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The Collation

To bind: Ligatures in Aldine Type

Yes, indeed. As many of you quickly identified, each of the images in this month’s mystery post contain at least one ligature. In fact, all of the images are from a single set of type: the Aldine italic that was used at the press in Venice run by Aldus Manutius in the early part of the 16th century. These ligatures are one of the things that make this italic type so interesting to those studying the history of books and typography.

Before we go any further, we should pause for a moment and define what exactly a “ligature” is. Derived from the Latin verb ligo/ligare, to bind, the English word has both literal uses (in the context of medicine) and figurative ones (in the sense of a bond between people).

When talking about writing, either handwriting or type, the term refers to two or more letters joined together. Glaister’s Encyclopedia of the Book defines ligature as “two or more letters joined together and often cast on one body”1 while M.B. Parkes defines the terms more extensively:

there are two categories: (a) when two adjacent letter forms have been disarticulated, and their elements reassembled to create a single form: for example, e and t to produce the form &; (b) when two adjacent letters have been linked, and one has been modified in the process, whilst retaining its recognizable basic shape, for example in the ligatures ct and st.2

Although Parkes’s definition was meant for medieval manuscript handwriting, the definition works well for the ligatures also found in print. The difference between “ligature” and “abbreviation” can sometimes be a little blurred (especially when talking about manuscript hands), depending on time period and who is doing the defining; but in type, a ligature has all letters present, even if in a modified form, while an abbreviation leaves out some letters of the word.

In writing, ligatures were often time- (or at least hand-) saving measures, meant to ease or speed up writing; ligatures in type meant more work for the foundry producing the type, but were also time-saving for the typesetter doing the composing.

Which brings us neatly back to the Aldine press, and its founder Aldus Manutius. Aldus (who tends to get referred to by his first name in scholarship; you will sometimes also see the Italian version of his name, Aldo Manuzio) was born sometime around 1450 (give or take a year) a little southeast of Rome.3 He was educated in the humanist tradition in Rome and Ferrara, learning classical Latin and Greek. After working as a tutor for the princes of Carpi (a small northern Italian town about 20km north of Modena), Aldus moved to Venice to open a printing house in the 1490s. His goal was to be able to produce small, portable, editions of the classical Greek and Roman texts.

To do this, he needed type that didn’t yet exist. So in working with the type maker Francesco Griffo, Aldus helped create the first moveable Greek type, based largely on his own Greek handwriting. (Aldus felt strongly that if you were going to read authors such as Aristotle or Aristophanes, it should be in the actual Greek, rather than in a Latin translation, which is what had been printed up to this point.)

The first page of text of Aldus’s 1501 edition of Apollonius of Tyana (Folio PA4272.A7 L3 1501 Cage, A2r)

With the success of his Greek publications, Aldus turned again to Griffo when he was ready to set the Latin classics. Aldus had previously produced several books with a roman type, most famously, his first vernacular text, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. But Aldus wanted something different for these portable, mostly octavo-format books. While it cannot definitively be said that Aldus invented italic type, he certainly has become the most closely associated with its creation.

While not based on any one exemplar, like the Greek type was, Aldus’s italic drew from a number of sources. One was the writing of Pomponio Leto, a contemporary humanist who was influential in Rome when Aldus was being educated there; his writing, in turn, was influenced by the early 15th century humanistic cursive script. These manuscript hands helped shape Aldus’s idea of what an italic script ought to look like.

Left: Early 15th century manuscript in a humanistic cursive script (British Library manuscript Burney 132, fol.33v)
Right: Late 15th century manuscript in the hand of Pomponio Leto (British Library manuscript Sloane 777 fol.4r)

Compare this page, from Aldus’s 1502 edition of Ovid’s Heroides, to the images above. Particularly Leto’s writing. Looks a bit familiar, doesn’t it? (PA6519 .A2 1502 Cage, 2H2r)

Aldus’s own Latin handwriting seems to have been the source for many of the ligatures that appear in the type. In addition to the standard 22 lower case characters for the Latin alphabet (no j, k, v, or w), Aldus’s italic type included almost 100 ligatures, those joined-together sets you saw in last week’s post.4

These include expected ligatures such as &, diphthongs (æ and œ), and st:

Note the ae ligatures in all three lines and the st ligature in the word “praestitit” in the last line. (PA6501 .A2 1501 Cage, E8v)

And some not-so-expected (and downright weird) ligatures, such as all of the vowels following the letter g, the double l, and pretty much every combination of m, n, and u. (It’s Latin. This happens a lot.)

Examples of ga, gu, and gi ligatures (with a bonus triple letter ligature for ffi!) (PA6446 .A2 1501 Cage, A44)

So why bother with all of this? Why go through what seems like an awful lot of effort, when there were perfectly serviceable fonts available already?

For one thing, it was still the early years of printing and it was a time of creativity and experimentation. Typographic standards that are so commonplace as to barely register with a modern reader were still being formulated. So why not play around with what the type looked like?

And for Aldus, it seems to have all come back to one thing: clarity in a small format. While the Latin texts had all been printed before, they were generally printed in larger sizes and formats, with the source text surrounded by commentary (in effect, making each publication two full texts in one).

Here, for example, is Aldus’s edition of Juvenal, printed sometime between 1508 and 1515:

While a reader has heavily annotated this book, you can see that Aldus’s text is clean and straight forward.

Compare, then, this edition, also printed in Venice, maybe 30 years earlier:

Quite the difference, isn’t it? (INC J582, B1v)

This text, too, has been annotated, but even so, it’s clear to see the dense roman type and commentary around the edges, almost crowding out the original text. The contrast is even more striking when you see them side by side:

Left, INC J582 B1v; Right, PA6446 A2 1501 Cage A4r

Even without the commentary surrounding the lefthand text, the reading experience is very different between the two versions. And that’s not even considering the physical size difference of the two books:

One of these is easily portable. One of these is very much not.

That is the sort of edition that Aldus seems to have been trying to find a counter point to. The small format was not unknown to his buyers—manuscript editions of St. Augustine’s writing, sermons, and other devotional texts all circulated in the highly portable format.5 But Aldus’s books were the first time someone had used it for secular texts.

The smaller page size necessitated a different approach to the text; the lack of commentary was both a logistical necessity and also an indication of the audience at whom Aldus was aiming these books. These “libelli/libri portatiles”6 were intended for an educated audience, who could read the Latin and wanted to take their Virgil, their Ovid, their Juvenal with them on the go.

The clean, ligature-filled italic type was an extension of the humanistic cursive script that had become “the accepted style for the copying of ‘sillogi’ or those personal collections of ancient inscriptions which were by now necessary equipment for anyone who wished to claim an intimate knowledge of the Roman world.”7 It was, for Aldus, simply what these texts ought to look like.

The Aldine ligatures seem to have served several purposes: to keep the visual style of the page close to that of the cursive script; to save space in a situation where the greater investment was in the paper; to allow for certain combinations of characters (ff, for example, which is quite common in Latin, is difficult to set with two individual letters, as the italic f encroaches on the space both before and after it) and to help with readability. The m, n, and u ligatures, for example, are slightly larger than the individual letters, giving the type a pleasingly uneven spread.8

Aldus Manutius was both a humanist scholar and a businessman, and the values of both are represented in the books he produced, with the type he created. He wanted to publish the “all the most famous poets” in “brevissima forma,” “a very small format.”9 In the introduction to the very Juvenal text we were looking at earlier, Aldus wrote that he wanted these texts printed in such a format that “everyone can more conveniently hold them in their hands, and not just read them, but study them thoroughly.”10 To accomplish this, he had to redefine how people thought of their classical texts, and that necessitated an entirely different presentation. Given the enduring legacy of the Aldine italic type, I’d say he was pretty successful! Even if it meant more letters than usual were bound together…

  1. Geoffrey Ashall Glaister, Encyclopedia of the Book, Second Edition. Oak Knoll Press, 1996.
  2. M.B. Parkes, Their Hands Before Our Eyes: A Closer Look at Scribes; the Lyell lectures delivered in the University of Oxford, 1999. Ashgate, 2008, p. 152.
  3. In the town of Bassiano, which is mostly famous for… being the birthplace of Aldus.
  4. See Nicholas Barker, “The Aldine Italic” in Aldus Manutius and Renaissance Culture: Essays in Memory of Franklin D. Murphy. David S. Zeidberg and Fiorella Gioffredi Superbi, eds. Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 1998. p.95-108.
  5. Martin Lowry, The World of Aldus Manutius: Business and Scholarship in Renaissance Venice. Cornell University Press, 1979, p.142-143.
  6. I’ve seen this quote both ways. “Libri” simply means book, while “libelli” is the diminutive form.
  7. Lowry, p.140.
  8. All of these points are discussed in Barker’s article, cited above. If you really want to go down the rabbit hole regarding the physical layout of the Aldine italic type, take a look at Peter Burnhill, Type spaces: in-house norms in the typography of Aldus Manutius. London: Hyphen Press, 2003.
  9. John N. Grant, ed & trans. Aldus Manutius: Humanism and the Latin Classics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2017, p.20-21.
  10. Grant, p.23.


A marvelous post. Thanks for making it available.

Kevin Donovan — May 9, 2019