Portable Aldines

Portable Aldines

‘We have printed, and are now printing, the Satires of Juvenal and Persius in a very small format, so that they may more conveniently be held in the hand and learned by heart (not to speak of being read) by everyone.’

Aldus to Scipione Fortiguerri, 1501.1

Lucan 1502 size.

Lucan 1502 size.

Size and market were inextricably linked. As Lowry (1976) remarks, it was no coincidence that Aldus dedicated his 1501 Horace, to the Venetian patrician, Marino Sanudo (1466-1536), for it was for men such as Sanudo that such volumes were conceived: men of business who wanted to read while on the move.2 The Aldine octavo thus had at least three advantages: it was cheaper to produce; it could be produced in greater quantities; it was easier to hold than the more ornate, costly (and heavy) quartos and folios.

Statius 1502 Aldine device.

Statius 1502 Aldine device.

Barker (1992) points out that the new octavo format was determined by the size of paper used by Aldus. Paper was one of the most costly items for printers and therefore any method which utilised it to its full advantage was to be welcomed. As Lowry (1979) notes, an octavo format had been utilised before, primarily for religious works, but Aldus’ innovatory use of an octavo format for classical publications had the potential to open up the market to these smaller, cheaper books – which Aldus hoped would sell better than his large Greek folios. The octavos were certainly cheaper than his quartos and folios but that did not mean that they were cheap to buy. As Fletcher (1988) argues, judging by the prices listed in Aldus’ 1503 catalogue, a Greek octavo would have been the equivalent of a teacher’s weekly wage, though a Latin octavo was cheaper – one to two days salary each. In essence, Aldus was not so much opening up the classics to a mass market as changing the way an already expanding market read classical works.

As Barker notes, the octavo format might have been unusual in printing but readers would have been used to seeing manuscripts of the same size, particularly for manuscripts of verse. This made sense (and made printing sense too), for verse, with its uneven lines, did not use paper to its full advantage. A smaller format therefore made it economically more viable for the printer to produce classical poetry and plays for a wider audience. Aldus would later mention that his inspiration had been a number of manuscript copies of the classics which he had handled in the library of Bernardo Bembo (1433-1519).3

Euripides 1503 Aldine device.

Euripides 1503 Aldine device.

Hand in hand with Aldus’ choice of a new format were his innovations in type design: at the same time as his new octavo series, Aldus made cost-cutting changes to his fonts, particular his Greek fonts. Other innovations followed. The Aldine Pliny of 1508 was the first to have numbered pages for prior to this Aldus had, if he had numbered anything, infrequently numbered leaves, rather than pages.4 Some innovations were less successful: the same text not only has numbered pages but Aldus had initially chosen to place the page number at the top right hand corner on every page. This worked well for recto pages but was difficult to see in verso pages, given that the page number might be too close to the spine to make out clearly.

Aldus also continued experimenting with his printing device as these images from Worth’s copies of the 1502 Statius and the 1503 Euripides demonstrate. Here we see that he had decided to dispense with the double border which had been included in the earliest version of his device (visible on the Homepage). In the Statius (Ahmanson A1a) he retained a border of broken dots but by 1503 he was allowing the dolphin and anchor to now ‘float’ on the page (Ahmanson A1b). Ahmanson-Murphy’s A1a (which Fletcher (1988) refers to as Device No.2) may also be seen on the final verso of Worth’s copy of Herodotus, visible on the Classical Aldines webpage. At times Aldus used two different device in the same work: Worth’s copy of Herodotus is a good example of this as it not only has Ahmanson A1a on its last page but also A1b on its title-page. By the time Aldus printed his final work, the 1515 Lucretius, the device had changed a number of times to what Fletcher rightly calls a ‘beady-eyed’ dolphin (Ahmanson-Murphy’s A5).

Lucretius 1515 - last Aldine.

Lucretius 1515 colophon – last Aldine.

The Lucretius, printed in January 1515, was the last work to be printed by Aldus himself before his death on 6 February. Worth’s copy is a good exemplar of yet another facet of his portable Aldines for it clearly demonstrates that size and content were also interlinked. Whereas the larger quartos and folios could encompass the various commentaries on the ancient texts as well as the original text itself, the new quartos offered the reader the text unaccompanied by commentaries. This again had both economic advantages (less paper was involved) but could also be defended by the humanist dictum ‘ad fontes’.


The Aldine Press. Catalogue of the Ahmanson-Murphy Collection of Books by or relating to the press in the Library of the University of California, Los Angeles incorporating works recorded elsewhere (University of California Press, 2001).

Barker, Nicholas, Aldus Manutius and the Development of Greek Script & Type in the Fifteenth Century (Fordham University Press, New York, 1992).

Fletcher, Harry George, New Aldine Studies. Documentary Essays on the Life and Work of Aldus Manutius (San Francisco: Bernard M. Rosenthal, Inc. 1988).

Lowry, M. J. C, (1976), ‘The “New Academy” of Aldus Manutius: A Renaissance Dream’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 58(2): 378-420.

Lowry, Martin (1979) The World of Aldus Manutius. Business and Scholarship in Renaissance Venice (Oxford: Blackwell).

Updike, D. B. (2001), Printing Types. Their History, Forms and Use (Oak Knoll Press/The British Library).

Winship, G. P. (1926), ‘The Aldine Pliny of 1508’, The Library March, 358-369.

1 Cited in Updike, D. B. (2001), Printing Types. Their History, Forms and Use (Oak Knoll Press/The British Library), p. 126. This is in Aldus’ preface to Carteromachus in the 1501 Juvenal (which Worth has in the 1515 edition).

2 The Aldine Horace was not collected by Worth.

3 Fletcher, Harry George, New Aldine Studies. Documentary Essays on the Life and Work of Aldus Manutius (San Francisco: Bernard M. Rosenthal, Inc. 1988), p. 88.

4 Winship, G. P. (1926), ‘The Aldine Pliny of 1508’, The Library March, 358-369.