Part I – Medieval Europe
Type design has always been defined by the current technologies of the age and the influences of the past. Starting with ancient cave paintings and Egyptian hieroglyphs (3100BC), writing and relief drawing created another way to communicate, document knowledge, and mark time and history. Later, Chinese calligraphy was born and was then regarded as an artform with delicate strokes and necessary precision. Then more discoveries were made like the invention of paper (105AD), the invention of movable type (1450 AD), and eventually our modern day digital type design. With our use of computers and default fonts it is very easy to forget the rich history of typography and writing and where some of the most widely used fonts today have come from and evolved. Often, I find it hard to think of a world without our basic technology, but type design started with handwritten manuscripts and a desire for increased legibility and communication.
During the late fourth to early fifth century, the invention of parchment was developed in the western world, which was more durable and faster to produce than the earlier papyrus. However, it was still not easy to produce and was very costly. In the early Christian era illuminated manuscripts were cherished in both the Eastern (Islamic countries) and the Western (Europe) world. It was a way to preserve sacred writings for Christians, Jews, and Muslims dating back to classical antiquity. The writing was enhanced by the visual illustrations literally illuminated by using gold leaf. The manuscript production process was slow and costly and were created by several artisans similar to our modern day designers. They were created in a scriptorium (writing room) with a scrittori (head person, similar to an art director) to oversee all design, layout and production. The copisti was the production letterer who hand wrote the entire manuscript in a trained style. And lastly, the illuminator or illustrator painted all decoration and images where the scrittori indicated for him to do so with a thick border.
I find it interesting how our process has not strayed all that far from the Greek and Roman times. The above picture is an example of the Classical style of Roman book design. It is simplistic in structure with one wide column of text on each page with rustic capitals and an illustration the width of the text.
During the Dark ages, after the fall of Rome (476AD), the classical learning and knowledge was mostly obsolete. Christianity became the source of all knowledge, intellect, education and culture of the time. Christians believed in the preservation of sacred religious writings and the need for manuscripts was evident. Letterform needed to evolve so that writing could become faster. The adoption of uncials became a standard for their simpler forms compared to the rustic capitals or square capitals. Uncials were actually invented by the Greeks in 326AD on wooden tablets. Another important discovery was the half-uncials. This alphabet attempted a lowercase letterform with ascenders and descenders proudly visible. The half-uncials allowed for a rapid writing style and increased legibility because of the distinct contrasts between letters or characters. Both styles were used from the fourth to the ninth century.Top–Uncials, eighth century AD Bottom–Half-uncials, sixth century AD
From the fall of Rome to about the eighteenth century, was a time of confusion and uncertainty. As ethnic tribes fought for territory and Germanic Barbarians roamed all of Europe, but Ireland remained secluded from the violence and enjoyed a short period of peace. Early missionaries converting the Celts to Christianity brought over the half-uncials. Slowly the style transformed and spaces between words were added in the Celtic manuscripts. This allowed for better legibility in separating words. The style was called insular script and is still used today for select writings. They were written with an angled pen which created a slant in the ascenders and a distinct round movement. Many of the letters were connected by a line on the base line or through the middle.
In 800 AD, Charlemagne, who was the leading ruler of central Europe, was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. All of central Europe was united in an attempt to mimic the efficiency and power of the Roman Empire. At this point Europe’s creative development was weak at best. Illustrators and scribes were not trained correctly. The result was poorly drawn illustrations with terrible compositions and barely legible writing. Charlemagne ordered a turba scriptorium (group of scribes), who were properly trained, to create master copies of important religious text. The group tried to standardize page layout, sentence structure, punctuation, writing style, and decoration. They also reconstructed the alphabet by taking an ordinary writing script of the late antique period combined with the Celtic advancements of ascenders and descenders. The modified script was called Caroline minuscules and is the predecessor of our modern day lowercase alphabet. The new alphabet recovered legibility and was easier to write.
In the mid 1400’s typography was born. The definition of typography is the art and technique of printing with movable type. More specifically it is reusable, moveable, independent pieces of metal or wood with a raised letterform on one end. Typography is one of the greatest inventions of our civilization. Printing brought more production, farther reaching communication of knowledge, and a general increase of literacy as a result. A few reasons contributed to the necessity of this invention in Europe. There was a large expanding middle class and students in universities who required new reading material. At the time a book of 200 pages took 4-5 months to write and an expensive 25 sheep skins to create the parchment. However, a new technique in paper making had made its way over from china to Europe in the twelfth century. Papermills were constructed and an abundant supply of cost effective paper was available. The efficiency of printing would have been useless without the availability of paper.
Johann Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg of Mainz, Germany combined the necessary technologies, science, and systems to print a typographic book in 1450 AD. Gutenberg apprenticed as a goldsmith where he gained the necessary techniques of metalworking and engraving to make type. He also became quite skilled at his trade in metalworking and gem cutting. Guenberg’s first typeface was simply the textura lettering because it was the common style of Germany at the time. By using his advanced knowledge of metal, Gutenberg was able to create a hybrid metal that wouldn’t expand or contract as it cooled. This was very important when creating the individual type pieces because they needed to keep their form when taken out of the carved mold. He also invented a new ink that would stick to the metal he created as appose to the common ink used for wood block printing. The metal punches were set line by line and one page was printed at a time. Then the metal type was removed and reused for another page starting the process over again. Johann Gutenberg’s printing press enabled incredible printing speed and consistent quality. His press system and design was used for 400 years with only moderate improvements.
The famously known woodcut artist Albrecht Durer (1471-1528AD) actually had a big impact on the evolution of typography. He is more known for his exceptional woodcut prints with his mastery of using fine line to depict depth, light, shadow, and texture. Durer learned his technique from studying in Venice and learning painting theories of the Italian Renaissance. In order to share his substantial knowledge he created his first book called A Course in the Art of Measurement with Compass and Ruler. Durer’s popularity and influence became more widely know from his published works. Among many topics in his first book, he also discuses the architecture of letterform. He designed remarkably balanced Roman capitals and analyzes the forms with geometric shapes. The detail and break down of the forms contributed greatly to the progression of the alphabet.
Bottom–Albrecht Durer, from Unerweisung der Messung, 1525
While graphic artists in Italy and France moved toward Renaissance book design, German artists continued with the letter style of textura. But in 1517 a new style was created in a book commissioned by Emperor Maximilian, called Tuerdank. The calligrapher Vincenz Rockner was the designer of one of the earliest examples of the Gothic style known as Fraktur. The lines were rounded and had elegant curves compared to the harsh strokes of textura. Rockner created 8 alternative metal cast characters that copied the flow of a pen to make flourishes and invaded deep into the margins.
Nearing the end of the chaotic medieval times, Italy was at the forefront in transitioning to the renewal of the Renaissance age. It was growing in wealth, knowledge and the arts. Two printers from Germany, Conrad Sweynheym and Arnold Pannartz, were invited to Italy to establish a printing press. Italian scribes, at the time, used a letterform that had evolved from the ninth century Caroline minuscules and became a more rounded shape. Sweynheym and Pannartz combined the current Italian lowercase script with the ancient Roman capitals to create a “double alphabet.” They unified the two alphabets by adding serifs to some letters and redesigning others. Their unique alphabet was the beginning for Roman style type we use today.
Part II will continue the evolution of type through the Renaissance.