Aldus Manutius, the other inventor of the printed book

Aldus Manutius (1449-1515) was a small child when Gutenberg made the greatest invention known to mankind: the printing press. He enjoyed a good education and became a classical scholar. Like most scholars at the time, he started his career as a tutor and secretary.

Aldus chose printing as a career for ideological reasons: he wanted to publish the great Classical texts, especially those written by the Greeks. He chose to settle in vibrant Venice, the flourishing merchant city that had close ties with the East. This was a time when, after the fall of the Greek Empire, scholars from Byzantium moved to the West. Aldus Manutius employed mainly Greek assistants in his printing house, but Erasmus also worked there at some time between 1507 and 1509.

Today, there are 127 editions recorded from his presses. The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is the most famous book he published. This publication alone made his name revered in circles of collectors and book-lovers. It was a commissioned publication, and the only illustrated book he published.

The changes Aldus brought to publishing were truly revolutionary. He was the first to print pocket books. These are small books in octavo format that were substantially cheaper to produce than the big folios of his day. In order to save space on the page, Francesco Griffo designed the typeface we now know as ‘italic’ for him. Aldus also brought the awareness to the book-industry that if a publisher wants to survive, he must be an enterprising businessman at the same time.

Much has been written about Aldus’s Greek typefaces. To someone who is unable to read Greek they look elegant indeed. Those who have mastered the language are often taken aback by the use of abbreviations that may have been helpful to the writers of manuscripts, those Cretan writing-masters on whose script the Greek typefaces were based, but they were a torture for typesetters. Moreover, they made the reading of the text more difficult.