Sunday, May 3, 2015

Aldus Manutius. Thought Leader

The term "Thought Leader" appears everywhere these days. I hereby shamelessly and anachronistically apply it to Aldus Manutius (1452–1515), the greatest scholar-printer of the Italian Renaissance.

The Grolier Club* recently exhibited masterworks by this great man, who was born in Bassiano, a small town forty miles southeast of Rome, worked as a tutor, and then moved to Venice in 1490 to "enter the cutthroat world of printing." The latter made me chuckle until I realized that 15th century printers during were like today's app developers—with perhaps richer content.

Aldus Manutius used the relatively new technology of printing to ancient texts—especially endangered Greek literature. Printing in both Greek and the predominant Latin, Aldus Manutius brought Aristotle, Aristophanes, Sophocles, Euripedes, Herodatus and Plato.

But that's not all.

In 1496, Aldus published Pietro Bembo's Petri Bembi de Aetna ad Angelum Chabrielem Liber, a slim volume about Bembo's trip up the mountain, printed in a typeface that packed a typographical wallop. The face, by punch cutter Francesco Griffo, inspired the type known today as Bembo. I was thrilled to see its genesis. Sure, Bembo has quirks, especially with word spacing, but it remains a beauty.

Aldus's books were as clever as they were handsome. In 1514, Aldus Manutius and his father-in-law Andrea Torresani  produced a tome entitled Deipnosophistae (Sophisticated Diners) consists of the conversations of learned men over elaborate meals about a wide variety of subjects. The text, important for its depiction of culinary habits of ancient Greece, also retains numerous fragments of unknown Greek poetry. The goblet-shaped page evokes the delightful copyright pages of Louise Fili, an Italian (American) typography great.

Aldus Manutius devised a small format for secular literature, which he called libelli portatiles, starting in 1501 with editions of Virgil, Horace, Catullus, Dante, Petrarch and other best-selling author. In fact, Jennifer Schuessler's New York Times review of the exhibit was entitled "The Earliest Roots of the Paperback."

Again working with Francesco Griffo, Aldus developed a new typeface for his publications that echoed the humanist hand of the day. Originally called "Aldine," we now know it as italic.

Aldus's printer's mark foreshadowed today's logos and branding. Aldus Manutius's anchor and dolphin, now Doubleday's colophon, had a great spokesperson in Desiderio Erasmus, who wrote that Aldus Manutius thought the dolphin and anchor perfectly presented the aspirations of his press: the dolphin symbolized the speed of production, and the anchor symbolized stability.

Like most businessmen of the Renaissance—and like most designers of today—Aldus Manutius had to take on jobs to keep his business running. But even while dealing with the travails of running a business in the world of letters, Aldus Manutius managed to:
• save crucial literature from extinction
• commission landmark typography
• print books that could be read by people not rich enough to own their own extensive libraries

I'd call Aldus Manutius a Thought Leader.

*Most of the information in this post is based and/or copied from—with apologies and admiration—the literature which accompanied The Grolier Club's exhibit from February 25 through April 25, 2015.

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