1501: The year of italic text and pocket books.

The Aldine Press was the first in the world to issue pocket-sized editions of books, printed in octavo format. This new format was revolutionary as it enabled readers to access books more easily, rather than having to learn texts by heart.

The first ever book issued in the octavo format was this edition of the works of Virgil, printed in 1501:

j3359 a2r opening

In the poem on the left Aldus praises the skill of the punchcutter Francesco Griffo of Bologna who in fact designed this new ‘italic’ type. Based on the Italian humanist cursive script first developed in the 1420s by Niccolò de’ Niccoli, this Aldine italic became the model for most italic types. The Venetian Senate gave Aldus exclusive right to its use, a patent confirmed by three successive Popes, but it was widely counterfeited. The pocket format was also a great success and Aldus and his sons continued to publish classical and Italian texts in small format throughout the sixteenth century.

This copy, held in the John Rylands Library, is printed on vellum, and the coat of arms of the Pisani family (a Venetian patrician family) has been included within the fine illustrations which accompany this title page. Its bindings are amazing – as you can see from the picture below – and the book is preserved within the gold-tooled leather case on the left.


This volume is spectacular for so many reasons: the beautiful bindings, intricate illustrations, and interesting provenance, but also because this edition marks the invention of both the octavo format and italic type (the title page is even the image used on the Wikipedia entry for the Aldine Press!).

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