Saturday 10 January 2015

From Aldo to the Reader, with love - Michelle Lovric

The Aldine Press's anchor and dolphin logo
We have many reasons to thank Aldo Manuzio of Venice’s famed Aldine Press.

Not least for his limpid Bembo font, one of my favourites, and the lasting legacy of Aldo’s great project: the translation of the printing trade to an art form.

I personally thank Aldo for the process that led to me being able to type this blog straight into the computer, as lately I’ve been transcribing the contents of my Venice notebooks. Being a doctor’s daughter, I have inherited terrible handwriting, in a Lamarckian kind of way. So this week I needed Mary Hoffman of this parish to help me out with what looked like ‘Aretino bisexual corn’ in my impenetrable scrawl.

So I was delighted to receive an invitation to a press conference just before Christmas to launch a whole year of Aldo-related events in Venice to mark the 500th anniversary of the great printer’s death. Appropriately, the conference was held in the sculpture-lined vestibolo of the Libreria Sansoviniana. Here is the view of the Palazzo Ducale from one of its windows.
The events of the anniversary have been curated by the wonderful Tiziana Plebani, author of many essential books about Venice’s publishers and readers, including Il genere dei libri. Storie e rappresentazioni della lettura al femminile e al maschile tra Medioevo ed età moderna (Milano 2001) and Venezia 1469. La legge e la stampa, (Venezia 2004); on Aldo Manuzio: Omaggio ad Aldo grammatico: origine e tradizione degli insegnanti stampatori, in Aldo Manuzio e l'ambiente veneziano (Venezia 1994). But Tiziana does not live solely in the golden past of Venice’s readers. She is also one of the key contributors to the project to save Venice’s dwindling bookshops, about which I posted here last year.

Aldo, courtesy of
Wikimedia Commons
The personality of Aldo Manuzio is key to 2015's cycle of celebration. His character is writ large in his works, in his writings and in the way he set up his business. Aldo was no dreamer. He was a man of word and deed. He inhabited no ivory tower but instead a busy office where he also managed a vast correspondence and a network of professionals in the learning business. Books, he always said, should be paid for, because without money he could not print more books.

He felt that books united people in friendship. He wanted, above all, to encourage a love of reading, from a young age. He urged teachers to do their work with affection, like parents, taking care to encourage little boys to develop pleasure in and not aversion towards the written word.

To keep that love of reading alive, Aldo insisted on publishing books that were written both readably and elegantly. He invented the small format that could be carried about easily so no one needed to be parted from a beloved volume but could literally tuck it up their sleeve (in the days before pockets). He cut fonts that were a joy to the eye. He invented italics to give relief, diversity and more expressiveness to the page. He standardized punctuation so that a reader never had to ponder what the writer meant. Aldo gave us the large gutter, providing focus to each page. Indeed, he even gave us page numbers. So much did Aldo Manuzio love his reader!

Aldo's De mulieribus Claris courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
All these innovations were not for the sake of technology or commerce. They were designed to put the idea on centre stage. In fact, Aldo’s mannerly interventions are so discreet that they almost disappear from our consciousness, as they were designed to do, so all the reader needs to do is apply a happy eye to the page.

This is why Tiziana Plebani’s event cycle is called ‘From Aldo to the Reader’. It aims to get inside the mind of the Renaissance reader – that person Aldo so much wished to nourish with his work, a person to be cultivated, indulged and fed with words that were good in conception and execution.

The speakers in these lectures will introduce us to readers of Aldo’s time. What did they love to read? What could they afford to read? How did they acquire books? The Titanic bookshops (real and virtual) of the twentieth century were of course unknown. Many people bought books from itinerant pedlars, who also sold song sheets and printed art. Or they came straight to Aldo’s press and pestered him, as he recorded in one of his charmingly irascible letters.

Here are some of the events of the year, just in case you can make it to Venice at these times:

February 19th: Neil Harris will talk about the typical printing studio of the Renaissance.

On March 12 he will speak about the Italian reader of the same period – giving a profile of the book consumer.

On April 1st, James Clough and Alberto Prandi will present Aldo Manuzio: che carattere! Come un carattere di Aldo ha fatto, da solo, la storia della tipografia fino ai nostri tempi.

On May 20th, Federico Barbierato will talk about images of dolphins, lilies and phoenixes as used by European publishers.

September 9th sees Giulio Busi speaking on Aldo’s Polyglot Lagoon – Hebrew, Arabic and other exotic languages at the Aldine Press

Mario Infelise offers on September 17th, a talk entitled What we don’t know about Aldo Manuzio and what would be interesting to know.

On  25th November there will be a round table discussion coordinated by Alessandro Marzo Magno on The world of the book, yesterday and today, for publishers, curators, authors and readers. Participants include Mario Andreose, Cesare de Michelis, Tiziano Scarpa, Guido Guerzoni. I was delighted to meet up with Alessandro at the press conference – and he was particularly resplendent in a gold and black lace waistcoat, perfect for the occasion, and for the man who wrote L’alba dei libri. Come Venezia ha fatto leggere il mondo (Milano 2012).

This is just a small selection of the events. If you are making a visit to Venice, please remember to have a look at the website, from which the various illustrations above are also taken, with thanks.

P.S. As Mary Hoffman realized, I meant ‘Aretino bisexual porn.’ Of course.

Michelle Lovric's website
 Michelle Lovric’s latest novel, partly set in Venice and about a writer, is The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters, published by Bloomsbury.

Alessandr0 Magno Marzo’s book is happily translated in English: Bound in Venice: The Serene Republic and the Dawn of the Book


Sue Purkiss said...

I'd never heard of him, yet we owe him so much! Thanks, Michelle.

adele said...

Just fabulous! Love a nice font and am very fond of Bembo! Super...

Joan Lennon said...

I had no idea! I have a new hero!

Sue Bursztynski said...

I've never heard of him either, but he was a very special man. When you think about it, if he'd been born in a later period, he would have invented the paperback. :-)

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

That is so interesting - we take developments and innovations for granted. Thanks, Michelle.

Susan Price said...

My microsoft doesn't support Bembo. I had to go and look it up on Google - and yes, a very pleasing, elegant font.

I think Lynne Truss enthuses about Aldo in her 'Shoots, Eats and Leaves.' It is amazing that one man, almost single-handedly, sorted out most of how we write and print today.

Elspeth Scott said...

Oh, that takes me back! I remember learning about Aldus Manutius in my history of publishing class when a student - in fact I think I used Bembo when I got a chance to actually do some printing.