Do you like to take your books with you; to read on the train, a park, or in a plane? You have a man named Aldus Manutius to thank for that.
He’s often said to be the inventor of the octavo, sometimes described as the paperback of its time, as well as italic type and the semicolon. He also knew the value of a brand – his books bore the dolphin & anchor, an ancient emblem of the motto “festina lente” – sometimes translated as “more haste, less speed”.
A quick note about book sizes & printing:
- a folio (from the Latin for “leaf”) is one sheet of paper or vellum folded once to create two leaves , which in turn create four pages once the printed leaves are bound & cut
- a quarto is a sheet folded twice, forming four leaves and eight pages
- an octavo is a sheet folded three times, forming eight leaves & sixteen pages
The octavo, about the size of a modern paperback, was the first book that could be easily read on the go.
So – did Aldus Manutius create the octavo?
Aldus was the Steve Jobs of the early printing world. While other printers had produced octavos before him, chiefly for prayer books, Aldus was the first to realise its potential. He created a series of affordable octavo editions of Greek, Latin and Italian classics, which fit nicely into a large pocket or a satchel. The Latin & Italian editions were printed with an italic type, which again he did not invent but refined, popularised and for a time patented.
2015 is the 500th anniversary of the death of Manutius. The Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand dedicated their 2015 conference to his contributions to the publishing world.
Our Mirror of the World: Books & Ideas exhibition celebrates book and textual culture throughout human history, from a 4000-year-old Mesopotamian stone Cuneiform tablet to 21st-century Australian artists’ books. This annually refreshed, free exhibition explores the riches of the State Library Victoria’s collection. It illustrates the transition from handwritten medieval books to the age of print and the work of Gutenberg, Aldus Manutius and other early printers, and beyond.
Lowry, Martin. The World of Aldus Manutius : Business and Scholarship in Renaissance Venice. Oxford [Eng.]: B. Blackwell, 1979.