Cardinal Pietro Bembo, De Etna and the publisher/printer Aldus Manutius

The man who was much later to become Cardinal Pietro Bembo wrote in the 1490s of his travels up the slopes of Mount Etna. The text was in the form of a dialogue between Pietro and his father, Bernardo, the latter twice an ambassador for the Venetians in Florence and also a highly respected connoisseur of the arts. The book was taken up by Aldus Manutius in 1495, partly to make money since the publisher was, to paraphrase Updike, commercially driven, as shown by his commissioning some years after the publication of De Etna, an italic face. [See below.]

The roman designed for Cardinal Bembo’s travelogue is not considered by experts in the field as much good. Updike, quoted by Morison, says there’s only one roman that comes

Aldus Manutius book
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili

close to distinction, and that’s from the 1499 edition of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili [‘The Strife of Love in a Dream of the Lover of Polia’ by Franciscus Colona]. Both this and the italic were cut by Francesco Raibolini da Blogna, more popularly known as Griffo. [From the Strife of Love also came the publisher’s device, though it was first on a coin said to have been sent by Cardinal Bembo to his publisher.]

The Bembo known to us was recut by the Monotype Corporation in 1929 [overseen by Morison].

Tally of types Bembo
From Tally of Types

As a tailpiece, Updike has a brilliant note [2nd edition, p.127] regarding the Aldine italic, observing its use was to make books in a smaller size [16mo] so they could be portable. The note, a quote from another author, reads: ‘We think of the cheap book and the public library as blessings coming direct from the invention of the printing-press, and at first thought we may be inclined to suppose that in Rome, when copies had to be written by hand, books must have been as dear as they were during the Middle Ages…This was not the case. Copyists had been trained to attain such a speed in writing, and slave labour was so cheap, that in the first century of our era, as Martial tells us, his first book of poems, which contains about seven hundred lines, could be had at a sum amounting to thirty or forty cents, while his Xenia could be sold for twenty cents. At these rates, books did not cost more than twice what they do to-day’.

Texts consulted: Updike, D.B. Printing Types, 1937; Morison, S.M. A Tally of Types, 1973; HMSO. Early Printers’ Marks. 1962. Printing and the Mind of Man, 1963. Grafton, A. Locum, Lacum, Lucum. 13/9/2018, London Review of Books. [The last was the inspiration for this blog.]

Aldus Manutius device
Dolphin and Anchor device


2 replies on “Cardinal Pietro Bembo, De Etna and the publisher/printer Aldus Manutius”

I think it is not quite true when you say that the De Ætna type was not esteemed.

What Stanley Morison (as publicity writer for the Cambridge U press and advisor to Monotype) says in “Tally of Types” is that D. B. Updike in his “Printing Types” did not think much of the De Aetna font, but changed his mind later, because of (as Morison does not say) the release of the Monotype version of Aldus’ third roman, which is similar to Bembo. Back in the early 1900s, connoisseurs (starting with William Morris) preferred Nicolas Jenson’s roman, as shown by the Doves type and Bruce Rogers’ Centaur. Trying to be diplomatic to persons in the trade still living, especially Updike, Morison (the type historian) writes off this wrong judgment to the lack of good quality and complete type facsimiles of the Aldine press.

Morison says further that Aldus’ first font, the one for de Ætna, is better than his one for the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, his third type. (Who am I to judge?) But you have to remember that Monotype already had cut Poliphilus in the early 1920s, before Morison arrived, so that when he wanted to add an Aldine font he almost had to choose another model.

It was Morison, I believe (I can’t lay my hands on the reference just now although it may be staring me in the face), who noticed that the engravers of the French Renaissance whom I will for convenience call ‘’Garamond” copied not Jenson’s roman but Aldus’, something not realized before, so that the Garamond romans that held sway for two centuries in the West were based on Aldus. Morison noticed that his capital M has no top serif on the right-hand side, and that Garamond copied this oddity from Aldus.

By the way, the Wikipedia entry on Garamond is very good and unusually complete, with even a picture of the Aldine style cap M. The entry suggests that the missing serif on the Aldine M was probably a result of a casting error. I think this unlikely. It was more probably a scribal tradition carried over into an early type font.

If you look at some humanist writing, they made their cap M starting with a flat, horizontal serif on the left and then the wide down stroke, followed by a pen lift and the left diagonal and then an up stoke to make the thin right diagonal (often with a flatten curve at the end to form a kind of serif on the right), and then a pen lift and a firm down stroke to form the right upright. (The cursive version of the cap M was often made in one stroke with no serifs, but with what we would call swashes either at the beginning or the end.)

Unlike the other three formed-serifs on the cap M, there was often only a vestigial one on the upper right, and if not made long enough it might get covered over completely by the succeeding down stroke. From what I saw in the facsimiles, Sanvito formed a real serif on the top right side of his cap Ms, but most scribes didn’t bother. Sanvito’s hand has been offered as model for the De Ætna font, which on the basis of the cap M I find hard to understand. Maybe scholars are referring to Sanvito’s lower case.

The current Bembo cap M has all its serifs. For some reason I have a small booklet, “An Exhibition Illustrating British and Foreign Printing” (1929), that says that it is “the first use of a monotype recutting of the fount used in Pietro Bembo’s ‘De Ætna’” and it shows Bembo’s early M, without the serif. Other of the features of Aldus’ De Ætna design remain, like the lower case e that looks, as someone has said, like it was punched in the stomach. In the hot metal version the standard question mark was a lower case character, but in the digital version it is now the regular height.

Nothing has matched the hot metal version of Monotype Bembo, not the photocomposition version in three optical sizes and certainly not the sad, spindly first digital version. Monotype has recently released the better Bembo Book. I still find it wanting. Digital fonts raise the old question of whether revivals of beloved types can ever recapture the magic of the original, or whether it is time to move on. This question applies equally to 20th century revivals of historic types and to 21st century revivals of 20th century types. See, for example, the digital fonts of Bembo Book, of Agmena, and of the five optical sizes of Arno. There are at least two open-source fonts modeled directly on Bembo – Cardo and ET Book. Sadly, to my eye, neither is an improvement.

The most interesting recent writing on Aldus is, I think, Peter Burnhill’s “Type Spaces: In-house Norms in the Typography of Aldus Manutius,” published by Hyphen Press.

Burnhill concentrates not on the typefaces designed for Aldus by Francesco da Bologna, called Griffo, but by members of the Aldus team, whose names are lost to history, who perfected the modular system of spacing needed for Aldus’ typography. (The metallurgy of Aldus would be another topic.) Aldus himself was a grammarian.

Burnhill’s observations and analysis are complex, but one can say that he looked at printed pages with optical magnification and used a measuring grid. By observing the inked impression of raised letter spaces, he determined the alignment of Griffo’s design on the Aldine type metal body.

Aldus’ first love was Greek and so the early fonts were cast with a very low baseline (1/12th the font size from the bottom edge) and lots of space at the top for accents (4/12th). The letterforms themselves occupied 7/12ths in the middle. One result Burnhill shows is that when Latin had to be mixed with Greek, the descending letters were down-kerning, which seems a daring solution to me. Perhaps given the kerning needed for the italic fonts that immediately followed (and the Greeks?) I should not have been surprised by kerns.

By the time of the De Ætna font the alignment was more what you would think – 1-1/2 units above the top of the caps, 2 units from the cap height to the x-height, 5 units from x-height to baseline, 3 units for the descenders, and ½ unit below. This put the lower case letters exactly in the middle of the font body. Of course the alignment’s proportions themselves were dictated by Griffo and by humanist bookhands in general.

Burnhill points to the way the initial caps in the poetry settings vary in width but stand off from the lower case so that their settings align also, as proof that the Aldine horizontal spacing was sophisticated. He calculates that Aldus divided his em into 12 theoretical parts, which is much more precise than late 19th or early 20th century foundry practice. Burnhill believes that strip leading as we know it didn’t exist until centuries later and that for different books Aldus cast new fonts when he wanted to set Griffo’s designs on a larger type body.

Burnhill shows that Aldus used whole blank lines, probably made up of em-spaces, and sometimes half lines, probably made up of en-spaces turned on their sides, for his page layouts.

It should be said that as beautiful as the De Ætna is, the likely reason Garamond used the Aldine roman as his model may have had not much to do with it’s superiority as a type design. The French at the time were more northern than southern, more Gothic than humanist. Their handwriting more blackletter and Batard than the “sweet Roman hand.” Think of William Caxton’s books or Robert Granjon’s Civilité types.

So the French Renaissance had a real question, and thus a real choice, in what roman font to copy. Aside from the physical properties of the Aldine books (their compact size and the type), Aldus as an editor enjoyed great prestige for the accuracy of his texts. Long before copyright laws or an enforceable royal or ducal ‘’privilege’’ to print, many pirated editions of his books appeared in both Italy and France.

It would have been natural for the French to copy not only his prized texts but also his format and font, just as it would have been natural for Aldus to print some of his classics in cursive type, which is the way scholars of his day would have known them from their manuscript copies.

To quote Harry Carter, as quoted in Burnhill: “If Aldus hoped, as it is commonly said that he did, but he never said, that cursive letterforms would save space, he must have been disappointed by the results: a Roman type on the same body gets in just as much.”

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