Aldus Manutius and the spirit of book innovation

A ‘portable little book’ of Horace designed by Aldus Manutius in the 1490s

Not going for the hit is not always a bad idea.

Deciding against the most obvious choice may be the sign of a better, yet unsuspected, judgment.

At the end of the 15th at the beginning of the 16 century, the pioneer editor and typographer Aldus Manutius of Venice refused, and categorically so, to print a book which had been a bestseller for the last 300 years. The grammar book known as the Doctrinale puerorum, had been a standard textbook for teaching Latin to European schoolchildren since the early 13th century. It was a book anyone with a business mind would’ve wanted to make copies of, by hand or by using the latest technology, the moveable-type printing press developed by Johannes Gutenberg.

Aldus passed over the opportunity to print a book which would’ve helped his business for the reason that the Doctrinale represented a dying age. As a man of the Renaissance committed to putting in circulation books which represented, in his estimation, the future of European letters, or as we would say today, European culture – Aldus sacrificed profit on the altar of ideas.

If you like to read books, then you have a debt towards Aldus, as it was him who standardised the book, endowing it with all the features we take for granted: index, page numbers, the semicolon, title and cover pages, etc. He also developed the small-book format, the libellus portatilis, which is no small feat in the long history of the book.

Aldus was a genius who understood that the future value doesn’t depend on past performance. He was a humanist in the deep sense, who became acutely aware that he was straddling two worlds, and that he had to make his choice between the two.

He chose innovation, and at least in the world of books and letters he set himself up for succes. A success that it would be for us, rather than for him, to measure the full extent thereof.

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