Early Modern Times – a font of knowledge

Early Modern Times - a font of knowledge

Dear readers,

If you’ve ever wondered where italics come from, this recent article examines its origins in the context of early modern Venice’s publishing industry. A local bookbinder, Paolo Olbi, is seeking to ‘restore the glory of Venetian publishing and bring artisanal bookmaking back to Venice.’ Indeed, although the ‘birthplace of publishing’ is thought to be Germany due to Gutenberg’s press–though the article adopts the common misconception that he invented the movable-type printing press, when in fact the Chinese had developed movable type already–various factors contributed to the flourishing of publishing in 15th and 16th c. Venice. The Venetian Republic was a major trading city and centre of commerce, and evaded Catholic attempts to control it. We might say that Venice was no la-goon for the Papacy.

A central figure in early modern Venetian publishing was Aldus Manutius, who opened Aldine Press. His editions of often obscure works of Renaissance learning might have led critics to excoriate him as obsessed with ‘Manutiae’. Aldine Press printed its first book in 1495, Constantine Lascaris’s Erotemata, a book of Greek grammar. Despite this seemingly respectable subject-matter, Early Modern Times’s Department of Underground Venetian Pornography has uncovered evidence that Manutius also published Lacaris’s disreputable smut, including Erotematador (the active sex-lives of ‘horny’ bullfighters), Erotematamatics (the rather abstract sex lives of geometers and algebrists, with plenty of ‘trigonometry warnings’), and a racy version of Erotemata for elderly Greek grammas.

Manutius was responsible for several innovations in publishing. He developed the formato in ottavo, i.e., ‘small, portable books that measured one eighth of the initial sheet of paper from which they were cut’: the ancestor of today’s portable paperbacks. He also worked on a monstrous recipe for fruit-and-vegetable stuffed aquatic mammals and small rodents, an ancestor of the ‘terducken’: the tomato in otter-vole. Furthermore, while other publishers followed Gutenberg by printing in gothic type, he created his own font, aldino, now known as italics (as pictured above, in Manutius’s 1499 edition of the Renaissance romance Hypnerotomachia Poliphili). He seems also to have created a special font for books on prehistoric fossils, with letters shaped like a tyrannosaurus rex, brontosaurus, stegosaurus, etc.: the alldino font.

Venice became a centre of European publishing, such that rival cities trying to get into the business suffered from ‘Venice envy’. Venice’s success drew to it scholars from abroad, further expanding its immigrant population and fostering the publication of books in multiple languages. For local xenophobes, however, this was excessive: a case of polyglottony.

Today, Paolo Olbi seeks to bring about a veritable renaissance in Venetian bookmaking through the Antica Stamperia Armena, owned by the Armenian Catholics in Venice. If successful, this could be an opportunity for a Canadian-owned publisher specialising in the reproduction of the original literature promoting rodeo events and midway rides at the ‘Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth’ held every July in Alberta’s largest city: the Antica Stampedia Calgaria.

’til next week,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Fontifical Studies Program

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