Renaissance Redux

How a renaissance's renaissance gave us the first modern Roman font

The year Johannes Gutenberg died, 1468, two other goldsmiths from Mainz, the brothers Johann and Wedelin of Speyer, packed up and left town. William Caxton was still a few years away from bringing movable type to the centre of trade in northern Europe, when the brothers from Speyer brought it to the centre of trade in the Mediterranean: Venice.

Movable type and trade were a natural fit. Books were eminently trade-able, and the matrices and moulds used to print them even more so. A ship could carry a thousand books, but by trading in printing equipment, it could just as well carry the means to produce a hundred thousand books. Skilled smiths in a port city had a market. But the Speyer brothers’ interests in Venice lay in printing, and on their arrival, the Venetian senate granted them—now Giovanni and Vindelino de Spira—a 5 year printing monopoly.

About a hundred and twenty years earlier, the Italian scholar Petrarch had discovered a collection of writing by the Roman politician and philosopher, Cicero. These 16 books of Cicero’s letters to friends—Epistulae ad Familiares—provided a stunning view of Republican Rome in the last century BCE, and kicked off a cultural obsession with emulating the art and values of antiquity. This intellectual foment coincided with an economic boom in Florence, near Petrarch’s hometown, and marked the beginning of the Italian Renaissance. 15 years before the de Spira brothers arrived in Venice, scholars fleeing the conquest of the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople flooded Florence with new, but actually very old, books and ideas. The influence of the ancients was at a saturation point, and spreading across Italy.

The first book off the de Spira press was a natural: Cicero’s Epistulae ad
Familiares. Typographically, it would change everything.

By the 15th century, very few actual ancient texts survived. The oldest texts that did make it were reproductions—manuscripts copied by hand, by scribes, dating from the first point after the fall of the Western Roman Empire when anyone was in a position to reproduce texts on a broad scale: the Carolingian Renaissance. These texts were written with rounded uncial letters, organized with spaces between words, punctuation between sentences, and upper and lowercase letters. They were written in Alcuin’s venerable Carolingian minuscule.

Readers in Renaissance Italy had no way of knowing this. These texts looked ancient. They held authentically ancient ideas. Why wouldn’t the type also be authentically ancient? In their quest to adopt and emulate all things ancient, Renaissance Italians accidentally adopted Carolingian minuscule. Blackletter, a product of “Gothic” Germany—even though it actually emerged in the same non-Roman part of Europe where Alcuin created his “Roman” Carolingian minuscule—became deeply unfashionable.

So, when the de Spira Brothers printed Cicero’s letters, they rejected the Blackletter-derived types of Caxton, of Gutenberg, and of their native Germany. Instead, they drew inspiration from the popular texts of the day and based their fonts on the uncial letters of Carolingian minuscule. In so doing, they profoundly changed how they formed letters.

Before, every text had been conceived as the work of a writing hand—as the work of a scribe, who wrote on a surface with a writing instrument. Even as printing changed this dynamic and eliminated the scribe and pen, early printers still cast fonts to look as though they were written. The de Spiras recognized that printed text didn’t need to look like written text. Letters could be distinct, uncrowded, weighted for clarity; the only limitation was the precision with which their founders could cast their type.

To our modern eyes, their text looks familiar, natural, and legible. And it should. Today, we categorize the de Spiras’s Venetian font as an Old Style font. But in the scope of all letters, it was the first modern font.