Inventing Literary Classics

Attention quiz-masters! Can you name the innovative book designer and printer who was the very first to publish a series of portable classics? Clue: he died exactly half a millennium ago.

In my recent post What is a Literary Classic? I mentioned several influential sets of books re-issued with a “classic” publication branding – Penguin Classics, Signet Classics, Virago Modern Classics, Classic Comics and so on. This kind of designation gives books a certain status – not an unquestionable status, but one that does carry some weight with most readers, at least subliminally.


Aldine publishing device, from the Great Hall ceiling, Library of Congress

Well, the idea of producing a publication series that makes classic texts available in a convenient format is far from new. It goes back to a period only a few decades after Gutenberg’s introduction  of movable type to Europe. The process of inventing literary classics followed closely on the invention of the printing press.

The entrepreneurial Renaissance humanist who deserves the credit for inventing literary classics was Aldus Manutius (1449-1515), whose Aldine Press in Venice not only devised various innovations in typography (e.g. italics and semi-colons) but also created for the first time a series of inexpensive pocket editions of texts from Greek and Roman antiquity (Aristotle, Plato, Sophocles, Herodotus, Virgil, Ovid, Cicero…) along with Italian poetic masterpieces by writers such as Dante and Petrarch. An extraordinary accomplishment!

Portable, fairly compact – but those Aldine Press books didn’t look cheap. A great deal of care and professional expertise went into their design and production.


From Rylands Library copy of the Aldine Virgil (1501)

Fonts were selected for their aesthetic appeal, and sometimes created in-house. Several modern typefaces derive from those commissioned by Aldus and cut by his employee Francesco Griffo – among them  Bembo, named after one of his contemporaries, the Italian literary scholar Pietro Bembo, whose work Aldus published. (I was delighted to discover the origin of Bembo, an elegant font used for two of my novels – That Untravelled World and the one forthcoming soon, The Mind’s Own Place.)

What’s more, elaborate and colourful illustrations often accompanied the printed text, as in this pictured example: a page from the Aldine Press edition of Virgil’s works. It was the first publication to use italic type, and the first in octavo format.

The significance of Aldus Manutius’s place in cultural history goes beyond his enterprising and skilful work as a book designer and printer. He was an admirable scholarly teacher, epitomising the Renaissance spirit – and in fact his reason for setting up a printing house was that he saw a need for students to have access to classic texts in a convenient format.

Alberto Manguel remarks in his book A History of Reading that Aldus’s home in Venice became a gathering point for eminent humanists from all over Europe, such as the Dutch luminary Erasmus. Together these men would discuss what classic titles should be printed and which manuscripts were the most reliable sources. Manguel records this moving final tribute:

When Aldus died in 1515, the humanists who attended his funeral erected all around his coffin, like erudite sentinels, the books he had so lovingly chosen to print.

5 thoughts on “Inventing Literary Classics

  1. Ian, this is great stuff and intriguing to learn about such a little known field. But when you say ‘inexpensive’ in the time, what do you mean?

  2. Ah, you’ve got me there, Pat! I’ll need to take on notice the question of price. Anyway, I’m glad you found it interesting.

  3. Well, Pat, I’ve pursued the question you raised – How cheap, really, were the Aldine Press editions? This, it turns out, is not easy to answer. There’s a specialised study by Martin Lowry called The World of Aldus Manutius: Business and Scholarship in Renaissance Venice, which doesn’t discuss the matter directly but gives some relevant information. In considering book prices from that period and place, we need to note that buyers were mainly from the nobility and professions (teachers, clerics, lawyers, etc.), and the students for whom Aldus specifically catered came mainly from the upper middle class. So they weren’t generally short of pocket money. Ready availability of a range of classic texts in a convenient format (octavo) was probably more important than bargain prices.

    It seems, anyway, that Aldine Press editions weren’t always the least expensive books one could buy in Renaissance Venice. A large proportion of what Aldus published was in Greek script, which required labour-intensive typesetting, proofreading etc. However, his prices varied. The 5 volumes of the Aldine Aristotle ranged from 1.5 ducats to 3 ducats each; the Idylls of Theocritus cost two-thirds of a ducat. I’ve found it impossible to discover the present-day equivalent in $$ of the value of a Venetian ducat in 1500, but Lowry says a compositor at that time would have been paid about 3 ducats a month and a proofreader 4 or 5 ducats. Of course the target readership was more affluent than those skilled tradesmen.

  4. I find this sort of information fascinating. Three ducats for a month’s wages to a compositor; three ducats for a volume of work. How lucky we are these days. Thanks for pursuing this Ian.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *