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


eric gill lettering Typographic ephemera

Printer’s and sculptor’s hat

I was taught how to make one of these hats, beloved of Gill, but also worn by tradesman in the printing industry, by a fellow who worked in the composing room of the Financial Times when I first started there as a journalist in the late 1980s.At that point the FT was located at Bracken House, a fine red brick building opposite St Paul’s, with the printing presses in the basement and sub-basement. Hot metal was still much in use when I arrived, though it was on the way out. I still remember how the building shook when the presses were started up for the first edition at about 9pm. (We even had our own in house pub – more a bar but beloved by journos and printers alike.)

When I was working on the Gill project in 1990 at my private press (see previous post on Pigotts) I made a hundred of these hats, printed on newsprint, with Perpetua Titling around the ‘rim’ and an extract from his Essay on Typography on the top.

It was a huge success and sold out very quickly. This is the only one I have left, number 1!