On September 23, 2014, author Robin Sloan visited Richardson, TX as part of the Richardson Reads One Book campaign. In early 2014, the city chose his fascinating book, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, as their “one book” for the year. The campaign encouraged readers throughout the city to pore through his novel and discuss issues he brought forth, like technology, history, and the quest for immortality. It’s a smart, engaging book.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.

"Niccolo de Niccoli italic handwriting" by Niccolò de' Niccoli - Written by Niccolò de' Niccoli (1364–1437). Copied in The Origin and Development of Humanistic Script by Berthold Louis Ullman (Rome, 1960), Plate 37 Florence, Naz. Conv. Soppr. I. X. 44, folio 1v Lives of Alexander and Caesar translated by Guarino. Scanned by HDoug of The Fountain Pen Network. Posted on "italic" term in computers and writing. Uploaded to en.wikipedia by Wareh. Transferred to Commons by User:朝彦 using CommonsHelper.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
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Niccolo de Niccoli italic handwriting” by Niccolò de’ Niccoli (1364–1437). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

During his speech, he regaled us with the time he spent at the Grolier Club in New York City, a private club of bibliophiles (book lovers) who collect and preserve antique books. Since Penumbra concerned itself with old books, someone from the Grolier Club had invited Sloan to bask in its rich mahogany shelves and supremely dated books.

The specific reason he was invited was to look at actual versions of Aldus Manutius’s books, a well-known 14th-century Italian publisher. A fictionalized Manutius is an important figure in Penumbra.

Of the many interesting items of note Sloan saw as he paged through Manutius’s actual books was the use of italics for every single word. He asked the librarian at the Club as to why they chose to publish the Latin books in all italics, making the script barely legible (even if you knew Latin).

She replied that it was a consequence of design and technology. Manutius was equal parts businessman and technocrat—a Steve Jobs of his day, as Sloan defined him.

Manutius asked his typesetter, Francesco “Griffo” da Bologna  (who also makes a fictionalized appearance in Penumbra as Griffo Gerritszoon), to create a font resembling handwriting. Manutius also wanted to fit as many letters as possible on a page in order to create a more portable book. These new, smaller versions were about the size of a traditional Moleskine notebook, or even the iPhone 6 Plus.

One can imagine how popular these small books must have been, especially when compared to the large historical tomes chained to lecterns that we so often see in the movies. As Sloan also related, the Grolier’s Club librarian relayed to him the immensity of what Manutius had accomplished with his newfound ability to make compact, portable books. “It was the first time anyone could curl up with Socrates.”

Manutius had married typography with practicality and received recognition and recompense as his reward.

The popularity of his new font expanded beyond Italy’s borders, so when other book publishers wanted to request this new font, they called it italic.

Fortunately for our eyes today, we mostly use italics for emphasis, titles, or foreign words.

But maybe the next time you italicize a word, you’ll think of old Manutius and how everything—even the slight slant of lettering—has a story.

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