Some of this ma­te­r­ial in blog form, also here.

How to re­search on 15th cen­tury types

Photographic en­large­ment of let­ter­forms and analy­sis of let­ter­forms. Compact cam­era mounted on a mag­ni­fier sits on the page. The por­tion of the page that is pho­tographed is 11x15mm. Then you process the im­ages and iso­late the best-printed let­ters. You re­peat this un­til you can make a chart of a whole al­pha­bet.

In ad­di­tion to this there’s larger-scale pho­tog­ra­phy. A 10*6.5cm frame is used to pro­vide uni­form mea­sure­ment.

These two kinds of re­pro­duc­tions can be used to pro­duce rough spec­i­mens of Venecian type, which you can then use to do com­par­a­tive analy­sis.

You com­pare dif­fer­ent edi­tions to de­ter­mine if the two type­faces come from the same source, or even punch. You over­lay in­di­vid­ual let­ters. The out­line can vary a lot for all kinds of rea­sons (recasting, ink­ing, pa­per), but if you com­pare the un­der­ly­ing struc­ture of the let­ters, you can see if they’re the same.

Despite dif­fer­ent ap­pear­ance on the printed page, the type can come from the same punches.

The Introduction of print­ing in Venice

Venice was the most imor­tant cen­tre of print­ing in the 15th and 16th cen­tury. Venice was the biggest rich­est city in Europe, and its biggest sea­port. There was all kinds of pro­duc­tion there: Fabrics, dy­ing. Capital, easy ac­cess to labour made Venice at­trac­tive to print­ers. At the end of the 15th cen­tury, 13% of all books in eu­rope where printed in Venice.

But the num­ber does­n’t tell the whole story. there’s all kinds of edi­tions: A tiny Octavo, or a gi­ant Folio. 21% of all Folios where printed in Venice. They also ex­ported a tons of books.

This whole field of re­search is Incalabula Studies.

Nicolas Jenson (the guy)

Sommerville, c 1430 - Venice, 1480. Born in France, came to Venice via Paris (Engraver at mint) and Mainz (Punchcutter).

Then Jenson ap­pears in Venice in 1470, where he prints hs first edi­tion: Eusebius, de evan­gel­ica pra­pa­ra­tione

Jenson’s first type was his Roman.

Jenson 1477 Justiniani

One of Uggelheimer (hensons pal) had a wild col­lec­tion of il­lu­mi­nated books, some by Jenson, some by other Venecian print­ers.

Later jen­son moves from clas­sics to re­li­gious and aca­d­e­mic ma­te­r­ial (law was hot then). there was a long tra­di­tion of us­ing ro­tunda hand (the for­mal book hand of italy, same po­si­tion as tex­tura in north­ern eu­rope) for le­gal text.

Rotunda is much wider than tex­tura, and have curves. Rotunda be­comes ma­ture in the early 14th cen­tury, when every­oen in eu­rope was study­ing ital­ian law books.

[Gratianus, Decretum (1474).]

To starta col­lec­tion of le­gal texts, jen­son cut two new ro­tunda faces. other peo­ple had done it be­fore, but jen­son was clearly the best at t. even mdo­ern eyes can see the bal­anced forms, stroke con­trast, even tex­ture on the page. We know jen­son for his ro­mans, but his peers in the 15th cen­tury would have ad­mired him for the ro­tun­das more.

Printing these le­gal texts made Jenson a rich man. Jenson did­n’t just print, but also dis­trib­ute books all the way up to eng­land. shortly be­fore his deathm, he merged the com­pany with jo­hannes de colo­nia (before merg­ing, these two firms printed about 40% of all venet­ian edi­tions).

[Bucheranzeige printed by jo­hannes her­bort in venice in 1481]

The Jenson Roman

Jensons ro­man is his most imp­por­tant achieve­ment. It has long de­scen­ders and acen­ders, short x height, type size is about 16 pt. long s in teh be­gin­ning and mid­dle of words. the cap­i­tals are tall, as tall as the as­cen­ders, also heavy stroke.

Capital M

ver­ti­cal stems, bi­lat­eral up­per serif


Elephant tusk leg

both of these let­ters don’t fol­low the ro­man model, these forms are from car­olin­gian minis­cules from the 9th cen­turt.

(st luike gospel car­olin­gian 9th cen­tury)


obliquw bar that ex­tends be­yond the bowl to the righ (you see this in fine print­ing). Thats’ rare to­day.

the rest of the al­pha­bet looks con­tem­po­rart (which is pretty im­pres­sive). this was the first type to imi­ti­ate hu­man­ist hand

a, g, h

We’re so used to these let­ter­forms that it’s hard to see the achieve­ment.

de spira 110r, 1469 VS jenson 115r, 1490

the de spira ro­man was the first roan to ap­pear in venice. the de spira a looks al­most like a ro­tunda a, much darker than the rest of the let­ters. the h has a rounded bowl, jen­son was the first one to cut the h with a straight leg.

press of au­so­nius 115r, 1417 VS jen­son

com­par­ing jen­son to other early ro­mans demon­strates how good jen­sons lower g was. Jenson brings a bet­ter bal­ance be­tween the two coun­ters. the let­ter in­te­grates bet­ter with sur­round­ing let­ters (unlike ear­lier typ[es like press of basil­ius, 1471, am­ber­gau 116r, 1472).

Though all of these early types are based on hu­man­ist hands, they all have all kinds of fea­tures that don’t match and look fun­nty to mod­ern eyes. But it demon­strates how di­verse hu­man­ist script styles where at the time. Rotunda was more com­mon, but hu­man­ist was the script of the in­tel­lec­tual elite (ie the cus­tomers of print­ers). hu­man­ist script in the 15th cen­tury was still a very young type com­pared to ro­tunda and tex­tura, which where fin­ished cen­turies ear­lier.

Jenson came up with con­struc­tion, and pro­por­tion, and de­sign of de­tails like ter­min­das of the low­er­case forms. The jen­son punches were im­me­di­ately used to cast type by other print­ers. used by 40 print­ers all over north­ern italy be­fore the end of the 15th cen­tury. it was also im­mi­tated pretty quickly.

The Scotus Roman (Venice 1481) is prob­a­bly the most pop­u­lar im­i­ta­tion of Jenson, which was in ciru­cla­tion for a hud­nred year in italiy and ro­man. It’s the most pop­u­lar type of the re­naiss­cance.

De Aetna Roman uses cap­i­tals that are closer to the im­preial ro­man cap­i­tals, but the low­er­case is very close to Jenson (apart from an e with a strag­iht cross­bar). But the gen­eral pro­por­tiosn of the let­ters are the same as Jenson. The ter­mi­nals are also from Jenson (who de­signed them dif­fer­ently in dif­fer­ent let­ters).

The de aetna ro­man fi­nally leads to gara­mond (in paris in the 1540s), which re­mained in use un­til tyhe end of the 18th cen­turt. Althoguh an­gle of stress, de­tails, pro­por­tions, the skele­ton of the let­ters re­mains Jensons throgu­out all of these it­er­a­tions.


Influence of asian and african writ­ing on eu­ro­pean print­ing via the silk road?

Binding and il­lu­mi­na­tion. With let­ter­forms, there’s re­la­tions to greek let­ters, but not re­ally firther than that.

Hows that wild il­lu­mi­na­tion done

There was a tech­nique where you printed bor­ders by hand (without a press). arm­strong is the im­por­tant his­to­rian of il­lu­mi­na­tion. she proved that there were work­shops that mass-pro­duced il­lu­mi­nated books: they hand-printed sout­lines for bor­ders, which would then be hand painted. But these books here were done by hand. il­lum­ni­a­tion dis­ap­pears in the 1490s, but wood­cuts start to ap­pear. some of these old il­lumn­i­na­tors made the tran­si­tion.

how big were thh­ese print­ing work­shops?

You can cal­cu­late from the num­ber of edi­tions that he must have been run­ning 12-15 print­ing presses at the same time, which would have made it the biggest print­ing work­shop un­til the 18th cen­tury. But maybe he also had stuff printed in other peo­ple’s work­shops.

Jenson prob­a­bly cut the ro­man and the first two ro­tun­das him­self. the later types he could­n’t pos­si­bly have cut him­self be­cause he did­n’t have the time. At that point he had enough cap­i­tal to em­pliy other punch­cut­ters.

We know very lit­tle about these early print­ers in venice be­cause they were de­stroyed in a fire in the 16th cen­tury.