The Birth of Italics

Date: 1 August 2016
Time: 5:30 p.m.
Location: UVA Special Collections
Lecturer: Randall McLeod - Professor Emeritus, Department of English, University of Toronto

The 1501 Vergil, an octavo by the Venetian printer Aldo Manuzio, was the first book printed in italics, a fount he created in partnership with Francesco da Bologna, who is celebrated on the back of the title page, but with whom Aldo soon fell out. The fount was immediately copied by Aldo’s publishing rivals, as was his octavo format and his presentation of classical texts free of commentary, as well as his introductions—and even his name. (There are many Aldine counterfeits.)

Aldo’s italic fount was characterized by a large number of ligatured sorts, which increased during the publications of this and subsequent titles. Through a forensic reading of the ligature distribution and, startlingly, of the five blank or mostly blank pages in this work, one can deduce exacting information about the schedule of production—which did not parallel the narrative order of the book. The lecture focuses specifically on this edition and those around it with which it has intimate connections: the 1501 Horace, 1502 Dante, and 1502 Statius; but, in general, it is informed by the tension between reading a book and gazing at it.