Typefaces as History: Aldus Manutius and The Noble Bembo

by | Oct 22, 2010

Typefaces have always exerted a powerful force on my imagination. I grew up with huge, heavy American Type Foundry type sample books in our living room, and would spend hours looking at the designs. When I started to study typography and book design, I was fascinated by the history behind the styles we use, the people who created them, and the stories of how they came into being.

A few weeks ago I wrote about one of my favorites, Bembo, and used it to show how you can recognize oldstyle typefaces. I talked about how the original letterforms came from type designers imitating the strokes of a scribe’s square-nibbed pen.

Aldus, Francesco and Pietro Come Calling

But there’s more in Bembo’s DNA than the traces of calligraphers copying old Greek and Roman originals. Drill down a little more and another layer of cultural history falls open, with surprising connections.

Aldus Manutius

Aldus Manutius

Note anchor and dolphin

The art of the printed book spread quickly for the times, moving from the innovations of Gutenberg around 1450 near Mainz, Germany, to other cities in Europe.

Aldus Manutius, a humanist himself, set up his Aldine Press in Venice around 1490. Aldus took as his symbol the image of a dolphin around an anchor, which is derived from the ancient symbol for Beirut, Lebanon. This same symbol, by the way, was used for many years as a logo by Doubleday Books. Aldus’s sign also included the latin phrase Festina lente, or “hasten slowly.”

Aldus was an entrepreneur and an innovator, and soon became the most prolific publisher and printer in Renaissance Italy. He invented pocket editions of books with soft covers that were affordable for a wide range of readers, organized the scheme of book design, normalized the use of punctuation, and used the first italic type.

If you recognize Aldus’ name, it may be because the company that created Pagemaker, the first widely used layout software, and that spurred the whole desktop publishing revolution, was named Aldus, and used his image as their logo.

Bembo Is Born

For the design of his italic Aldus turned to Francesco Griffo, who made the molds in which the type would be cast. Then Aldus decided he needed a new typeface that he would use first to publish an essay titled De Aetna by the famed scholar Pietro Bembo.

“In February 1496, Aldus published a rather insignificant essay by the Italian scholar Pietro Bembo. The type used for the text became instantly popular. So famous did it become that it influenced typeface design for generations. Posterity has come to regard the Bembo type as Aldus’s and Griffo’s masterpiece.” —Allan Haley, Typographic Milestones

Hypnertomachia Poliphili

Hypnertomachia Poliphili

Click to enlarge

Bembo was a very well-connected cleric who was friendly with the Medicis and had an affair with Lucrezia Borgia. He influenced the development of the Italian language and assisted in the revival of interest in the works of Petrarch. Bembo was also instrumental in establishing the madrigal as the most important secular musical form of the 16th century.

Griffo continued to refine the design of his roman typeface up until the publication, in 1499, of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, (certainly one of the strangest and most mysterious books ever published in any age. This book, by the way, was the unusual centerpiece of the recent bestseller, The Rule of Four.) It is this design that has been known ever since as Bembo.

The Bloody End of the Story

Cardinal Pietro Bembo by Titian

Cardinal Pietro Bembo by Titian

Just as Aldus Manutius was about to achieve a government-authorized monopoly on the printing of Greek literature, he and Griffo had a falling out. Griffo left Venice for Bologna. The last notice we have of him is in 1516, when he is charged with beating his son-in-law to death with an iron bar. It’s thought he was hanged for his crime, a strange end to one of the most influential type designers of all time. To this day, italic fonts are known in Spanish as letra grifa after Griffo.

The design of Bembo was a clear attempt to bring the humanist script of the finest scribes of the day to the printed page, without slavishly following the more formal lettering of the day. It would later serve as the chief inspiriation to Claude Garamond, among others. Typefaces based on his work include Poliphilus, Cloister Old Style, Aetna, Aldine, Griffo Classico, Dante, and Adobe Minion.

Griffo has never received adequate recognition for his enormous contribution to type design. —J. Blumenthal, The Art of the Printed Book 1455-1955

So the next time you’re scrolling through your font drop-down list, think of the book designer. It’s not so much that all this history is present in his mind at all times, not at all. But in the meditative trance that settles over him as he lays out his book, the lines of Bembo flowing from line to paragraph, from paragraph to page, the ghosts of clever Aldus, suave Bembo, and doomed Griffo, the bloody bar still grasped in his hand, might rise, wraith-like, from the pages.

Even the prosaic act of flipping open the pages of a book can sink us into the accumulated history of western culture. Typefaces like Bembo are unique repositories of much of this history, encoded with mysteries within their subtle designs. It’s the province of the typographer to use each of these typefaces to the best effect for the book at hand. And with Bembo comes all its history, as alive today as it has ever been.

This article was part of a longer article originally published on Self-Publishing Review The picture of Cardinal Bembo is by Titian and is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. Jeff Kacirk

    Hi Joel,
    I came upon your article while researching Aldus for a Forgotten English calendar entry. I put it online, and send it out as a daily email. (Let me know if you’d like a free subscription.) I enjoyed your article very much as I’ve been fascinated by some fonts. Anyway, I hope all’s well.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Jeff, great to hear from you. Would love a subscription, still a “word junkie” I’m afraid. Glad you liked the article, it was one of the first I wrote here, but it’s always been a favorite of mine. Hope you are well, and thanks for taking the time to connect.

  2. Stephen Tiano

    Ugh. Grace, I was just telling someone that the most time-intensive (but, at least, fairly paid) projects I’ve worked were two “doctoring” jobs of book files created by someone else for a book packager. This was about 20 years ago and I vowed–kept the vow, too, over the years–to never accept a “doctoring” job again.

  3. Grace

    Hi Joel — I’m just now seeing this post because I did a search for “bembo kerning issues” — I stopped using Bembo in about 2005 because of the kerning issues that the first person who responded to your post was experiencing. The punctuation kerning is flawed. It happened that a publisher gave me 3rd pages to correct (I was not the original production person) using the Bembo Type 1 font, and most of the corrections involved fixing the spacing between periods and the following capital letter of the next sentence. Because the index had already been created, any changes I made could not affect the flow of text on the pages. Yikes! So I had to manually search and replace certain letters along with periods, commas, and quotation marks. It took tedious hours! If I had gotten the book BEFORE the index was done, I would have changed the kerning setting on this font in InDesign from metrics to optics, and I think that would have solved the problem, but it would also have reflowed the text in the entire book. Sigh.

  4. devika

    i just wanted to confirm with you
    The font bembo was used in the book Hypnerotomachia Poliphili right ?
    do reply as soon as prossible

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi devika,

      Yes, it’s the same basic design, although typefaces at that time were not known by fixed names like Bembo. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

      The book has long been sought after as one of the most beautiful incunabula ever printed.[1] The typography is famous for its quality and clarity, in a roman typeface cut by Francesco Griffo, a revised version of a type which Aldus had first used in 1496 for the De Aetna of Pietro Bembo. The type was revived by the Monotype Corporation in 1923 as Poliphilus.[2] Another revival, of the earlier version of Griffo’s type, was completed under the direction of Stanley Morison in 1929 as Bembo. The type is thought to be one of the first examples of the italic typeface, and unique to the Aldine Press in incunabula.

  5. Hammond Archbold

    I can see why Bembo is attractive but a font that competes well with it
    is Hoefler Text. It doesn’t have the problems described here, and it can be found for free on the web by searching a bit.

  6. Aubin Azizi

    Aldus manitus was an important humanist and scholar of the italian renaissance who established Aldine press and publish major works of the great thinkers of the greek and roman worls

  7. Roger C. Parker

    Dear Joel:
    Thanks for sharing this wonderful story. Like Maggie, I love the stories behind typeface designs and applications.

    I’m about to search your blog for stories about Minion, which continues to please.

    BTW, I am so glad I discovered your blog on Kindle; it’s one of my favorites, although I often visit your site, after reading a topic on Kindle, in order to better enjoy the graphics.

    Best wishes on your continued success.


    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Roger, that’s very generous of you. You won’t find any stories about Minion (yet) but I hope you have fun anyway.

  8. Stephen Tiano

    Hmmm … that’s all interesting. Bembo’s a favorite. I last used it on a book in 2007 or 2008. No problems with it, as I recall. It was Adobe and Postscript 1.

  9. Maggie

    Great article, Joel. I love reading about the history of fonts and typography. And I love Bembo, but it doesn’t love me! I have Adobe’s Type 1 Bembo, but find the space between a period (and other terminal punctuation) and the following letter (particularly a capital A) to be much too tight. I discovered this when using Bembo in PageMaker and it continues with Quark. At one point, I managed to get Adobe to admit they didn’t put as many kerning pairs in Bembo as in other fonts, and unless I was willing to tweak Bembo myself, I was stuck with the problem.

    Last year I typeset a book that used Bembo and warned the client it would cause problems, but this book was part of a series and they had no choice. Sure enough, page proof came back to me marked up six ways from Thursday and it was all about the spacing. At this point, the client admitted that the other books in the series being set by other typesetters were having exactly the same issues. He said he wouldn’t be using Bembo any more.

    By the way, I used the client’s Bembo rather than my own, but the problem persisted. Do you have any experience with this particular issue?

    • Joel Friedlander


      You know, it’s funny about that. The last book I actually typeset in Bembo was about 15 years ago, haven’t been able to sell one since. I’m sure I was using the Adobe type 1 fonts at the time, I was getting them through a friend in the type design department at Adobe. If I can catch up with him I’m going to ask about this and see what he has to say.



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