Loading Events

« All Events

  • This event has passed.

First Italics

1 May 2020 - 31 May 2020

Il primo corsivo, dettaglio dalle Lettere di santa Caterina di Aldo Manuzio e pagina intera

First use of Italics

in typography


Catherine of Siena
Epistole deuotissime de sancta Catharina da Siena
Aldus Manutius, Venice 1500

Detail of the woodcut with the inscription in italic inside the open book.

Detail of a manuscript of the master calligrapher Bartolomeo Sanvito.

Among the most famous books printed in Venice by Aldus Manutius, a special mention should go to the “Letters of St. Catherine of Siena”, published in 1500.

The book is one of the first editions of Manutius in Italian vernacular. Its popularity is mainly related to the woodcut illustration of St. Catherine, which appears on folio 10v: in the open book that the Saint holds in her right hand, we can read the inscription: “iesu / dol/ce / iesu / amo/re”.
Why does this inscription arouse the interest of many typography scholars and bibliophile enthusiasts?

This is the first appearance of italics in a printed book. It is certain that it is a lead font (and not letters engraved in the wood), because a couple of copies of the same book bearing the same woodcut are documented without the five words in the image. In the illuminated or printed depictions of St. Catherine the book is mostly closed: the choice to show it open is probably explained with the intention of carving out a space for the new italic letters in the composition.
The most plausible hypothesis is that they were the first print runs by mistake inserted in the book. It is probable, as some scholars believe, that Francesco Griffo, the master punchcutter and, actually, the ‘designer’ of the Aldus’ typefaces, was late with the work.
Anyway, these letters are the first preview of these cuts: the Aldine edition of Virgil (1501) is recognized as the first book to be printed throughout in italic.

It is worth remembering that Italic type is modeled on the humanist cursive of the time used by copyists of the caliber of Niccolò Niccoli and Bartolomeo Sanvito. This writing presents a very graceful and prompt ductus, a slight inclination to the right and elegant links between some groups of letters. Italians call this style corsivo; in France it becomes italique and in English-speaking countries italic or italics. In Spain they even call it a letra grifa with an evident reference to its creator, Francesco Griffo.

British Library -Stowe 1016  f 133

Aldus Manutius was born in Bassiano in 1449. After studying in Rome, and having lived in Ferrara and Carpi, Manutius moved to Venice, where he opened a publishing house and began printing, especially Latin and Greek classics, starting from 1493. Fundamental among the works in Greek, was the creation of the first printed edition of the works of Aristotle.
In January 1496 Manutius published De Aetna by Pietro Bembo, especially memorable for the elegance of the Roman character: it became a reference for any future creator of characters. Manutius published later in 1499 the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a beautifully illustrated incunabula, whose attribution to the Dominican Francesco Colonna continues to be debated.
Aldus may also be given credit for being the first to apply the in-8 format to the production of the classics. Manutius was indeed fully aware of the revolution that was arousing.
On 6 February 1515, Manutius died in Venice.


1 May 2020
31 May 2020
Event Category: