Book History

Bio of a Book – The Aldine

Biography of a Book

I had the privilege and pleasure a few months back of viewing first hand an “Aldine”; several , actually.  Wow!  How cool!  But wait?  What is an Aldine?  An Aldine is the signature name given to books printed and published by The Aldine Press.  Oh, of course!  But, The Aldine Press – what exactly is that?  The Aldine Press is the printing and publishing house developed by Aldus Manutius, who in fact has quite a few other names:  Aldus Manutius the Elder; Aldus Romanus (Roman); Aldo Manuzio il Vecchio (Italian); original name Teobaldi Manucci.  Quite a guy with quite an interesting story, but first, some particulars on one of the Aldine books I viewed in Special Collections & University Archives within the library at San Diego State University.

I was accompanied by Ms. Anna Culbertson, keeper of all things special in Special Collections.  She instructed me on how to ‘cradle’ in my hand the three Aldines that had been brought out of the archives and laid open on top of the immense wooden tables that had once inhabited the Malcom A. Love Library in their previous lives.  I was relieved when Anna told me that I could open the Aldines, turn their pages, feel their binding, and even take their pictures!  Cradling them was just a careful way to hold them, but it didn’t mean I had to hold my breath while examining these books.  I was fascinated by their size (small), their texture (course), and their smell (a little musty).  I had done some research prior to arriving in Special Collections, so I had a fairly general idea of what I was going to see and hold.  Which brings me to the point of this ramble:  we’re going to take a look at one Aldine in particular and investigate its distinguished provenance and its journey and follow it from its birth to where it currently resides.  First, let’s take a look at it front and center and also at its opening page:


Aldine - 1Aldine - 2


Front and Center                               Opening Page


The title of this book is: Rhetoricorum AD C. Herennium Libri IIII Incerto Auctore

The author is: Ciceronis, or Marcus Tullius Cicero

The publisher is: Paulo Manutio

The publication date of this book is: 1554

Its measurements are: 4-1/2” wide x 6-1/4” tall

Pagination: 184 pages

Wormholes?  Lots

Original cover and binding? No.  Anna Culbertson from Special Collections says that the front and back covers are of cardboard, and it’s definitely not the original material.

Printer’s device/logo/colophone: The Aldine Press iconic dolphin and anchor logo appears on the title page (more on this later)

Language: Latin

Imprint: Venetiis, Aldi Filio

Printed in italic type

Artistic imagery on the edge of the pages: very visible but quite faded in color

Current Location: SDSU Special Collections and University of San Diego (according to the 1974 edition of the Stanford University Census of Aldines in California), to name only two locations.

This book along with the other two Aldines that I viewed had basically the same appearance with a few minor discrepancies: each page of this particular book had a vertical and horizontal line printed about one half inch from the four edges while the other two books did not (kind of like a frame for the text on each page).  The anchor of the dolphin/anchor device on this book appears to have been filled in, in somewhat messy fashion, with red ink.  Anna Culbertson speculated that some previous owner might have done this because she doubted that the book in its original form was printed with a red logo.

One of the other Aldines had a bookplate on the inside front cover that said: San Diego State University, Jon N. Sutherland Collection, Friends of the Malcolm A. Love Library.  The other Aldine also had a bookplate that said Dr. James Gordon, along with what appeared to be a very fancy cursive signature: Dr. Gordon, 1737.  My chosen Aldine did not have a bookplate.  However, the bookplates suggest the travels these three Aldines may have made throughout their lives: originating in Venice as a product of their progenitor, The Aldine Press; moving from here to there through the last few centuries, traversing continents; residing within private book collections, being handled by scholars, book lovers, Everyman; and eventually being farmed out to a large university, kind of like a foster child couch surfing, trying to find a home and a place to stay, only in this case the Aldines were surfing in search of a permanent shelf.

In order to fully understand the significance of Aldines it is essential to closely examine their origination, to go back several centuries to the late 1400’s when printing and publishing as it exists today came into being.   Alessandro Marzo Magno, author of Bound in Venice, says that “Painting has Raphael, sculpture Michelangelo, architecture Brunelleschi, and printing Aldus Manutius.”  Aldus was the first and most eminent of the scholar-printers of the Renaissance.  The history of publishing could be divided into before Manutius and after Manutius, so huge was his impact.  Aldus contributed the first Greek and italic fonts to the publishing world; he was the first to print a bestseller; the first to revolutionize punctuation by using a semicolon; the first to introduce the portable book by introducing the octavo size on a mass scale (and although small size was in fact already in existence, it was limited mainly to devotional literature).  He was the first to envision the book as entertainment and reading as pleasure.

Although many of the early printers had a background in some type of craft (metalworker, woodcarver, etc.), Aldus was above all things a scholar.  He was born sometime around 1449 or 1450, the year being in dispute, about fifty miles from Rome.  His love of the Greek canon began early in life, as a student in Rome.  His education began as a student of the great classics, probably memorizing important works.  He was fascinated by language, paying attention to grammatical accuracy and correct punctuation.  At the time he started his printing business, at the age of 40, he was already an established scholar, tutor, writer, and most importantly, a Hellenist with his strong passion for Greek.  Aldus was a sophisticated intellectual who chose which works to print based on their content, rather than merely for profit and commercial yield.  He also aligned himself with scholarly collaborators, the ‘best and brightest’ in the many fields of knowledge which interested him.   Sometime around 1489 to 1490 he moved to Venice, where he established his publishing house, The Aldine Press.

In addition to his scholarly bent and the desire to make the classics available to others, his Aldine Press was also known for producing one of the most beautiful books ever printed, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, by some standards an erotic, perhaps even pornographic work.   It is full of images and woodcuts, illustrations and ornamentations.   This book, printed in 1499, makes for an interesting contrast with Gutenberg’s Bible of 1455, with the Bible being seriously German and strict  and the Hypnerotomachia being Italian, classic, and pagan.

The early years of his career as a publisher are taken up with printing in Greek, printing the works of Aristotle.  He introduces the concept of printing two columns per page (in comparison to the single column).  He experiments with type size and style and creates his italic font.  He experiments with kerning (adjusting the spacing between letters or characters).  He introduces the novel idea of portability by creating books in the octavo size.  The typography and layout of his books are innovative in that he experiments with lines of text that start out full size left to right and then diminish in size as the paragraph continues (I mentioned this in my class presentation and had a sample of it in the small Aldine book I created).  In short, the guy’s a visionary. Aldus ushered in a new era of portability and approachability, making the once inaccessible and ponderous works of the past all of a sudden accessible to the common man, student, scholar – to a contemporary audience e who was interested in exploring what reading was all about.  He facilitated the shift from laborious, mistake prone, large  manuscripts to meticulously edited fixed copy in small size.

His Aldines were also easily recognizable by the unique branding he used: a dolphin’s body wrapped around an anchor, the design of which was taken from an old Roman coin with the motto “fastina lente” from Emperor Augustus.  It meant, “Make Haste Slowly” and pointed to the tedious attention to detail that a printer had to exercise in the mass production of books.  Aldus Manutius was the Master Printer of Venice.  So the books he birthed, his Aldines, are the tangible manifestation of all that he envisioned: respectability for the classics, meticulous editing, scholarly focus, enthusiasm for language, and availability to the masses.

So back to the significance of the Aldine described above, which is an archetype of The Book:  although there were numerous printers and publishers in Venice in the late fifteenth century, it was The Aldine Press that ushered in The Book as we know it today.  And what is that?  A device for disseminating knowledge, and one that just about anyone can access, hold, carry around, and understand.  Something that can provide an occasion for pleasure and a pleasant way to pass one’s time. Something entertaining, enjoyable, engaging.  Something that diverts one’s focus from the routine to the stimulating.  Not something heavy, dark, laborious, and mysterious, which might describe The Book prior to the arrival of Aldines on the publishing scene.

It is almost cliché to say that he was the father of the modern paperback, but Aldus did in fact provide a model for how printed books should look and this model has lasted 500 years.  The Aldines made reading accessible and personal and represented a massive shift in how people consumed knowledge.  Sounds a little like the impact of a Kindle or Nook, right?  The Aldine can correctly be viewed as the progenitor of portable electronic reading devices. The Aldine had and the Kindle has the capability of making literature within reach of the masses.  The medium of the Aldine was different than the Kindle, but both were the key to satisfying the desire of multitudes of people such as you and me, who wanted/want to be able to know what’s going on and prefer to read about it rather than hear about it.

Janice Radway, in her article A Feeling for Books in The Book History Reader, quotes Henry Canby as saying, “The best book is worth nothing at all if it never finds a reader.”  In this same article, Dorothy Canfield, Canby’s contemporary, states that there is a ‘fundamental continuity between literature and life.”  Yes, most definitely.  The Aldine, in size and format, and likewise the Kindle too, make it much easier to end up in a reader’s hands and to perpetuate the continuity between literature and life.

I close with a touch of humor, but as the old saying goes, “Many a true word has been spoken in jest”:

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend.”  -Groucho Marx

Long live The Book.


Works that contributed to this essay:

Clair, Colin. A History of European Printing.  London:  Academic Press Inc., 1976. Chapter 13. The Aldine Press and Others.

Lowry, Martin.  The World of Aldus Manutius.  New York: Cornell University Press.  1979.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L.  The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe.  New York: Cambridge University Press.  1983.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L.  The Printing Press as an Agent of Change.  New York: Cambridge University Press.  1979.

Howard, Nicole.  The Book/The Life Story of a Technology.  Chapter 3, Youth: Books in the Sixteenth Century.  Maryland:  The Johns Hopkins University Press.  2009.

Lenkey, Susan V. (compiler). Census of Aldines in California.  Stanford, CA:  Stanford University Press, 1974.

Clement, R. W. (1995) Review of Aldus and His Dream Book. The Sixteenth Century Journal, 26 (4), 1057-1058,  JSTOR. Web. 23 April 2016.

Magno, Alessandro Marzo. Bound in Venice-The Serene Republic and the Dawn of the Book.  New York:  Europa Editions. 2013.

Kilgour, Frederick G.  The Evolution of the Book.  New York:  Oxford University Press, Inc.  1998. Chapter 12 – The Electronic Book.

Buhler, Curt F.  The Fifteenth Century Book.  Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press.  1960.

Crick, Julia. Walsham, Alexandra.  The Uses of Script and Print, 1300-1700.  United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.  2004.

Finkelstein, David. McCleery, Alistair. The Book History Reader, Second Edition.  Routledge. 2002. 2006.

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