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First Impressions

Aldus Manutius 1450 - 1515

The art of printing spread to Italy following the exodus of printers from Mainz in the 1460s, and Venice soon became the centre of the book trade. It was a maritime republic with trading links throughout Northern Europe, the Mediterranean and the Orient, and with a rich merchant society and a literate middle class, a market exploited by the printers who first set up workshops there such as Nicolas Jenson.

Aldus Manutius was an Italian humanist scholar who became a printer and publisher. He founded a press in Venice that was to change both the direction of typography and the format in which books were produced. His enterprise was based on Greek and Latin classics. In 1501 he printed an edition of the collected works of Vergil and then every two months for the next five years he produced classical works in a new pocket-sized format (octavo format), that became known as 'Aldine' editions after their printer. The production of these books was made possible by the creation of a new style of typeface – italic. The invention of italic was due to the talent of Manutius's punchcutter and typefounder, Francesco Griffo. The condensed size of the type allowed the page size to be reduced and smaller pages meant smaller books that were cheaper to print. The 'Aldine' editions proved to be very popular and demand for them translated into larger print runs. Before Manutius, books were normally printed in runs of 100 to 250 books, whereas his press issued runs of 1,000 books.

These small format publications, which were easy to carry in either the pocket or a satchel, had a huge impact on book production that can find a parallel with the impact that laptops had on the world of computers in twentieth and twenty-first centuries – scholarship became mobile.