Humanist Handwriting

How Venetian printers refined the Roman and reintroduced "handwriting"

By the end of the 15th century Venice was the centre of European printing. Other printers had followed the de Spiras, among them a French printer named Nicolas Jenson who shared the de Spiras’ insight that print didn’t need to look like handwriting. He created his own excellent Roman typeface—arguably more authentically Roman than the de Spiras’, but no less modern. As the century approached its end, a humanist teacher and scholar in the vein of Petrarch acquired some of the deceased Nicolas Jenson’s printing equipment, and started a press.

In founding the Aldine Press, Aldus Manutius hoped to preserve the Greek and Roman classics. To this end, he collaborated with fellow humanist scholar, Pietro Bembo, and they soon produced the Aldine Press’s first book, a Greek grammar. In order to print Latin works, Aldus needed a Latin letter set, so he hired Franchesco Griffo. The punchcutter crafted a particularly fine Roman, heavier but arguably more balanced than Jenson’s, with more uniform serifs and smaller capitals.

Type in hand, the Aldine Press’s next publication was another collaboration between Aldus and Bembo. Bembo was a crucial architect of the Italian language with a penchant for lifting linguistic conventions from ancient Greek for use in his own Tuscan compositions. Aldus was pleased to print his work.

Aldus and Bembo shared a preoccupation with preserving classics, but De Aetna was a thoroughly modern, secular story; a dialogue about a climb to a mountaintop.Originally, Aldus printed it in Griffo’s Romant, but De Aetna wasn’t like anything printed before—it was nothing like any of the ancient texts Aldus wanted to preserve. Using a Roman font for something so special didn’t quite make sense. So Griffo created something special, and it made a lot of sense.

Humanist scholars like Pietro Bembo spent a lot of time reading Carolingian manuscripts and prints in Roman fonts. They’d modified their handwriting accordingly, incorporating Roman letterforms into sloping cursive writing. Bembo himself was a practised hand, and Griffo took inspiration from his manuscripts. In the first BLKBK-esque fusion of script and font, Griffo created a gently sloping font that deliberately looked like like handwriting. It was the perfect choice for a personal, pastoral, and vernacular piece like De Aetna—readers could almost imagine Bembo seated atop Mount Etna, writing the book as he lived it.

Aldus had his own book-making innovations to contribute. Simply but crucially, he made De Aetna small. Early books were bricks: the Gutenberg bible was 30x40 cm and weighed as much as two bricks. Aldus’s new, smaller books, encheridions, came in at a quarter that size. They presented an advantage over larger books similar to what books held over scrolls: portability. Encheridions were also cheaper to produce and purchase—a virtue enhanced by Aldus’s decision to print them without lengthy commentary or notes, as was typical at the time. This was a boon to readers and to Aldus himself, whose press thrived.

As fruitful as the Griffo-Aldine collaboration was, Aldus and Griffo fell out. Aldus held the Venetian monopoly on printing using Griffo’s types, which forced Griffo to move away in order to sell his own work. Unhappily, Griffo was an explosive personality who would go on to beat his son-in-law to death with an iron bar. Happily, business at the Aldine Press could go on without him. In fact, it could go on without Aldus Manutius himself, who only outlived Griffo by a few years.

In the mid-16th century, Aldus’s son, Paulus Manutius, upgraded the press’s equipment. Needing a suitable replacement for the Griffo punches, he turned to French type founder Claude Garamond. Garamond, by then, was already famous for his Greek types; notably an expansive, complicated face featuring ligatures and alternate characters, which successfully replicated the handwriting of France’s royal scribe.

His work in the Latin alphabet was different. By then, Parisian punchcutters Estienne and Colines had produced novel Roman fonts, using the horizontal ‘e’ enclosure introduced by Griffo, but tending towards Jensonian proportions and variations. Garamond’s Roman drew inspiration directly from Griffo’s more regular type, with unique modifications. Setting Roman square capital letters against lowercase letters with a low x-height and oversized ascenders, Garamond created a font with high contrast between upper and lowercase letters, a gorgeous uppercase 'Q', and the most polished Roman font yet.

His work proved popular. Unfortunately, the same ham-handed monopoly system that had secured the Aldine Press’s future at Griffo’s expense, meant that Garamond was also unable to sell his work. He died poor, and his widow resorted to selling his punches. The printers who acquired Garamonds work recognized a good thing. Trading among themselves to accumulate complete sets, Garamond’s work spread throughout Europe, taking hold in Golden Age Netherlands and his native France, where it would remain the most popular Roman for the next 200 years.

Thanks to the overwhelming popularity of Garamond’s font, we use his name today to refer to an entire family of old-style serif typefaces, and to an array of individual modern typefaces inspired by his work. Pietro Bembo’s name also graces a font, a 1929 Roman from Monotype inspired by Griffo’s font used to publish Bembo’s first book. And Griffo’s gently sloping, handwriting-inspired font? At the time it was simply known as Aldine, but today we use a name derived from Pietro Bembo's language: Italic.