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If you’ve ever read a paperback book, you have 16th century Venetian book binder Aldus Manutius to thank. While he didn’t event the paperback itself, he did essentially invent the concept of small books that were meant to be carried around for personal reading.

aldus manutius exhibit


A new exhibit in New York has brought together a number of his books for “Aldus Manutius: A Legacy More Lasting Than Bronze” at the Grolier Club in Manhattan through April 25. There, visitors can see almost 150 examples from the binder who was arguably one of the most influential binders to ever live. Some of his notable achievements include:


  • The first binder to print famous Greek authors, including Aristotle, Thucydides, Herodotus and Sophocles.
  • The first to use italic type, in what was an attempt to mimic the handwritten word.
  • The first to use the semicolon in the way it is used today.
  • “Possibly the first printer to compare manuscripts to arrive at the most reliable text.”
  • The first to intentionally leave a page blank.
  • Invented Roman typeface.

And of course, he was the first to print books for personal reading anywhere. Manutius called these volumes “libelli portatles” which translates to “portable little books.” From The New York Times:

“In 1501, he released the first of his small octavo editions to the classics, books ‘that could be held in the hand and learned by heart (not to speak of being read) by everyone,’ as he later wrote. The show includes 20 libelli portatiles, all bearing Aldus’s printer’s mark, a dolphin curled around an anchor. (The colophon is still used today by Doubleday.)”

Manutius’ volumes became so well-known and revered for their quality that a large counterfeit market sprung up. In an effort to combat counterfeiting, he began to print warnings of counterfeit Aldines, “including specific textual errors, low-quality paper with ‘a heavy odor’ and typography that exuded, as he put it, a sort of ‘Gallicitas,’ or ‘Frenchiness.’ (Many counterfeits came from Lyon.)” Ironically, counterfeiters just used this information to improve their fakes, and continued to print them. The curators of the exhibit actually discovered while setting up the exhibit that one of the books was a fake due to its “Frenchy” odor.

While his printing press flourished under his ownership, it began to suffer after his death in 1515, when it was taken over by his father-in-law, and later by his son. The important centers of the printing world had begun to move north, and by the late 1500’s when Aldus’s grandson took over, business was fading. “In a last-ditch effort to save the press, Aldus the Younger accepted a commission from Pope Sixtus V for a new Latin Bible, only to produce a rush job so riddled with errors…that it was suppressed…The press closed for good in 1597.”