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The Masters of Type

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The Renaissance

The Renaissance was a period in European history, from the 14th to the 17th century, regarded as the cultural bridge between the Middle Ages and modern history. It started as a cultural movement in Italy in the Late Medieval period and later spread to the rest of Europe, marking the beginning of the Early Modern Age.

Renaissance Painting: Sandro Boticelli (1445 - 1510)

The intellectual basis of the Renaissance was its own invented version of humanism, derived from the rediscovery of classical Greek philosophy, such as that of Protagoras, who said that "Man is the measure of all things." This new thinking became manifest in art, architecture, politics, science and literature. Early examples were the development of perspective in oil painting and the recycled knowledge of how to make concrete. Although the invention of metal movable type sped the dissemination of ideas from the later 15th century, the changes of the Renaissance were not uniformly experienced across Europe.

As a cultural movement, the Renaissance encompassed innovative flowering of Latin and vernacular literatures, beginning with the 14th-century resurgence of learning based on classical sources, which contemporaries credited to Petrarch; the development of linear perspective and other techniques of rendering a more natural reality in painting; and gradual but widespread educational reform. In politics, the Renaissance contributed to the development of the customs and conventions of diplomacy, and in science to an increased reliance on observation and inductive reasoning. Although the Renaissance saw revolutions in many intellectual pursuits, as well as social and political upheaval, it is perhaps best known for its artistic developments and the contributions of such polymaths as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, who inspired the term "Renaissance man."

Renaissance Painting: Michelangelo Caravaggio (1571 - 1610).

The Renaissance first began in Florence, in the 14th century. Various theories have been proposed to account for its origins and characteristics, focusing on a variety of factors including the social and civic peculiarities of Florence at the time: its political structure; the patronage of its dominant family, the Medici; and the migration of Greek scholars and texts to Italy following the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks. Other major centres were northern Italian city-states such as Venice, Genoa, Milan, Bologna, and finally Rome during the Renaissance Papacy.

Renaissance Painting: Luca Signorelli (1441 - 1523).

Beginning in the latter half of the 15th cent., a humanist faith in classical scholarship led to the search for ancient texts that would increase current scientific knowledge. Among the works rediscovered were Galen's physiological and anatomical studies and Ptolemy's Geography. Botany, zoology, magic, alchemy, and astrology were developed during the Renaissance as a result of the study of ancient texts. Scientific thinkers such as Leonardo da Vinci, Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo, Tycho Brahe, and Johannes Kepler attempted to refine earlier thought on astronomy. Among Leonardo's discoveries were the revelation that thrown or shot projectiles move in one curved trajectory rather than two; metallurgical techniques that allowed him to make great sculptures; and anatomical observations that increased the accuracy of his drawings.

In 1543 Copernicus wrote De revolutionibus, a work that placed the sun at the center of the universe and the planets in semicorrect orbital order around it; his work was an attempt to revise the earlier writings of Ptolemy. Galileo's most famous invention was an accurate telescope through which he observed the heavens; he recorded his findings in Siderius nuncius [starry messenger] (1610). Galileo's Dialogo...sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo [dialogue concerning the two chief world systems] (1632), for which he was denounced by the current pope (because of Galileo's approval of Copernicus), resulted in his living under house arrest for the rest of his life. Tycho Brahe gave an accurate estimate of planetary positions and refuted the Aristotelian theory that placed the planets within crystal spheres. Kepler was the first astronomer to suggest that planetary orbits were elliptical.


The Art of Calligraphy

It was inevitable that the upheaval described above would also affect our subject matter. One of the major benefits of this new milieu of learning and inquiry was the spreading of literacy, i.e. the ability of not only to be able to read but also to write. Keeping diaries and notebooks became a widespread practice, not only among artists and scientists but also among the wealthy upper classes and the aristocracy, as did the sending back and forth of notes and letters. As a consequence the art of calligraphy as well as of page layout and lettering acquired special importance. Calligraphy masters traveled from mansions to palaces teaching the new educated elite these new fine crafts. However, it is the scholarly notebooks and texts, often embellished with illustrations, that are the most noteworthy of the genré.


Renaissance notebooks, late 15th to mid 16th centuries. Bottom right is a letter of the famous Italian scholar Pietro Bembo, after whom the typeface "Bembo" was named by it's creator Francesco Griffi.

Leonardo da Vinci

Between 1490 and 1495 he developed his habit of recording his studies in meticulously illustrated notebooks. His work covered four main themes: painting, architecture, the elements of mechanics, and human anatomy. These studies and sketches were collected into various codices and manuscripts, which are now hungrily collected by museums and individuals. It is these notebooks that are of particular interest to us, not only due to the beautiful illustrations and technical drawings but also through their extraordinary page layouts.

Leonardo da Vinci, Florentine painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, and scholar, and one of the greatest minds of the Renaissance; was born at Vinci, near Florence, in 1452; died at Cloux, near Amboise, France, 2 May, 1519, natural son of Ser Piero, a notary, and a peasant woman. He was reared carefully by his father, and was remarkably gifted and precocious. Few artists owed so little to circumstances and teachers. He was quite self-made. His work was small in bulk, and what remains may be counted on fingers of both hands. Few men had such varied talent and amassed such encyclopedic knowledge; his method as an artist was original with him, science was the measure of beauty, he combined fact with poetry and made use of both to carry on wide investigations in nature and to reproduce life according to the very laws of life. 

Further reading and images


The Renaissance Book

The great intellectual movement of Renaissance Italy was humanism. The humanists believed that the Greek and Latin classics contained both all the lessons one needed to lead a moral and effective life and the best models for a powerful Latin style. They developed a new, rigorous kind of classical scholarship, with which they corrected and tried to understand the works of the Greeks and Romans, which seemed so vital to them. Both the republican elites of Florence and Venice and the ruling families of Milan, Ferrara, and Urbino hired humanists to teach their children classical morality and to write elegant, classical letters, histories, and propaganda.

Renaissance book bindings.

Renaissance illuminated books: Lighter, whiter and more elegant.

In the course of the fifteenth century, the humanists also convinced most of the popes that the papacy needed their skills. Sophisticated classical scholars were hired to write official correspondence and propaganda; to create an image of the popes as powerful, enlightened, modern rulers of the Church; and to apply their scholarly tools to the church's needs, including writing a more classical form of the Mass.

Humanism, which began as a movement to revive ancient literature and education, soon turned to other fields as well. Humanists tried to apply ancient lessons to areas as diverse as agriculture, politics, social relations, architecture, music, and medicine. This new influx of knowledge necessitated the production of secular books. In the Middle Ages, magnificent illumination was rarely used in the decoration of secular texts. In the Renaissance, though sacred texts continued to receive the most sumptuous decoration, secular texts began to rival them for elegance of script, illumination, and binding.

Further reading and images


The Renaissance Masters of Type

New, humanist writings required creating new types of fonts---more secular, more legible, and more elegant. Additionally, the usage of paper had gradually replaced parchment and vellum and while rag paper was still expensive it was still more cost efficient than parchment. Thus the need for the condensed gothic typefaces was also becoming obsolete. Page designs were rapidly becoming lighter, more and more white white space was making its appearance. Thus came the first "revival wave," the first time when font artisans looked into the past in order to create better typefaces for the present. The problem at that time was, however, that ancient Romans didn't have but uppercase, capital letters. While adopting their designs for capitals, Renaissance typographers had to spend more time working on lowercase lettershapes. As a basis, they took carolingian scripts that were common in early Middle age (before the blackletter had become dominant style across the Western Europe), but changed them significantly to match the Roman uppercase letters and to better adopt to Gutenberg's printing technology (that had just appeared).


Aldus Manutius

Binding and pages of "Aldine"s.

Aldus Manutius (1450–1515) was educated as a humanistic scholar and became tutor to several of the great ducal families. One of them, the Pio family, provided him with money to establish a printery in Venice. Aldus was at this time almost 45 years old. He devoted himself to publishing the Greek and Roman classics, in editions noted for their scrupulous accuracy; a five-volume set of the works of Aristotle, completed in 1498, is the most famous of his editions. He was especially interested in producing books of small format for scholars at low cost. To this end he designed and cut the first complete font of the Greek alphabet, adding a series of ligatures or tied letters, similar to the conventional signs used by scribes, which represented two to five letters in the width of one character. To save space in Latin texts he had a type designed after the Italian cursive script; it is said to be the script of Petrarch. This was the first italic type used in books (1501). Books produced by him are called Aldine and bear his mark, which was a dolphin and an anchor. Aldus employed competent scholars as editors, compositors, and proofreaders to insure accuracy in his books. Much of his type was designed by Francesco Griffi, called Francesco da Bologna, who also designed the typeface "Bembo", after the Humanist scholar Pietro Bembo. The Aldine Press was later managed by other members of his family, including a son, Paulus Manutius (1512–74), and a grandson, Aldus Manutius (1547–97), who was best known for his classical scholarship.

Further reading and images

Claude Garamond


There are several typefaces called Garamond. Some are based on the work of Claude Garamond. The “original” Garamond belongs to the family of “Renaissance” or “old style” serif typefaces. The font that most resembles the original Garamond is not named Garamond, but Granjon - designed by Robert Granjon, to differentiate it from the many other kinds of Garamonds.

Claude Garamond (1480–1561) was a Parisian publisher. He was one of the leading type designers of his time, and several of the typefaces he designed are still in use, notably the font Garamond, named in his honor. Garamond came to prominence in 1541, when three of his Greek typefaces were requested for a royally ordered book series by Robert Estienne. Garamond based them on the handwritings of Angelo Vergecio, the King's Librarian at Fontainebleau, and his ten-year-old pupil, Henri Estienne. According to Arthur Tilley, the editions are "among the most finished specimens of typography that exist." Garamond's Roman were created shortly thereafter, and his influence rapidly spread throughout and beyond France during the 1540s.

Geoffroy Tory

Pages from Champs Fleury, 1529.

Geoffroy Tory, one of the major printers in Paris during the first third of the sixteenth century, wrote and printed this theoretical treatise called Champs Fleury on the design of Roman capital letters in 1529. He was rewarded by François I with the title of Imprimeur du Roi in 1531.

Early type designers attempted to find special relationships between the proportions of the letters and the shape and dimension of the human body. Thus, just like Dürer, whom he criticized severely, Tory shows how to draw letters with geometrical aids, and how their proportions relate to the human body. Although the book was not aimed at the printing trade, the work is mentioned by many subsequent writers on lettering and printing and has had a great influence on typography.


The Baroque Masters of Type

From the Renaissance masters of type, who created/refined lowercase characters to setting up the basic principles of page design we come to the Baroque masters who took the art of book design and typography even further: Pages became even whiter, margins broader and type even more refined. One of the most beautiful characteristics of Baroque page design are the ornate borders and typographic flourishes.

In the arts, Baroque is both a period and the style that dominated it. The Baroque style used exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, literature, and music. The style started around 1600 in Rome, Italy and spread to most of Europe. In music, the Baroque applies to the final period of dominance of imitative counterpoint, where different voices and instruments echo each other but at different pitches, sometimes inverting the echo, and even reversing thematic material.

Baroque flourishes.

Baroque printer's marks.

Philippe Grandjean (1666-1714) was a French type engraver notable for his series of Roman and italic types known as Romain du Roi (French: King's Roman). King Louis XIV, in 1692, directed that a typeface be designed at any necessary expense for the exclusive use of the Royal printer. The design was carried out by Grandjean together with a group of mathematicians, philosophers, and others.

Romain du Roi

William Caslon (1692–1766) was an English gunsmith and designer of typographic fonts. In 1716 he started a business in London as an engraver of gun locks and barrels, and as a bookbinder's tool cutter. Being thus brought into contact with printers, he was induced to fit up a type foundry, largely through the encouragement of William Bowyer. The distinction and legibility of his type secured him the patronage of the leading printers of the day in England and on the continent.

His typefaces were influenced by Dutch types then common in England. His work influenced John Baskerville and are thus the progenitors of Transitional types, which in turn led to Modern types. Caslon typefaces were very popular and used for many important printed works, including the first printed version of the Declaration of Independence. They fell out of favor in the century after his death, but were revived in the 1840s, and Caslon-inspired typefaces are still widely used today.


John Baskerville (1706 - 1775) was a printer in Birmingham, England, a member of the Royal Society of Arts, and an associate of some of the members of the Lunar Society. He directed his punchcutter John Handy in the design of many typefaces of broadly similar appearance. His businesses included japanning and papier-mâché, but he is best remembered as a printer. He printed works for Cambridge University in 1758 and although an atheist, printed a splendid folio Bible in 1763. His fonts were greatly admired by fellow member of the Royal Society of Arts, Benjamin Franklin, who took the designs back to the newly-created United States, where they were adopted for most federal government publishing. His work was criticized by jealous competitors and soon fell out of favor, but since the 1920s many new fonts have been released by Linotype, Monotype, and other type foundries – revivals of his work and mostly called 'Baskerville'.

It is thought that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who once lived in Birmingham, borrowed his name for one of his Sherlock Holmes stories, The Hound of the Baskervilles - which, in turn, was borrowed by Umberto Eco for the character William of Baskerville in his best-selling novel, The Name of the Rose.

Book pages designed by John Baskerville.

Pierre Simon Fournier (1712 - 1768) was a French mid-eighteenth century punch-cutter, typefounder and typographic theoretician, master of the rococo form. Typefaces designed by Fournier include Fournier and Narcissus. He was known as Fournier le Jeune: his father Jean Claude was also in the type-setting industry. In his early life, Fournier studied watercolour with J. B. G. Colson, and later wood engraving. In 1737, Fournier published his first theoretical work, on the minimum spacing between letters, while still retaining readability. The typefaces that Fournier and successors created had such extreme contrast between thick and thin strokes, that there was a constant risk of the letters shattering.

Typographic manual by Fournier.

When the Netherlands was superseded by France, King Louis XIV commissioned new type for during his reign, called Romain du Roi. The King kept the font as a monopoly to himself, with penalties against unauthorized reproduction. In the following century, Fournier's Modèles des Caractères (1742) continued the romaine du roi style, but adapted it for his own new age. Upon publishing Modèles des Caractères, filled with rococo and fleurons, Fournier's publication helped revive the 1500s concept of type ornaments.


The Age of the Enlightenment

The Age of the Enlightenment refers to either the eighteenth century in European philosophy, or the longer period including the seventeenth century and the Age of Reason. It can more narrowly refer to the historical intellectual movement The Enlightenment, which advocated Reason as a means to establishing an authoritative system of aesthetics, ethics, and logic, which, they supposed, would allow human beings to obtain objective truth about the universe. Emboldened by the revolution in physics commenced by Newtonian kinematics, Enlightenment thinkers argued that the same kind of systematic thinking could apply to all forms of human activity.

The intellectual leaders regarded themselves as a courageous elite who would purposely lead the world into progress from a long period of doubtful tradition, irrationality, superstition, and tyranny, which they imputed to the Dark Ages. The movement helped create the intellectual framework for the American and French Revolutions, the Latin American independence movement, and the Polish Constitution of May 3; and led to the rise of classical liberalism and capitalism. It is matched with the high baroque and classical eras in music, and the neo-classical period in the arts; it receives contemporary attention as being one of the central models for many movements in the modern period.

The 18th century brought about the ultimate refinement in page design and typography, especially embodied in Giambattista Bodoni's work. The beautiful font "Bodoni", named after him is one we use with relish even today.


François-Ambroise Didot (1730-1804) succeeded his father François, and was appointed printer to the clergy in 1788. All the lovers of fine books highly appreciate the editions known as "D'Artois" (Recueil de romans français, 64 vols.) and "du Dauphin", a collection of French classics in 32 vols., edited by order of Louis XVI. He also published a Bible. He invented a new printing-press, improved type-founding, and was the first to print on vellum paper.

Typography and book design by Didot.

About 1780 he adapted the "point" system for sizing typefaces by width. This he established as 1/72nd of a French inch (i.e., this was before the metric system), which was larger than any of the former Imperial inch of the UK or that of the US, let alone the international inch of 25.4 mm. His unit of the point was later named after him as the didot. It became the prevailing system of type measurement throughout continental Europe, its former colonies, and Latin America. In 1973 it was metrically standardized at 0.375 mm for the European Union. The English-speaking world, on the other hand, established the unit called simply the "point," originally to the same proportion of the smaller inches of the various countries.

Giambattista Bodoni (1740-1813) was an Italian engraver, publisher, printer and typographer of high repute remembered for designing a typeface which is now called Bodoni. Giambattista Bodoni achieved an unprecedented level of technical refinement, allowing him to faithfully reproduce letterforms with very thin "hairlines", standing in sharp contrast to the thicker lines constituting the main stems of the characters. His printing reflected an aesthetic of plain, unadorned style, combined with purity of materials. This style attracted many admirers and imitators, surpassing the popularity of French typographers such as Philippe Grandjean and Pierre Simon Fournier. Bodoni was appointed printer to the court of Parma in 1768. Important folio editions by Bodoni are works by Horace (1791), Vergil (1793), and Homer (1808). The Bodoni Museum, named for the artisan, was opened in Parma in 1963.

Giambattista Bodoni's famous typography manual.

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