To state the current business at hand briefly, Aldus is the subject of a new exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of his death — and the birth of reading as we know it.
Aldus has attracted some pop-culture attention in recent years, at least among those with a geekish taste for printing history. The novel “The Rule of Four” gave his most famous book, the enigmatic “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili,” an upmarket “Da Vinci Code” treatment in 2004. There was also Robin Sloan’s 2012 best seller, “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore,” which turned Aldus into the founder of a shadowy secret society headed for an apocalyptic showdown with Google.
The exhibition that opened this week at the Grolier Club in Manhattan, “Aldus Manutius: A Legacy More Lasting Than Bronze,” gathers nearly 150 Aldines, as books from the press Aldus founded in Venice in 1494 are known, for a more sober tribute. Gutenberg may have invented the moveable-type printing press, used to create his monumental Bibles. But anyone who has ever sat in a cafe, or in the bath, with a paperback owes a debt to Aldus and the small, cleanly designed editions of the secular classics he called libelli portatiles, or portable little books.
“It’s become a cliché to call them the forerunners of the Penguin Classics,” G. Scott Clemons, the president of the Grolier Club, said during a recent tour of the installation in progress. “But the concept of personal reading is in some ways directly traceable to the innovations of Aldus’s portable library.”