A pocket edition in italic type

A bifolium from Caesarum Vitae (Lives of the Roman Emperors) by Dio Cassius, printed at the Aldine Press in Venice in 1519 (each page 155 x 94 mm)  

In 1500 Griffo produced for Aldus a new and original style of font, based on a less formal scribal script than roman; today we know it as ‘italic’.

Aldus’ octavo editions were in a smaller format than today’s paperbacks.

Text set in italic type took up less space than roman, and Aldus used it to produce pocket-sized editions of classical works. The page size was ‘octavo’, meaning that each sheet that came from the press carried eight pages of text on each side, before folding and trimming for assembly into the book. The new sloping type proved popular, and Aldus’ pocket editions sold well, though they were not cheap. As this example shows, Aldus used italic type for the main text of his books – something seldom done today – but small upright letters for the capitals. Slanting italic capitals came later.

With four presses on the go at once, the Aldine Press could turn out more than 10,000 books a year. Aldus himself was a workaholic who claimed to be so busy he had no time to blow his nose, eat or relieve himself. Following his death in 1516 the press was carried on by his successors, and my bifolium, from a history of the roman emperors, was produced by them in 1519. (For Griffo, the type designer, things did not turn out well. According to Alan G Thomas in Great Books and Book Collectors, ‘he hit his son-in-law over the head with an iron bar and killed him. For this very understandable act he was hanged in Bologna in 1518’.)

It is surprising that as late as 1519 the Aldine Press was still leaving blank spaces for the insertion by hand of decorated initials. Other printers had long since been issuing books with decorative initials already printed in from woodblocks. The example below is part of a leaf from a treatise on astronomy printed by Erhard Ratdolt in Venice in 1482. The large ‘S’ starts the word ‘Serpens’ referring to the constellation of that name.