The Italics

Robin Sloan

It was the italics that got me.

I’m the author of a novel published in 2012 with a plot that winds its way through the history of books and publishing. Along the way, I use (or maybe abuse) Aldus Manutius as a cog in my fictional machine. When I began writing, my knowledge of Manutius and his time went about as deep as the Wikipedia entry. It wasn’t until I saw some of his books myself, in person, that I understood who and what I was really dealing with.

Among those books was a compact volume – I can’t remember  – with its text set entirely in italics. The effect was unpleasant; the letters seemed to vibrate slightly on the page. I was taken aback.

Italics: used for emphasis, to indicate titles of standalone works – as well as the names of ships – and to set apart words and phrases borrowed from other languages; activated with a quick shortcut on any computer keyboard, anywhere; one of the most basic tools of typography.

But nobody would set an entire book in italics. No way. Confused, I asked about it. This is what I learned:

Long before the introduction of mechanical printing, people were buying and reading books. Those older volumes were luxury products, large and expensive, richly dressed, copied by hand. At the end of the 15th century, when Manutius and his competitors began to offer a new kind of book – smaller, cheaper, with letters stamped deeply into the page with metal type – it’s natural that their initial customers were readers accustomed to those older volumes. Those readers were happy to have access to smaller, cheaper books, of course – but many of them preferred the look of text laid down by a human hand.

Eager to please, Manutius and his collaborator Francesco Griffo designed and fabricated a set of swooping, slashing letterforms that mimicked the hand of the scribe. They did this work in Venice, so their special technique became known first as the Italic type, then the Italics, and then simply italics. The compact volume I saw, printed entirely in those earliest italics: it was a sophisticated simulation. A magic trick.

Italics: a technology with a particular purpose, invented at a particular time, in a particular place.

All the times you’ve used the keyboard shortcut or gone seeking in a text editor’s menu system, have you ever paused to wonder about the inventors of italics? I confess that I had not. Now I think of them constantly.

We look at very old books in very old languages and we think of chilly museums and whispering scholars, but the environment that surrounded and supported Manutius was neither academic nor austere. It was alive and colorful and competitive. Manutius didn’t develop italics as an artistic exercise: it was a feature, a strong new selling point. Fancifully, I imagine advertisements; posters pasted up along the canals:



Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

~ With New ScribeLook™ Technology ~

Available Only from Aldus Manutius


For me, Manutius and his collaborators  –  it’s important to remember them: the famous figures like Griffo, and the anonymous ones, too: the press operators, the alchemists of ink, the accountants  –  they set the benchmark for cultural production. Not only did they produce tangible work that is still extant five hundred years later (which, you know, ain’t bad): they also introduced technologies that are still in use, still being improved and extended, today.

Italics. Here they are. The keyboard command I just triggered to make those letters lean went cascading through layers of code, sending ripples of electricity through microscopic logic gates, to shift the configuration of light across a vast glowing grid, a universal canvas that Manutius would, I believe, weep to behold. You’re now looking at a similar configuration on a similar canvas. Use your imagination for a moment: see your screen (whether it’s attached to a laptop or a smartphone or something else) not as a flat panel but a deep stack of inventions, a pile of translucent onion-skin pages powerfully compressed. There is code on those pages, as well as electrical engineering and chemistry; lots of math, but also psychology, anthropology, typography. My contribution, these words, is near the top; just above it, the efforts of a web producer at Simon Fraser University. (Hello!)

Much deeper, somewhere very near the base of the stack, are Manutius and his collaborators: their brilliance like a spotlight beaming up through all the onion-skin pages. Their work is at the foundation of our screens, all of them, all across the world.

It’s therefore satisfying, in a symmetrical sort of way, that Simon Fraser University is now making more of that work available on these screens. Again, I imagine giving Manutius a laptop or maybe a tablet with a sharp, tactile screen: a kind of page he couldn’t have imagined. I imagine showing him one of his own books digitized.

Thank you, Aldus: for the books, of course, but also for the technology. The italics. The ideas.