This article was originally published as a series of three posts.
We like to celebrate the Jobs’s and the Musks of this world, but we often forget those without whom none of it would be there to celebrate. One of them is Aldus Manutius. If you’re not a bibliophile, a book scholar or a walking encyclopedia, you’ll be like ‘what, who?’
We have much to learn from Aldus. A role model for his own 16th century and subsequent centuries, Aldus, or Aldo, as he was known in Venice, his homebase, and the rest of Italy, gave us the book as we know it.
The world’s first editor-printer-publisher, he is also, as Italian historian Alessandro Marzo Magno dubbed him, an inventor of books.
Forget e-books, audiobooks and Amazon for a second. Aldo is the source of all that, of how we relate to books, of what books are – and can do. If you’re having a glass of wine while reading this, please spare a toast to Aldus, for without him, it’s unlikely I’d be writing/typing here, and that you’d be reading your books at all the way you do. So go ahead with that libation, and keep scrolling.
Born in the early 1450s in a town near Rome, Aldus grew up to become the face of printing in Italy, and to achieve European renown. The printing press using moveable type had been developed in the 1440s by Johannes Gutenberg, that’s well known and well rehearsed. By the 1490s, Germans working close to Gutenberg established presses in Rome. By the 1490s, Aldus, imbued with the humanist spirit of the late 15th century, opened his own printing press in Venice. He wasn’t the only printer in Italy, but his vision, strategy and achievements made him and his Aldine press synonymous with the high-quality printed book across the West.
His success story is by no means the stuff of antiquaries. Though more than 500 years old, it holds a lesson for the 21st century. I’ll try to show that in three parts.
I. A humanist with a marketing-driven mind
Aldus started his publishing career by editing and printing books in Greek. A bit of context. The end of the 15th century was a treasure trove of opportunities for the humanist reader. For the last century or so, Western men and women of letters had started to look back to ancient Rome for new models and new ways of writing and thinking.
The medieval mind was shifting, and many were rediscovering the world before their own, a world of eloquence, good Latin and fabulous literary models, like Cicero, Lucretius and other ancient Roman authors. And through the Roman authors, they were starting to find out about ancient Greece, to which Rome had been overwhelmingly indebted. But the language as well as the skills were missing. Ancient Greek had but completely disappeared from the West. Fortunately for the humanists but unfortunately for the 16th-century geopolitical balance, Byzantine Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, and with the conquest came an influx of Greek-speaking scholars who found refuge and forged brilliant careers in the Italian states. Venice was closest to the epicentre, so it quickly became a centre of Greek letters in the West. Aldus saw the opportunity, not so much, or not primarily for business reasons, but for making a hefty, the heftiest, contribution to the humanist effort of disseminating Greek letters in the Latin-speaking West.
His first printed books were of Ancient Greek authors printed in Greek. Now, printing in the 16th century was not a File-Print-OK kind of operation. It required the type, the metal letters, the font, as we call it today, and that was a gargantuan thing to achieve technologically. But he did it, thanks to key people close to him. I’ll come back to this later. His editions of the Greek classics became instant bestsellers in a literary culture marked by Hellenistic draught. The market developed like a tsunami, and an entire generation of litterati flocked to his bottega veneta, the Aldine Press, to buy the expensive, yet accessible, volumes. A stroke of genius of commercial proportions.
If scholars have no business sense, that’s certainly not Aldus Manutius’ fault. He showed one can be as philologically, historically and linguistically apt, and also a leading entrepreneur in one of the most entrepreneurial cities of the 16th century, the Serenissima.
We left Aldus amidst his growing business and his Greek books destined for a hungry hitherto Latin-exclusive readership. It is time to check out his spirit of innovation, the other leading ingredient of his success story.
II. Small size, huge impact
To the question ‘does size matter’, Aldus answered in the affirmative. But the mauvaises langues soon found out that he reserved an addendum: the smaller, the better. There was a catch.
When he entered the publishing market as yet another player among the early adopters of the emerging printing technology, most books had been made, whether by hand or printed, in a format called in folio, ‘leaf-size’. They were made by taking large sheets of parchment or paper called bifolia and folding them to make two leaves, or folia. Like tree leaves, not Walt Whitman leaves. The books thus produced were large, bulky and heavy. To read them, readers had to go to where the books were and read them in situ, on the spot.
These books weren’t really designed to be carried around, though some of them were. Remember those scenes from The Name of the Rose or the early seasons of The Vikings where readers would open big books laid out on big tables. A book of Aristotle was heavy not just because it contained heavy-duty philosophical and scientific thought, but also because it weighed a lot.
Aldus understood that if the book industry was to go anywhere, the book had to go to where the reader was, rather than the other way around. The answer to this challenge came rather quickly, though we don’t know all the details of how he developed his MVP.
The end result was a small, portable book, where the original giant bifolium was folded in eight, rather than two. This is called an octavo. He didn’t invent it, but championed it as the best way forward by printing his best books in this format. The innovation went viral, and when he developed a new script, oblique and cursive, to accompany the new format, the market exploded. That script we know today as italics, because Aldus and those after him who carried on his work, were all Italians. The Italian job. He called this prototype libellus portatilis, a portable little book, in formam enchiridii, in the form of a manual, not that his books were primers or manuals, but that they could be held in one hand, manual in the literal sense.
The readers no longer needed to travel to consult a book, they could carry it with them, and what’s more, could read it even while standing. Remember the image opening the previous post?
It wasn’t just a format change, just like the iPhone wasn’t just a phone with a big screen. The portable Aldine book revolutionised reading. For the first time, an increasingly large selection of humanist and classical books were available in this format. People changed the way they read and the way they expected to read. Literacy boomed, and the culture was forever transformed.
In the next and final part, we’ll see how Aldus wouldn’t have been able to achieve any of this without a good and deep understanding of the power of networks. Why he’s not on the MBA curriculum beats me.
III. Building and leveraging the right networks
I’ve recently attended a business leadership development programme and one of the things which stuck with me was what the facilitator had to say about building and developing networks: a network advantage needs three things: breadth, which is about strong relationships forged with a diverse range of contacts; connectivity or the capacity to link or bridge across people and groups that wouldn’t otherwise connect; and finally, dynamism, a dynamic set of extended evolving ties.
Aldus knew all of this, of course, and he didn’t have to go to business school.
On his own, he would have achieved little, and perhaps he would have been just another brick in the printing wall. But he leveraged the power of networks, internal and external, as we say.
He wouldn’t have become the world’s first editor-printer-publisher if he hadn’t counted on the friendship of key individuals.
In many ways, he was an orchestra man. He mastered the technology, he adopted the humanist spirit, and he knew where the wind was blowing. In other words, he was a subject-matter expert and a visionary. What he needed was networks.
From the start, he built relationships with the key figures of the time, scholars, technicians and patrons. He recruited Francesco Griffo da Bologna, one of the most prominant typesetters living in Venice, who helped him develop the script and the mise-en-page, the layout, he so needed for his innovative product, the small octavo book. He worked closely with humanists like Pietro Bembo, Poliziano or the Greek exile Constantine Lascaris, who sourced the best texts for him to correct, edit and publish. And he relied on the grace of political leaders such as the powerful Isabella d’Este Gonzaga who helped raise his profile among the courtly elites. He was a relentless communicator, corresponding with agents all over Europe. And when his success attracted imitators, like Filippo Giunta of Venice, or forgerers and falsifiers, like the anonymous workshops in Lyon, he knew who to count on to protect his intellectual property and his business.
There’s so much more we can say about Aldus and his entrepreneurial spirit. His Aldine Press may have begun as a start-up, but at his death in 1515 it was a well-established business. And more importantly, the impact on the publishing market and the culture more widely was colossal: only 5 percent of printed books were written in octavo when Aldus started. At this death: 51% of printed books in Europe were small-format paperbacks. And this is the world of yesterday we are the heirs of. A new chapter had opened.