The Riddle of The Aldine Italic

By A. S. Osley
Date Added: 21/07/2009


Many people tend to think of the italics, which they see in a printed page, as a slanting type used for emphasis. The first italics, however, were designed for a quite different purpose. They were modelled on the can-cellaresca style of handwriting. Such slant as they had (and it was only a few degrees to the right) was a function of their cursiveness. Moreover they were employed for the complete text of a book, not scattered like condiments on Roman type.

The conception of italic type is attended with a certain amount of mystery. The place of birth is known - Venice. And the parents were undoubtedly Aldus Manutius the Elder and Francesco Griffo (or Griffi) of Bologna [1], an accomplished type-cutter. Aldus was born about 1450 and died in 1515. He was one of the greatest of Italian printers, specialising in the production of sound editions of the Greek classical authors, for whom a great demand then existed. His first books were printed in a clear, serviceable Roman type. Around 1500 he seems to have had a brain-wave. He divined that the new reading public of ' the Renaissance needed the classics in a cheap, portable form. So in 1501 he brought out the first pocket edition of Vergil. Not only was the size of the book small and convenient and its price low, but it was printed throughout in a new italic type. The format was a sensational success, and rapidly imitated in other European countries.

At the end of this Vergil, Aldus pays tribute to his type-cutter, praising the type "cut by the skilled hands of Francis of Bologna" [2]. Elsewhere, he claims that he has "invented beautiful letters of a cancellaresca or cursive style which gave the appearance of having been written by hand"; and again, "I have caused to be cut a cursive cancellaresca type of an entirely new design of great beauty" [3]. The inference we are meant to draw is that Aldus conceived the idea and that he deliberately wanted to give his editions the appearance of a book written in the chancery cursive. If we accept Aldus' account, his purpose can only be guessed. It may simply be, as is often stated, that he thought the chancery script would give him more words to a page [4]. Or was he merely doing what he had done for the Greek classics? Or could it be that readers were finding that the printed Roman book, for all its advantages, was monotonous to eyes attuned to the irregularities of manuscript? It is perhaps significant that his type imitates an informal cursive, which may, in fact, have lent plausibility to the picturesque myth (still repeated sometimes) that he wanted to imitate the hand of Petrarch [5].

Could he actually have had any particular model in mind? When, earlier, he produced his editions of the Greek classics, his Greek founts seem to have been modelled on the contemporary Greek handwriting practised by his friends, particularly the Cretan, Marcus Musurus. It may be thought reasonable to examine whether any of his friends could have inspired the Aldine Italic. At present no reliable evidence is known. Mr. James Wardrop put forward Bartolomeo San Vito of Padua (1435-?1518) as a possible candidate [6]: and Mr. Fairbank confesses that, of all the numerous scripts he has studied, that of Pomponio Leto (1428-1497) most resembles the Italic of Aldus [7]. So far as historical evidence goes, I have not been able to trace any connection between San Vito and Aldus. On the other hand, a certain Candidus Romanus, when writing to Aldus for a job, thought it worth stating that he was a pupil of Leto [8].

But perhaps if we turn to Francesco Griffo's side of the story, we may feel that the solution lies elsewhere. Little is known of the life of this distinguished type-cutter. He cut Roman, Greek, Hebrew and italic letters for Aldus. A somewhat choleric man, he quarrelled with Aldus shortly after the publication of the Vergil in 1501 and went- over to a rival printer, Soncino, for whom he cut his second Italic. After a year or two he left Soncino and tried his fortune with other printers until, finally, he set up his own business as editor, typographer and printer. His third Italic can be seen in the four books, which he published about 1516 with the aim of surpassing Aldus in the production of pocket editions. Nothing more is heard of him after 1518. He is known to have killed the husband of his daughter, Caterina, in a quarrel and was probably executed for this crime.

In the dedication to Cesar Borgia contained in his Petrarch of 1503, Soncino says of Griffo: "Francesco is not only able to cut the standard types but he has invented a new kind of letter, called cursive or cancellaresca. He - and not Aldus Romanus or others who have cleverly tried to borrow his plumes - is the original inventor and designer. He cut all the type used by this Aldus”. Griffo, in a preface to his Petrarch of 1516, states that he has devised a cursive form which will give pleasure to anyone of taste partly because of its novelty and elegance and partly because of its convenience. Again, Doni, writing in 1552, tells of Aldus'" "handsome type like handwriting, which he either discovered or at least claimed to have been the first to introduce" [9]. There can be no doubt that Francesco played a crucial part in the conception of the Aldine Italic, in particular overcoming the technical problems involved in designing a type to look like cursive handwriting.

A. Sorbelli raised the question why it took much longer for the cursive type to be designed compared with Roman and Gothic types, which were themselves imitations of manuscript [10]. His answer is that the difficulty of cutting letters with long ascenders at an angle over a square base required an unusually expert designer such as Francesco. For purely commercial reasons, e.g. keeping the number of characters in the type box to a minimum, not wasting metal, and avoiding unecessary punching, the designer had to eliminate as far as possible the numerous tied letters characteristic of an informal script. Francesco actually has 65 joins in his first Italic, used in the Vergil of 1501 and the Dante of 1503 [11], but is able to cut them down considerably in his later work. Others hold that the joins were an integral part of the design in order to simulate handwriting in which case he could have modelled his type on his own handwriting. At any rate, it is not necessary to suppose that the original model- if indeed it be not a conflation of a number of hands of the 1490's – must be a friend of Aldus.

Whatever the truth of the matter, Aldus made a great hit. Italic type spread quickly to France, Germany, Switzerland and England. Readers may be interested to see the first use of italics in an English book: Wakefield's Oratia de Laudibus Trium Linguarum, printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1524.

[1] Sometimes referred to as Francesco Raibolini (cf. Wardrop, The Script of Humanism P.35), but most authorities reject this attribution.

[2] "scalpta daedaleis Francisci manibus".

[3] P. de Nolhac, Les Co"esponJants d'Alde Manuce, 1888. I

[4] See Aldus' preface to his Juvenal.

[5] ct. A. F. Johnson, Type Designs, 2nd ed. 1959, p.95.

[6] The Script of Humanism. p.35.

[7] S.I.H. JOURNAL, No. 32, p.9.

[8] P. de Nolhac, op. fit. p.28.

[9] A. F. Doni, I Marmi, ed. Chiorboli, p.191.

[10] A. Sorbelli, Francesco Gr!ffi da Bologna, Gutenbergjahrbuch 1933, p.117 et seq.

[11] Updike, Printing Types, Vol. I, p.129, 3rd ed. 1962.