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When we categorize fonts for text, we usually start with old style fonts, but in order to understand old style fonts, we need to understand where they came from. We need to understand Venetian fonts, and in order to understand Venetian fonts, we need to step back a couple of years, and start with the first fonts in the first Western books printed by Johannes Gutenberg. In the 1430s, Johannes Gutenberg started experimenting with casting metal type. About ten years later, he built his first press, and in 1455, his 42-line Bible was in progress.
Gutenberg's printed books looked a lot like handwritten manuscripts at that time. In fact, he thought people would be more accepting of his work if it looked like the handwritten materials they were used to, so he even cast different forms for some of the letters. Here the top A is slightly narrower, and has less detail on the bowl. By creating slight imperfections in some of the letters, the text looked more varied; more like it was done by a human hand. We often associate this kind of lettering, called Blackletter, with Germany.
Not surprisingly, Gutenberg was working in Mainz, Germany. His fonts were based on a writing style in Northern Europe. Now, Blackletter is no longer considered a standard, easy to read font. How did fonts go from Blackletter to Venetian, which is much closer to the kind of Roman text we're used to reading today, in less than 20 years? Well, printers came to Mainz from other parts of Europe to learn the new printing technology. After only a couple of years, Mainz was ransacked, and the printers fled for their safety and livelihood to other cities.
One such printer, Nicolas Jenson, came from France to Mainz, but when he left, he went to Venice. The manuscript handwriting in Venice was very different from the handwriting in the north. Other printers also fled to Italy. Most of them cast fonts that closely resembled the Venetian forms of manuscript handwriting. Jenson, however, was inspired by his materials. He saw the opportunity to move away from handwritten forms, and to standardize some of the shapes within in between letters.
Look at the lowercase a in the manuscript, which was written in 1460 in Venice. See how the bowl is bigger than the top stroke? I can imagine a person with a pen quickly writing that oval form. In the middle image, printed in Rome in 1472, the a retains much of the manuscript form. This printer based their fonts on manuscript lettering. Now, if we look at Jenson's, we can see the overall structure of the letter has changed.
This is true of most of the letters in his system. Look at the u in the manuscript. It feels inky, the head serifs are sort of blobby, and the width of the strokes change as the pen forms the letter. In the middle image, the u still feels inky. It doesn't have the same form as the manuscript u, but the way the strokes change width makes the letter feel like it was written with a pen. Jenson's U is refined. The serifs are crisp; the vertical strokes are straight and even. And it's not just about refining the letters.
Jenson also refined how the letters sat next to each other on the page. If we look carefully at the baseline in the middle image, we can see it's slightly uneven. Jenson's baseline is more aligned. We've been looking at a detail of a book printed by Nicolas Jenson in 1471, only nine years after Mainz was ransacked; only 16 years after Gutenberg printed his Bible. The leap in font design from one form to another is substantial. Jenson's fonts are what we'd call humanist or Venetian fonts.
There were other printers working at that time, but it's Jenson's fonts that pretty much set the stage for the serif fonts that follow for the next 450 years.
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