There are various reasons to concern oneself with the printing that Aldus Manutius (1449-1515) issued in the last quarter of his life. One can turn to them as historical witnesses of Renaissance scholarship and so study the social and economic context from which they emerged. The 43 titles of his 32-line octavo classics, which appeared from 1501, were the prototype of every kind of comfortable book, which as the carrier of a »text for reading« would revolutionize the study of old writings. Without this paradigm present-day pocket books would be unthinkable.

Educated as a philologist and grammarian and even prominent as a writer, it is possible that Aldus was summoned to establish his printing house directly by Pico della Mirandola. In 1490, already over 40, he moved to Venice to learn the art of printing. In 1495 the first printing was issued by his press, characteristically it was a grammar, the Greek Erotemata of Constantine Lascaris (1434-1501).

The character of the Greek letters stuck closely to their model: stylus on wax block and thus in considerable contrast to – because without contrast in its forms – the Latin-script roman letters, whose construction derived substantially from the stroke of the broad-nibbed pen. The news of this Aldine experiment in printing spread rapidly in the learned world. A man like Erasmus was so influenced by the quality of the books that he set out for Venice to consult Manutius.

Besides the historical interest in the contexts and conditions of origination of Renaissance printing there is another motive to examine the books of Manutius - the aesthetic. […]


»The arbitrary is minimized« (Anthony Froshaug) – With Peter Burnhill’s in many respects excellent book we are now provided with a study that, for the first time, examines the underlying basis of measurement in Aldine printing. The design of the letters is thus just one element among others, overridden by a thorough-going coordination of all the elements that determine the printed page. In a masterpiece of »reverse engineering« (page 101), Burnhill’s reconstruction honours the emphatic demand of Anthony Froshaug: »When all the imposed and self-imposed constraints […] interact and reinforce each other, the consequent design only synthesizes analytics; the arbitrary is minimized.« (Typographic norms). One can say that Burnhill analyses the Aldine syntheses in an original manner, in the precisely contradictory sense of reverse direction.

With explicit reference back to Froshaug’s line of questioning – Froshaug (1920-1984), as a designer one of the most interesting thinkers of the twentieth century, is known in Germany, if at all, because he taught briefly at the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm – Burnhill rewrites the fundamental problem of Aldine book production as the tension between the meaning of a text and its presentation in the medium of print: »Here is a point of tension between the meaning of a text and the technology of its realization: a long-running point of possible difference between editors and typographers, concerned with the linguistic structure of a text, and printers concerned with the mechanics of its production.« (page 26, compare page 124) That this problem was critical for Aldus is no wonder: for once printer and author met here in one person, and an experimental force-field was established in which could be tried out nearly all of the conventions of text composition that would be available as design possibilities in the next 500 years of printing.

The task of setting the different Greek and Latin types in one line, which Aldus set himself and which printers before him had not solved, could be mastered by means of the freely adjustable casting mould (on this device, which no-one really knows what it looked like, see Harry Carter, A view of early typography, page 7 f). According to Burnhill, Manutius introduced a fundamental unit, and with the help of this all the vertical (line height, x-height) and also horizontal relationships (line length, word spaces) on a page could be determined and co-ordinated (Froshaug’s essay Typography is a grid seems to have strongly influenced Burnhill in this line of thinking). For Aldus this micro-unit – Burnhill speaks of it as a »sub-modular« element – constituted one twelfth part of an em quadrat: »the sub-modular twelfth of the Aldine system was used as the basic unit of measurement for gauging intervals on both axes of the page of less than em quadrat/type size, including character image sizes, and not simply as a word space or a component of word spaces.« (page 35) The discussion of ›in-house norms‹, whose formulation is made possible by reference to this sub-modular unit, is of course a post-factum idealization. Nevertheless, through Burnhill’s work it seems possible that this printing office could in reality ground its production on a relatively clear ensemble of simple rules, held together by a fundamental unit. The aperçu of Schlegel-Schleiermacher, that in some cases assertion outdoes proof, finds one of its most shining applications here. The Burnhill thesis makes possible a number of detailed observations that would not have happened without it (see also the discussion of the thesis as pre-published in Typography Papers no.4).

With a fund of material, Burnhill documents the increasing virtuosity that distinguished Manutius’s elementary typographic practice – also when it no longer had to concern itself with the integration of the Greek and Latin scripts. The method that Burnhill employs is as simple as it is elegant. For his examples, he uses enlargements (usually 400 per cent, sometimes also 800 per cent) and underlays these with a grid based on the sub-modular twelfth part. The hand-annotated working drawings that he produces are so nice as to make one jealous. Through them the Aldine printing is ›analyzed‹, in the precise sense in which chemists use the word, that they ›analyze‹ a substance.

It is obvious that the measurement of the Aldine pages was thoroughly considered and constructed almost on the principle of absolute ›mediation‹ (in the Hegelian sense). Perhaps the most important point of the book: it is the very reduction in the application of a single material constant that made possible the great variety and at the same time unity of the Aldine production. The superstructure of the page construction comes out of the characteristics of the production tools, and is not externally imposed: »the control system which makes the reading process possible was an attribute of the production system, not imported or superimposed.« (page 124)

Anyone who is inclined to reject Burnhill’s findings as ›over-interpretation‹ (the usual objection when someone has done some fundamental reflection and the public is embarassed) can be referred to the fact that the exact planning of page construction already constituted one of the most striking characteristics of medieval writing (the grid lines can often still be seen very clearly). And even present-day introductions to calligraphic writing preserve the then already traditional advice to use the square of the nib width as the ›sub-modular‹ unit to fix the height of letters and also the distance from line to line: the dimensioning of the elements thus comes directly from the means of production.

One hopes for Burnhill’s book that it unfolds its stimulating effects beyond the narrow circle of the historically interested – and into the world of book design. That its own production (paper, binding, page construction) need not be shy of the comparison with subject discussed is not the least praise that one can offer. It is a nice instance of the fact that writing on typography is always an exercise in self-reflection. The crystalline clarity that one encounters in Aldine production finds itself again in Burnhill’s reconstruction.

Roland Reuß. 22.5.2004

This is only a short version of the review, the pictures are also missing. For the complete review please consult the German version.