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The heroic age of print

Aldus Manutius Dolphin
I’ve written here before about the great humanist printer Aldus Manutius – see here and here. Clay Shirky is into Manutius too – both of those posts trace back to CS. But this post on book publishing and this one on digitization convinced me that everyone needs to know this story, because we need heroes like Manutius today.

This is from Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading (one of my favorite books ever):

In 1453 Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, and many of the Greek scholars who had established schools on the shores of the Bosphorus left for Italy. Venice became the new centre of classical learning. Some forty years later the Italian humanist Aldus Manutius, who had instructed such brilliant students as Pico della Mirandola in Latin and Greek, finding it difficult to teach without scholarly editions of the classics in practical formats, decided to take up Gutenberg’s craft and established a printing-house of his own where he would be able to produce exactly the kind of books he needed for his courses. Aldus chose to establish his press in Venice in order to take advantage of the presence of the displaced Eastern scholars, and probably employed as correctors and compositors other exiles, Cretan refugees who had formerly been scribes.

In 1494 Aldus began his ambitious publishing program, which was to produce some of the most beautiful volumes in the history of printing: first in Greek – Sophocles, Aristotle, Plato, Thucydides – and then in Latin – Virgil, Horace, Ovid. In Aldus’s view, these illustrious authors were to be read “without intermediaries” – in the original tongue, and mostly without annotations or glosses – and to make it possible for readers to “converse freely with the glorious dead” he published grammar books and dictionaries alongside the classical texts.

Not only did he seek the services of local experts , he also invited eminent humanists from all over Europe – including such luminaries as Erasmus of Rotterdam – to stay with him in Venice. Once a day these scholars would meet in Aldus’s house to discuss what titles would be printed and what manuscripts would be used as reliable sources, sifting through the collections of classics established in the previous centuries. “Where medieval humanists accumulated,” noted the historian Anthony Grafton, “Renaissance ones discriminated.”

Aldus discriminated with an unerring eye. To the list of classical writers he added the works of the great Italian poets, Dante and Petrarch among others.

Aldus didn’t just pick great texts (and great people to edit them) – he made great books, introducing several important innovations.

As private libraries grew, readers began to find large volumes not only difficult to handle and uncomfortable to carry, but inconvenient to store. In 1501, confident in the success of his first editions, Aldus responded to readers’ demands and brought out a series of pocket-sized books in octavo – half the size of quarto – elegantly printed and meticulously edited.

To keep down the production cost she decided to print a thousand copies at a time, and to use the page more economically he employed a newly designed type , “italic”, created by the Bolognese punch-cutter Francesco Griffo, who also cut the first roman type in which the capitals were shorter than the ascending (full- height) letters of the lowercase to ensure a better-balanced line. The result was a book that appeared much plainer than the ornate manuscript editions popular throughout the Middle Ages, a volume of elegant sobriety.

What counted above all, for the owner of an Aldine pocket-book, was the text , clearly and eruditely printed – not a preciously decorated object. Griffo’s italic type (first used in a woodcut illustrating a collection of letters of Saint Catherine of Siena, printed in 1500) gracefully drew the reader’s attention to the delicate relationship between letters; according to the modern English critic Sir Francis Meynell, italics slowed down the reader’s eye, “increasing his capacity to absorb the beauty of the text.”

I love that italic type is above all a technology — operating both on the eye (to increase attention) and the page, to decrease the total size of the text and allow more words to be printed on fewer sheets of paper. That in turn allows all of the dimensions to be reduced, saving money and making the books easier to use.

Like all technologies, though, the printed octavo volume in italic type has definite social preconditions AND consequences:

Since these books were cheaper than manuscripts, especially illuminated ones, and since an identical replacement could be purchased if a copy was lost or damaged, they became, in the eyes of the new readers, less symbols of wealth than of intellectual aristocracy, and essential tools for study.

Booksellers and stationers had produced, both in the days of ancient Rome and in the early Middle Ages, books as merchandise to be traded, but the cost and pace of their production weighed upon the readers with a sense of privilege in owning something unique . After Gutenberg, for the first time in history, hundreds of readers possessed identical copies of the same book, and (until a reader gave a volume private markings and a personal history) the book read by someone in Madrid was the same book read by someone in Montpellier.

So successful was Aldus’s enterprise that his editions were soon being imitated throughout Europe: in France by Gryphius in Lyons, as well as Colines and Robert Estienne in Paris, and in The Netherlands by Plantin in Antwerp and Elzevir in Leiden, The Hague, Utrecht and Amsterdam. When Aldus died in 1515, the humanists who attended his funeral erected all around his coffin, like erudite sentinels , the books he had so lovingly chosen to print.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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