Discover the innovative 16th century books acquired by Special Collections

Marbeled endpaper in red and yellow with blue and green accents.

Marbled endpaper from a 16th century Aldine.

New additions to the magnificent Wosk-McDonald Aldine collection include the first book to use italics, a rare counterfeit edition, and other 16th century books. 

Woodcut illustration of St Catherine holding a book in her hand
Woodcut illustration of St. Catherine of Siena.

St. Catherine of Siena and the invention of italics

The first complete edition of the letters of St. Catherine of Siena, published by Venetian printer Aldus Manutius, is one of the recent acquisitions in the Wosk-McDonald Aldine collection in SFU Library’s Special Collections and Rare Books.

A 14th century theologian and mystic who eventually became a patron saint of Italy, St. Catherine wrote hundreds of letters advocating for religious causes and reforms (Luongo, 2017).

This first complete collection of her letters was published by Aldus in 1500. Published in the Italian language, this book is “of great typographic and literary value,” shared Alessandra Bordini, a research associate in SFU Publishing. It is especially notable for containing the first use of italics: a few words, visible on the book held in St. Catherine’s hand in the woodcut illustration. Designed by Aldus’ typesetter, Francesco Griffo, this typeface innovation became the model for many italic-type designs still used today.


Revolutionizing Renaissance printing: Aldus Manutius

A pioneering figure in the Italian Renaissance, Aldus (1452-1515) was an editor, printer and publisher. In addition to new typefaces, one of his significant innovations was to publish editions of Greek and Latin classics in pocket-sized books called octavos. Making these works more portable and accessible to scholars and the reading public revolutionized printing and reading in the Renaissance.

“Even 500 years later, so many of the things that Aldus established are still the model of publishing practice today, really setting the modern world in motion,” explained John Maxwell, associate professor and director of SFU Publishing.

Other new Aldine acquisitions: Virgil, Plutarch, Petrarch, and a counterfeit Aldine

In addition to the letters of St. Catherine, recent acquisitions to our collection include later publications from Aldus’ press, such as a second edition of Virgil’s poetry from 1514 and a first edition of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives from 1519.

Another new arrival is one of Aldus’ earliest octavos, a first edition of Petrarch’s writings from 1501, which includes more of Francesco Griffo’s innovative italic type. Accompanying it is an infamous counterfeit edition, published by a French printer in Lyon in 1502. This exciting chance to have both the Aldine edition of Petrarch and the illicitly printed Lyon edition together opens up possibilities to compare the works, and to explore questions about the competitive book market and publishing trends in the Renaissance.

An expansive and engaging virtual collection

Making the collection even more accessible, more than 20 works from the Aldine collection have been fully digitized and shared in the Aldus@SFU digital collection, where they are freely available online.

“Aldus gained international success as a publisher, but he remained an educator at heart,” said Bordini. “We might say that he believed in the idea that knowledge is a common good that deserves to be shared. Carrying forward his lesson by making the SFU Aldine collection more widely available to the public, we want to ensure that our cultural heritage is not only preserved but also continuously infused with new life through ongoing engagement.”

Consistently one of the three most accessed of all of SFU Library’s digitized collections, these remarkable works continue to interest and engage researchers and book lovers from around the world.

Head of Special Collections shows the Aldines to students.
Melissa Salrin, Head of Special Collections, shows the Aldine collection to students (pre-COVID).


Luongo, F. T. (2017). Catherine of Siena. Renaissance and Reformation. Oxford Bibliographies Online.

Spring 2022