A Tribute to the Bound Book: Aldus Manutius at the Grolier Club

© Robert Lorenzson

A new exhibit commemorates the 500th anniversary of the death of Aldus Manutius, the groundbreaking printer.

­What do 16th-century Venetian printers have in common with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs? More than you might think.

G. Scott Clemons, one of the curators of the Grolier Club’s spring exhibit celebrating Aldus Manutius, the pioneering Italian printer, sees a clear link between the risk-it-all-to-win-big culture of northern California and the sector of Renaissance Italy that Aldus inhabited. In Aldus’ era, the average printing press went out of business only 18 months after opening its doors; the rate of failure was staggeringly high. History is cluttered with the remnants of presses that only managed to print one book before disappearing, not unlike the faddish apps and one-hit-wonder start-ups whose glory was bright but short-lived.

Back in the 1500s, people ignored the long odds and kept founding presses anyway, that tiny chance of success as powerful a lure then as it is in 2015. It’s that kind of reminder—of the constancy of human nature and the fickleness of technology—that Clemons’ clever tour uses to situate an exhibit of 500-year-old books in the 21st century.

The Grolier Club, the New York society for bibliophiles, owes much to Aldus Manutius’ many innovations (among them italic type, the modern semicolon, and, most importantly, pocket-sized, portable books, volumes that made reading an accessible and personal activity for the first time). The club is named for one of the earliest and most famous collectors of the Aldine Press, Jean Grolier.

Aldus succeeded in outlasting and outdoing his competitors with a combination of meticulous perfectionism and unbridled creativity, laying a foundation for excellence that kept his press in business for more than 100 years. His books were so prized that an industry devoted to manufacturing Aldine forgeries sprang up in France.

Though they had to do without the protections of modern copyright law, Aldus and his printer-rivals shared something else in common with creators in the digital age, according to Clemons. Presses were the Internet servers of their day, representing a massive shift in how people consumed knowledge. To acclimate readers to the new technology, printers borrowed conventions from the manuscripts that books replaced. Hoping to make their products seem more familiar, they created typefaces that looked like handwriting. Today’s developers are pursuing similar ends when they design computer icons that resemble obsolete machinery: think of Instagram’s vintage camera logo.

For his part, Clemons doesn’t believe that printed books will soon join the 35 mm in the graveyard of outdated technologies; while he embraces electronic books and often reads on an iPad, he says, “that does not obviate my appreciation for the physical artifact of the bound book.” He doesn’t think that e-books threaten the future of the book as tangible object—just the opposite. The fleeting nature of digital technology makes Aldus’ books more valuable, not only for their aesthetic qualities but also for their durability. “The pages look like they were printed yesterday,” he says. “Those books will be in good shape in the year 2500.” The same can’t be said for more recent forms of information storage, like floppy disks, already inaccessible after mere decades.

The exhibit is beautiful for what it is on its own, a lesson in appreciating the book as both artistic artifact and preserver of contemporary thought. These tomes boast cherry-brown leather covers and illuminated vellum pages wreathed in delicate artwork, some of them covered in notes left behind by the books’ owners. “These books were deeply loved,” Clemons says. One book, containing the proceedings of the Council of Trent, has margins overflowing with the outraged scribbles of a cardinal who had participated in the Council and didn’t agree with the official transcript.

Book lovers are sure to appreciate the exhibit’s fine details whether or not they can read the ancient Greek and Latin in which most of the texts are printed. But for those not predisposed to swooning over bindings and typography, Clemons’ presentation provides a compelling entry point, a way into seeing these well-worn objects as a chapter in a very human story about ambition and ingenuity—one that continues today.

Aldus Manutius: A Legacy More Lasting Than Bronze, is on view at the Grolier Club (47 E. 60th St.) until April 25. Admission is free. Tours are every Wednesday from 1 to 2 PM.