Cara/Andrea here, I’ve recently picked up some interesting e-books—thanks to our monthly “What Are We Reading” post—so I’ve been reading on my Kindle more than usual. The fact that it slips so easily into a purse is convenient, and as I’ve been running hither and yon lately, that’s a big plus. But I confess, no matter how hard I try, I just can’t warm up to a sliver of light-emitting plastic. Okay it’s a utilitarian tool.
But it’s not art. And the exhibition that just opened at the Grolier Club in New York City on the Italian Humanist printer Aldus Manutius shows that good book design brings as much pleasure to the eye as to the intellect.
Manutius, a scholar turned printer, founded the Aldine Press in in Venice in 1492. (His famous printer’s mark, a dolphin entwined around an anchor, is used today by Doubleday.) The New York Times review of the show says that Gutenberg’s invention of movable type was the same disruptive force on society as our own digital information age—and that Venice was the Silicon Valley of its day, as it became the center of printing.
But it wasn’t just that Manutius published books that have made him an iconic name for all bibliophiles. He published beautiful books, and pioneered innovations in typography and design that have had a profound influence on how we read today—it really to him that we owe the mass market paperback! (Though he is likely rolling in his grave over the lack of quality in both materials and page layout.)
The list of his achievements would fill many sheets of deckle-edged paper. They include the invention of italic letters—wanting something that reflected the elegant handwriting of the Humanist scholars, he worked with his brilliant typemaker Francesco Griffo to create the style. (Shown just below is the first book ever to be printed with italics—look closely at the book and the heart in St. Catherine’s hands)
He also designed beautiful Roman typefaces for his books, renowned for their graceful proportions and readability. Bembo, one of his most famous creations, is still very popular. Another of his innovations was the semicolon—he was the first to use it in the grammatical way we do today. Determined to make the work of the ancient Greeks readily available to Renaissance readers, he was the first print the works of Aristotle. Sophocles and Herodotus. He’s also known for pioneering the “Golden Ratio” proportion of page design, which is still a guiding principle today.
One of his most influential innovations was the creation of libelli portatiles, or “portable little books.” The New York Times article quotes G. Scott Clemons, the president of the Grolier Club as saying, “It’s become a cliché to call them the forerunners of the Penguin Classics. But the concept of personal reading is in some ways directly traceable to the innovations of Aldus’s portable library.” The small volumes, which are similar in size to our modern mass market paperbacks, helped encourage the dissemination of the classics, and make reading more accessible. The new idea spawned lots of knock-offs and counterfeit editions (just like today!) purporting to be Aldine books. Manutius was very unhappy about it, not just for the monetary loss but also because he felt the books were of such inferior quality and design.
In bibliographic and typographic history, Manutius is best known for his edition of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, produced in 1499, which is considered the most beautiful (and strangest) book ever printed. (The Gutenberg Bible and HP are the most famous incunabula, which is the term for books printed before 1500.) Written by Francesco Colonna, it’s a weirdly allegorical erotic journey of love, mixing a number of different languages—some of them apparently made up by the author. Scholar still puzzle over its meaning, but visually, it’s an exquisite combination of graceful woodcuts and elegant typography. (As a grad student in Graphic Design, I was lucky enough to be handle to handle an original copy of HP, and actually feel the paper and smell the ink!)
So what about you? Do you care about the look of a book’s page? Or are you happy simply seeing words on a page? Does the practical features of an e-reader, like altering size of type, trump the feel of a page and the proportions of the margins. Lastly, do you have a favorite “beautiful” book? Mine is the Kelmscott Chaucer, printed by William Morris.