite advanced technological improvements, the product has not developed that much that the centuries have added so little to the essential craft.

Aldus Manutius manuscript
An example of a manuscript printed by Aldus Manutius

New World of Scholarship

Manutius first opened up his printing press in 1490.  The great works of Greek and Roman scholars, known in the monasteries and princely libraries of Europe, were scattered and often inaccurate. Yet to look at the cream coloured pages with the beautiful printing and delicate ornaments and examine the fine bindings that hold them together is to see only half the story.

His task was to make accessible the wisdom of the ancient world through the emerging middle class of teachers, scholar-merchants, the gentleman of modest fortune, poorer clergy, as well as through courts and cloisters.  The fantastic aspect is he did this himself.

The Texts

First, he had to find the manuscript texts, copied faithfully over the centuries by scholars, and produce the most readable text possible.

Then he had to find artisans to cut the type for Greek and Roman books and the scholars to edit them. The workmen set the type and make the paper and all the details that modern technology makes redundant.  Despite all his care mistakes would appear in the texts and the inks marks and corrections are still visible in many of the texts.

Some later collectors would have the pages of his manuscripts washed and pressed to make them look cleaner. However, modern scholars have found that the ink corrections had a purpose: Manutius, with pen and ink, methodically went through his books copy by copy to make sure that they were letter-perfect.

The world was appreciative, for it was a world that was hungry for books in a way that we could not understand.  When a new book came off the Aldine Press in Venice, scholars in Germany or France might get their copies within weeks, each more valuable to the reader than a hundred books nowadays.

Manutius may have also been the ‘Father’ of the pocket edition.  Wealthy men earlier had scribes to produce small copies of the classics. However, Manutius made them accessible to a much wider audience.

Aldine Pocket edition - Aldus Manutius
An example of an Aldine Pocket edition by Aldus Manutius.

Aldine Pocket Editions

Dante, Ovid and many other writers of literature, as opposed to the works of philosophy, science and theology printed at first, were to be had in Aldine “pocketbooks”. These pocket editions became recognisable with the small binders’ stamps, bearing a leaf and stem design. It is a tribute to their inventor and the renaissance printers’ commercial talents that soon after they first appeared, the books were flagrantly pirated by French printers at Lyons.

For the careful eye, the marvel lies in the deceptively simple pages of print that display the creative integrity of one man who helped form the modern world.

Additional Reading

Barker, N. (1992). Aldus Manutius and the development of greek script & type in the Fifteenth Century. Fordham University Press. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3FTXtzG

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