Technology and art

511 years ago, Italian Aldo Manuzio was beginning to reinvent the printed book

In its first 50 years of history, the printed book changed little. Germany’s Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type in 1442 and in 1455, probably with Peter Schoffer,  published the Bible, held to be the first printed book of the West. By 1494, thousands of other works were published, but it was typographer, publisher and bookseller Aldo Manuzio, from Italy, who was responsible for innovations that changed the way of making books worldwide in the following 500 years. As a publisher, he was the first to print the Greco-Latin classics, indicated by an editorial board, something else innovative, which was given the name of Accademia Aldina -, with some of the prominent spirits of the epoch, like Erasmus of Rotterdam. These erudite people would not only choose the best texts from Antiquity to publish, but they would make a translation, when it was the case, of the comments, and would collaborate in the editing. There were 32 European intellectuals chosen and invited by Manuzio taking part in the academy. As a typographer, he created cursive type – equally known as manuscript, italic, sloping or Aldine type -, the pocket format, the double page as a formal unit, and the flat spine. On the covers, he replaced wood by card, started using goat parchment as covering, and to engrave the title of the book on it, with heated gold.  Finally, as a bookseller, he made the first catalog with the list of the works published and their respective prices and created the then unprecedented grouping of books within series or collections.

The majority of these innovations have even today been conserved in the publishing production routine all over the world.
Aldo Manuzio was born about 1450, in Bassiano di Sermonetta, and died in 1515, in Venice.

In the middle of the Renaissance, the main Italian cities would be shining with renovation in the plastic arts, literature and architecture, with their eyes turned on Greco-Roman models. In this environment full of writers, painters, sculptors, philosophers, scientists and – no less important – patrons, “All Venice was science and wisdom”, in the saying by John Ruskin, an English art critic, thinker and writer from the end of the 19th century. It was there that Manuzio established himself and in 1492 used to frequent the typographic workshop of Andrea Torresani, his future father-in-law. Encouraged by his friend and protector, the nobleman Giovanni Francesco Pico della Mirandola, Manuzio became a publisher and printed his first editions in 1494. Passionate about Greek language and literature, the two friends detested the terrible translations, printed works and editions of those days, says Catalan Enric Sauté, a historian of the graphic arts, in the recently launched Aldo Manuzio: editor, tipógrafo, livreiro [Alco Manuzio: publisher, typographer, bookseller] (Ateliê Editorial, 253 pages). It was this rustic treatment given to the classics that led the then typographer to seriously consider an old idea – to offer students and scholars literary and linguistic products of the highest quality.

Besides the cultural effervescence of Venice, there were two special reasons for Aldo to establish himself in the city. The first was that the place had become the world capital of typography, with hundreds of professionals and their respective workshops in the city. Around 1480, 410 cities from six European countries had typography, the major part in Italy, “as if the country had usurped the invention from Germany”, Sauté comments. The second reason was that it was there that a numerous colony of Greek exiles had established itself, something very convenient for Manuzio, given the greater facility for finding revisers, calligraphers, typographers, printers and bookbinders for the original texts that he intended to publish in Greek. Before diving into ambitious editions, Aldo took the care to publish treatises on grammar, vocabularies and primers for the study of the classical languages. Finally, to print the Greek texts, he had, first, to get the manuscripts that were available, though scattered over all Europe. Reading, understanding and correcting possible faults in manuscript copies of century-old texts was an arduous task, particularly because paleography was not well developed.

Determined, Manuzio overcame the obstacles one by one and printed the complete work of Aristotle between 1495 and 1498, in five volumes.

Later on, in 1513, he did the same with Plato, besides publishing other thinkers, playwrights, historians and poets from Antiquity, such as Xenophon, Euripides, Herodotus, Aesop, Plutarch, Homer and Theocritus, amongst so many others. This production gave an impulse to Hellenistic studies in renaissance Italy and was disseminated over the other countries, which started to publish the Greek classics. Manuzio also printed many books in Latin and a few in Italian. In the first case, Ovid, Virgil, Cicero, Horace, to stick just to a few. In the latter case, basically, Dante Alighieri and Petrarch.

Dutchman Erasmus of Rotterdam, the most famous humanist of his time, for example, used to write in Latin and went so far as to remain under excusive contract to him for over a year, something totally unprecedented for that period. Before books from Manuzio’s publishing house were to create a few standard of excellence in publishing and printing, the most common types for printing were molded on alphabets of gothic typology, “in heavy and angular variants, difficult to read”, Enric Sauté explains in his study. The first types that Manuzio had carved were from the Greek alphabet, made by Greek calligraphers and craftsmen who had settled in Venice. When he began to publish in Latin, Aldo’s best engraver, Francesco Griffo, created an unprecedented, rounded, type, far from the tendency to thicken the strokes of the letter, to try to get the correct visual weight.

Cursive typography (or italic, as it is better known today) was invented by Manuzio in 1500, already thinking about launching pocket editions, a project done especially for their adaptation to the small format. The success of the cursive script was so great that it prompted immediate imitations. One probable influence from it occurred in a sector far away from typography. The four-stringed violin arose around 1550, according to all the indications, in Cremona (“the city of the legendary Amati, Guarnieri and Stradivarius”, Sauté recalls). The instrument has two symmetrical arabesques perforating the harmonic top, to achieve the correct acoustic resonance. These arabesques have the unmistakable shape of a cursive letter: the “f’s of the violin”.

The pocket collections with their cursive letters were Manuzio’s greatest success. The first ones came out in 1501, with three books by Virgil: the Bucolics, the Georgics and the Aeneid. There were more than 50 titles, which means that he put onto the market, between 1501 and 1506, one pocket edition every 60 days. The maximum price was 1 ducat (about R$ 50), and the initial print run a thousand copies – not counting the frequent republications. “It was a prowess, considering that we are dealing with a cultural and commercial phenomenon that happened over 500 years ago”, says Sauté with surprise in his book.  The same surprise with the quality of Manuzio’s works, which put the typographic, graphic and editorial standard of books on a high level, still remains amongst those who are passionate about the book as an object. “Manuzio was a genius in bringing together technology and art to improve the book and make it more attractive and functional”, says Claudio Giordano, the translator of Sauté’s text and the creator of the Book Workshop, an entity in São Paulo that tries to preserve, recover and keep alive works, newspapers and documents forgotten by publishers, critics and readers. Giordano refers to the first printed books, large and heavy, difficult to carry and to read, with their wooden covers covered with leather.

Time and censorship
Bibliophile José Mindlin, the owner of the main private collection of rare books in the country and a great admirer of this publisher and printer, is perhaps the owner of the only copy of Hypnerotomachia poliphili, by Fernando Colonna, of 1499, in Brazil (photo on page 11), the most perfect edition ever made by Manuzio. “If it were made today, this book would still be a success, such is the clarity of reading, the beauty of the illustrations and the quality of the editing”, he believes. Mindlin shows a 1533 republication of Rime, a book of poems by Petrarch in Italian – the first edition of which, of 1514, is by Manuzio -, with part of the lines smudged. “As it has some sonnets against the pope, the publishers of the time were obliged to cover the verses with India ink. It so happens that today it is perfectly possible to read through the faded ink”, he observes. During the Brazilian dictatorship, Mindlin would use the story of this book as a pretext to warn: “Time has beaten censorship”. As in the book by Petrarch, time has set about preserving the importance of the extensive innovative work of Aldo Manuzio.