Nicolas Jenson and the Establishment of Roman Type in 15th-Century Venice

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.