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Mobile devices of the 15th century


The Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice is hosting an evocative exhibition on Aldo Manuzio, the celebrated 15th century printer and publisher. With a vision to broaden the reach of the classics in Europe, he set up shop in Venice in 1489, just a few years after Gutenberg’s introduction of movable type printing, the defining technology of his era. He harnessed it to become the first to ever publish the works of Aristotle, Euclid, and many other ancient philosophers, scientists and authors, ushering progress by making their ideas available in the West.

To make texts easier to read, Manuzio introduced many innovations. One was italics, to mimic the manuscripts that the literate were used to reading. Another one was the book layout used to this day, with text arranged on a 1:2 box in the middle of the page, surrounded by blank space; an indescribable waste of precious paper, rare stuff back then. Perhaps his greatest invention was the pocket book, neat six-inch stacks of clearly legible paper bound in leather. It allowed nobles, generals and scholars to carry the classics wherever they went—even into portraits such as the one adorning this post. Many did, turning Manuzio’s books into status symbols, and making his vision a reality.

The exhibition’s curators point out that Manuzio’s work made Venice “the Silicon Valley” of the time, attracting technicians and editors to produce the books, inspiring scholars and curious readers to discuss them, and promoting writers of new content. It is hard to imagine that present day mobile devices will set in motion a transformation comparable to that which Euclidean geometry or Plato’s “Republic” started in the 15th century. For that, the exhibition does an important job of recognizing Manuzio as the original Renaissance man.


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