From humanist manuscripts to italic pocketbooks: the Aldine press, 1501

From humanist manuscripts to italic pocketbooks: the Aldine press, 1501

It is easy to imagine that, in Europe, the printed work triumphed over the written word from Gutenberg onward. Yet for centuries after the invention of the printing press, many different categories of readers continued to prize scribal publication over print. As late as the eighteenth century, the possession of vernacular works of literature in manuscript indicated that one was part of the private circles in which such materials first circulated before they were divulgated in print. Deep into the seventeenth century, alchemical works in manuscript were prized as a source of secret wisdom which had not yet been 'published' in innumerable copies. And in the later fifteenth and early sixteenth century, as the writings of classical antiquity continued to be rediscovered in forgotten medieval manuscripts, beautifully transcribed copies likewise signified highly privileged access to recovered learning that had been lost for centuries. In other words, the preference for script over print -- so fundamentally significant in the Islamic world -- also had an echo in the Latin West.

Image 1: Bembo family Sallust. An excellent example of a literary manuscript of this humanist tradition is this copy of Sallust’s history of the Jugurthine War. The winged Pegasus, leaping through the prismative initial 'F[also]', is the emblem of the prominent Bembo family of Venice.  The humanist cursive, executed in this case by the scribe Bartolomeo Sanvito, had become the most prestigious hand for this type of book, and was the forerunner of italic.

Images 2-3: Aldine Vergil, 1501. Although at first sight very similar to the Bembo Sallust above, these two copies of an edition of Virgil, produced by Aldus Manutius in Venice in 1501, are also printed books, or rather hybrid books, in which features of script and print coincide. For one thing, the second is printed on vellum rather than paper. For another, beautiful illuminations have been added by hand: during the Renaissance, printed books were not only artfully bound but also decorated by their buyers, transforming a mass manufactured object into a unique human artefact. Third, the style of the illuminations are rather medieval in style, and thus somewhat out of keeping with the classicising aims of the Aldine press.

Fourth, this edition of Virgil was the first book printed in italic, that is, in a font similar to the cursive style, popular for humanist manuscripts and evident in the Bembo Sallust (above). The significance of this innovation is emphasised by the Latin epigram by Aldus which faces the first page, praising the skillful hands of Francesco Griffo of Bologna, the punch-cutter who actually produced the italic type. So significant did Aldus find this innovation that he insisted on his ownership of it, even at the cost of permanently destroying his relationship with Griffo. 

Part of the reason for its insistence derived from its market value. The condensed format of this italic font allowed more legible words to be printed on a given page than ever before. Smaller font meant smaller pages, which were cheaper to print. Cheaper printing, in turn, allowed larger print runs. Although large format folio books had previously been printed in runs of only 100 to 250 copies, this first literary edition in a pocket-sized octavo was produced in an enormous print run of around 4000 copies. These were important innovations, leading to wider accessibility and portability of texts and to the creation of a broader, more cultivated readership, as well as illustrating how much Aldus owed to the legacy and format of the humanist manuscript book, as represented by the Bembo Sallust. 

Further resources. A fine virtual exhibition on Aldus Manutius has been provided by the Cambridge University Library.
Credit: Oren Margolis (July 2018) and Howard Hotson (May 2019)