Crash Course on Typography

01 - Nicolas Jenson - 1476
This Crash Course on the primal years of typography was produced for A New Type of Imprint—vol 11, summer2017, by the acclaimed type designer Ellmer Stefan. Happy indulging.
Written by

ES Ellmer
01 - Nicolas Jenson - 1476
02 - Claude Garamond - printed 1640
03 - Romain du Roi - c. 1700
04 - Giambattista Bodoni - 1818
05 - Henry Caslon - 1844

This Crash Course aims to give an overview of the history of typographic letterforms between 1450 and 1890. Gott grüß die Kunst!

The Typographic Invention

Even though Johannes Gutenberg (1398–1468) was not the first to print from interchangeable units, he can safely be regarded as the inventor of typography. By linking methods from various crafts such as goldsmithing, metal casting and woodblock printing, he set up a workflow for the accurate and efficient reproduction of texts with movable bits of type.

Until 1450, texts were copied with the painstaking manual labour of Christian devotion. Taking the manuscript letter of his time as a model, Gutenberg transformed the traces of the scribe’s writing gestures into combinable metal sculptures to be printed from. The casting of numerous ligatures and alternate characters would help emulate the stylistic variation of handwritten texts.

The Venetian Roman

Travelling craftsmen took Gutenberg’s production methods further South, making Venice the epicentre of typography. Confronted with a different manuscript style—the Humanist Minuscule—the shapes of their typographic letters were adapted to the regional preference. After some initial hybrids, it is the types of Nicolas Jenson (1420–1480) that can be considered the first fully fledged Roman faces.

02 - Claude Garamond - printed 1640

Jenson’s letters still show a high affinity to the broad-nib pen: the asymmetrical serifs and the distribution of thicks and thins echo the shapes produced by the predominant writing tool of that time. Yet, the necessity of formalization and the faith in the typographic invention made Jenson take a first emancipatory step away from the handwritten model.

The Italic Letter

Based on the Humanist Cursive, the first Italic types were envisioned as separate book faces: cut by Francesco Griffo (1450–1518) for the press of Aldus Manutius (1449–1515), the Italic with its condensed letterforms and cursive character was intended for a more intimate perusal embodied in the first pocket books around 1500. It would not be before 1565 that the French punchcutter Francois Guyot would mate Roman and Italic types to work together as supplementary styles.

The Great Icon

Refining the rhythm and structure of the Humanist styles, the types of Claude Garamond (1510–1561) remain the great historical icons and act as a benchmark for all text typefaces to come. No other historical types have been revived more successfully and more inappropriately, his name being exploited for marketing reasons until today. Indubitably, the quality of his faces and their influence on his contemporaries give Garamond’s types their superior position in history—though this may also be a barrier to indulging in other specimens of that period, such as the types of Robert Granjon (1513–1589) or the narrower and darker faces cut by Flemish Hendrik van den Keere (1540–1580).

The (rather soft) Break

On the verge between the Old Style of the Renaissance and the Modern Style of the Enlightenment Period, the types of the 17th century are fittingly dubbed Transitional. The preeminent figures here must be the Englishman John Baskerville (1706–1775) and the Frenchman Pierre Simon Fournier (1712–1768). Leaving behind the broad-nib canon, their faces would show a soberer approach and the influence of the controlled shapes produced by the pressure sensitive pointed-nib pen.

03 - Romain du Roi - c. 1700

The Romain du roi (1692–1702) can be considered the most radical break with tradition: envisioned by a committee of the French Academy of Sciences, the shapes of the King’s Roman were geometrically drawn on a grid of 48 × 48 squares prior to the cutting of punches. For the first time in typographic history, it is not the punchcutter crafting the letters, but rather a team designing them beforehand.

In the century to come, the striving for universal and rational shapes would intensify. The typefaces cut by Firmin Didot (1764–1836) and Giambattista Bodoni (1740–1813) are as much a result of technical improvements (metal alloy, printing press, paper surface) as a change in mindset with the approach of the Enlightenment Period; increased contrast, vertical stress axis and sharp serifs would make for a self-centred, distinctly mannered style of lettering today known as the Modern Style.

The fat, the naked, the ugly

Entering the 19th century, typographic letterforms faced new tasks and a new competitor, the lithographic printer. The increasing demand for display typefaces on posters and billboards resulted in an as yet unseen stylistic feast. Where the Fatface (1815) exaggerates the contrast between the thicks and thins of the Moderns, the Grotesques (termed Gothics in the US, 1816) omit stroke contrast and serifs altogether. Other stylistic irruptions would beef up the weight of thin parts to match the main stroke (Egyptian or Slab Serif, 1815) or dissolve strokes and serifs into spikes and branches (Tuscan style, 1821). The Italian (1821) may safely be regarded as the best of these beasts, with its inversion of contrast to eye-catching effect.

By the end of the 1800s, the main type genres we know today were established. With the dawn of the 20th century, the oscillatory movement between traditional and modern forces, between the chirographic origin of the Latin letter and universal design principles trying to emancipate type from all human traces, gained momentum.

04 - Giambattista Bodoni - 1818

But that will be for another Crash Course.

Ellmer Stefan



01: Nicolas Jenson — source: commons.wikimedia.org / Atalanta — The first fully developed Roman types by Nicolas Jenson, shown here in a print from 1476. The printed inital on the very left would indicate which letter was to be filled in by the illuminator, an optional decoration and separate task from the printing of the book.

05 - Henry Caslon - 1844

02: Claude Garamond — source: typefoundry.blogspot.no / James Mosley — The types of Claude Garamond would be recast long after his death (shown here in a specimen from 1640) and — in further historic succession — be imitated, revived and adapted to new production methods up until our digital age. Original punches by Garamond are preserved in the collection of the Plantin Moretus Museum, Antwerp.

03: Romain du Roi — source: commons.wikimedia.org / Jean François Porchez — Breaking with the craft tradition, the Romain du Roi produced between 1692–1702, was designed with geometric precision on a 48 × 48 grid prior to the cutting of metal punches.

04: Giambattista Bodoni — source: commons.wikimedia.org / ilovetypography.com — The Manuale Tipografico, published posthumously in 1818 by Bodoni’s wife, showcases the highly mannered style of types reflecting the rational mindset of the Age of Enlightenment.

05: Henry Caslon — source: flickr.com / Nick Sherman — The growing demand for eye-catching display types made the beginning of the 19th century the heydays of imaginative typography. The “Italian” style — first cut by Henry Caslon in 1821 — would invert the conventional distribution of thick and thin letterparts for mere reasons of distinction, and a rather comical, yet charming effect.