Murder in Italic

Most will be familiar with the name Francesco Griffo, born in Bologna in 1450, and forever associated with the Venetian printer-publisher Aldus Manutius for whom he designed and cut roman, Greek, and the first italic fonts. Their partnership was an especially fruitful one and their collaboration at the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth centuries has influenced type design ever since. To this day, in Spain, the italic is known as the letra grifa after its namesake.

Less well-known is that Griffo and Aldus had a serious falling out, precipitated by a perceived Aldine snub. Until they crossed swords, Aldus had heaped praise on Griffo, going as far as to compare him to the godlike artisan Daedalus of Homeric legend. In the opening to the first of his octavo classics, he writes:

Lo! Aldus, who gave letters to the Greeks, now gives them, engraved by the Daedalian hands of Francesco da Bologna, to the Latins. — Aldus’s Virgil of 1501 (removed from later editions)[1]

In November 1502 Aldus was granted a ten-year privilege (a kind of monopoly protection) for the designs of Griffo’s type, though it was soon imitated with copies of the italic appearing most notably in Lyons and Brescia. In response Aldus wrote a letter condemning these pirated fonts, but to no avail.

Signs of a rift are evident in the preface to a book printed by Soncino[1] in 1503, for whom Griffo had supplied the type, wherein he castigates Aldus for his treatment of Griffo and his efforts to seek a kind of patent on Griffo’s type designs. Soon after the death of Aldus (1515), Griffo returns to his native Bologna to set up his own print shop in 1516.

In the first book issued from his press, Canzonier by Petrarch (USTC: 847791), in addition to reasserting Griffo’s authorship of the so-called Aldine fonts, the preface states:

[Aldus] had not only come into much wealth, but had assured himself of immortal fame and posterity.[3]

Perhaps here we see the cause of Griffo’s grudge: that he feels hard done by, either not receiving sufficient accolades or pecuniary remuneration.

However, the falling out with Aldus, serious though it was, pales in comparison to an altercation with his son-in-law. We know nothing of the circumstances that led up to the fight, but we do know that it concluded with Griffo apparently beating him to death with a metal bar. Griffo disappears in 1518, some claiming that he was found guilty and hanged for his crime.

Fortunately, Griffo is best remembered for his contribution to type design. Unfortunately for his son-in-law, he married the daughter of a bellicose type designer.

1. Translation from The Makers of Hebrew Books in Italy, David W. Amram (second ed., 1958), p. 102.
2. Who appears to have been excluded from the Venetian territories by legal action on the part of Aldus. See Davies (1999), p. 55.
3. Davies (1999), p. 52.

World of Aldus Manutius: Business and Scholarship in Renaissance Venice, Martin Lowry (1979).

Francesco Griffo da Bologna: fragments & glimpses: a compendium of information & opinions about his life and work, Rollin Milroy (1999).

Aldus Manutius: printer and publisher of Renaissance Venice, Martin Davies (1999).

Aldus Manutius and Renaissance Culture: Essays in Memory of Franklyn D. Murphy, David S. Zeidberg et al. (1998).

Bound in Venice: The Serene Republic and the Dawn of the Book, Alessandro Marzo Magno (2013).

Aldus & His Dream Book Helen Barolini (1992).