Libelli Portatiles

by Dorothea

A Renaissance Printer


Logo of the Aldine Press

“Whoever you are, Aldus asks you again and again what it is you want from him, state your business briefly, and then immediately go away.”

This was the “inviting” text above the Venetian shop of the printer Aldus Manutius in the late 1400’s. The scholar and humanist Aldus Manutius (1449 –1515) was perhaps the greatest printer and publisher of the Italian Renaissance.

The Aldine Press, in its start-up phase, emphasized Greek and Latin lexicons and grammar manuals, which Aldus viewed as the foundation of learning, virtue, and society in general. He also revolutionized the letters used in printing, the letter Bembo is still used today. He was the first to use italic type, as well as establishing the modern use of the semicolon and developing the modern appearance of the comma.


Aldine edition of “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili” -1499

In 1501, he released the first of his small “octavo” editions of the classics, books “that could be held in the hand and learned by heart by everyone.”  This is his 1501 edition of Virgil in elegant italic letters:


It was a revolution, the small format of his books made them the first “pocket books”. His books are known as “Aldines”. What Aldus was doing was taking advantage of technological change to make texts more accessible and to cultivate new audiences. Look at this elegant “renaissance pocket book”:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAldine publication of Seneca’s “
L. Annei Senecae Naturalium Quaestriunum libri VII” – 1522

The colophon of the Aldine Press as shown above of the anchor and the dolphin was based on Roman coins and is still used today by Doubleday:


The Dolphin and Anchor was the emblem of Emperor Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD)

The press closed in 1597. But Aldines, which survive in the tens of thousands, have a great appeal to collectors, and the Grolier Club in New York has an exquisite exhibit at the moment that includes 20 “libelli portatiles”. Read more about the Aldine Press and the exhibit in the New York Times review.