Skip to main content

Book Review Father of the paperback

GAVIN O’TOOLE marvels at the achievement of a Renaissance publisher of popular portable books and the reforming agenda that drove him

Aldus Manutius: The Invention of the Publisher
Oren Margolis, Reaktion Books, £17.95

IT should be no surprise that an ambitious publisher with a mission, drawn to progressive ideas, was in the vanguard of a cultural revolution in the English-speaking world.

With the launch of Penguin Books in the 1930s and the establishment in Britain of a 20th-century icon, the paperback, Allen Lane revealed both the vast potential of a mass market for fine writing and a hunger for greater access to it among working people.

Lane believed fervently in adult education and was driven by a compulsion to enlighten the masses, and senior editors of Pelican, his non-fiction imprint after 1937, were also involved in the Workers’ Educational Association.

Yet this visionary was treading in the shoes of a giant. The association between popular, printed editions that reached beyond rarefied intellectual circles and a publisher with a reforming agenda and educational zeal can trace its origins to the Renaissance, and an outstanding figure in the history of printing, Aldus Manutius.

His enchiridion, an innovative species of small book printed after 1500 using new fonts, revolutionised personal reading. Also known as the libellus portabilis — the portable book — it was seen by the printer as a pocket-sized weapon of scholarship not only for the princes and burghers with whom he mingled, but in the hands of reform-minded Christians everywhere. 

In this biography of Aldus, Oren Margolis argues that his humanist purposefulness, his printing agenda, and his passion for scholarship of Greek set him apart from his peers to distinguish him as the first true “publisher” in the sense we recognise today.

The author paints an eloquent picture, through a blizzard of erudition, of a visionary in whose footsteps Allen Lane trod 400 years later. The life of this Renaissance man was also defined by familiar tensions still encountered in publishing today — between the businessman and the humanist, between accessibility and exclusivity, and printing as a craft and as an intellectual architecture.

Born to a wealthy family in Bassiano near Rome in about 1450, Aldus was initially a scholar of Greek and Latin, becoming a friend to the nobleman Giovanni Pico and a tutor to his nephews, the princes of Carpi. This aristocratic family funded his initial printing ventures, leading to the establishment in Venice of his Aldine Press after 1495, publishing scholarly works of Greek, and then Latin. 

The former were his passion, and the press became synonymous with quality Greek literature reflecting the printer’s obsession with the language and classic texts: a high-status pursuit of grandiloquent intellectual circles.

Margolis situates his career alongside a shift in the discourse around the role of the printer in this era, as a debate arose about where to position this office within the liberal pursuits of “learning and skill, science and craft.”

The change in status and the emergence of the “publisher” per se was not due to some vague “spirit of the age,” but largely the doing of Aldus, who positioned himself at the heart of the Renaissance republic of letters beneath his celebrated trademark dolphin and anchor symbol. 

Aldus is not only hailed as the father of the paperback, his innovations included the creation of the italic type, the perfection of the roman type, and hence the mastery of cursive printing in the style in which humanist thinkers wrote.

The Aldine Press issued more first editions of classical texts than any printer before or since, including all the Greek authors who make up the canon — Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Euripides et al. 

Aldus published the 14th-century poets Petrarch and Dante, printed works by Erasmus, and after his death was immortalised by Thomas More, who wrote that his Greek books were even cherished by the inhabitants of his fictional wonderland Utopia.

“And yet these achievements,” writes Margolis, “belonged to someone who had no training in the art of printing and no technical skills whatsoever.”

That is because Aldus did not identify as a printer but saw his press as an instrument of Renaissance humanism, advancing learning beyond mediaeval pedantry and encouraging, via the classics, new moral and civic perspectives. 

Margolis writes: “An Aldine book stood for something: it stood for what Aldus stood for. Buying one was to buy into an ideology.”


We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.



Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 12,481
We need:£ 5,519
7 Days remaining
Donate today