One of 25 installments in a series of posts analyzing and celebrating a few of our favorite (and least favorite) typefaces.
JENSON’S ROMAN | NICOLAS JENSON | 1470
In much of the world, for the better part of a millennium, the most visible, identifiable letter-form was one carved in stone on Roman statues and monuments. Square and stern and solid, if you were reading (or, more likely, just looking at) a Roman-style inscription, then you were somewhere civilized. Beyond their meaning, beyond whatever battle, orator, or Emperor they were commemorating, the letters spoke of armies, aqueducts, government.
The Roman-style letter-form was so popular, although awkward for this purpose, it was even used as a scribal hand. There’s an especially likable example, written around the 6th century, from the Book of Maccabees, residing in Durham Cathedral. It was preserved for posterity because, as with many older manuscript fragments, it had been recycled as book-binding waste.
So it was natural, when movable type was invented, that a Roman-style typeface should be contemplated. However, as anyone who has been on an internet message board with crazy people knows, majuscule (uppercase) is a terrible way to set a block of text, much less an entire book. It is much less readable, and less human, than even the most egregious example of Blackletter. Luckily, just at that moment, humanists were writing in a revived 9th-century handwriting style called Carolingian or Caroline minuscule. What better marriage of form and function than the majuscules from the Empire’s stone monuments paired with minuscules in a hand that might have begun in recording the Carolingian Empire’s official documents, but had been re-purposed to write scholarly editions of Horace and Vitruvius?
Although 15th-century printers were not artists or aesthetes — they were metal workers, punching type and maintaining these huge, new pieces of machinery — they were designing a means of expression intended to last (as the Roman letter-form had, by that point) a thousand years. And so it was that Nicolas Jenson, lately of Mainz, settled in Venice and began to punch type for a 1470 edition of Eusebius set in a Roman typeface. He didn’t invent anything, simply took two things and put them together in a manner and with a fineness of line and expression that was and is inspiring.
A year later the Speyer brothers, also from Mainz, punched a Roman typeface that was almost as fine, nearly as fluid, and very close to as lovely as Jenson’s. But the Speyer brother’s Roman typeface was not the one that would be a model and inspiration for modern typographers from William Morris (Cloister Old Style) to Bruce Rogers (Centaur). At the dawn of the 20th Century, practically every fine-type foundry trying to dig out from under a mountain of uninspired Roman typefaces — the gluttonous, monotonous gifts of the industrial revolution — turned to Jenson’s Roman. Jenson had nailed it.
Try setting a book in Blackletter, these days — you might as well use runes or Klingon for how contemporary it looks. But if you set a book in Jenson’s 1470 Roman, no one would bat an eye. It is a perfect expression of humanism, of the Renaissance, of ideas suddenly and forever set free.
2014: KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (typefaces): Matthew Battles on ALDINE ITALIC | Adam McGovern on DATA 70 | Sherri Wasserman on TORONTO SUBWAY | Sarah Werner on JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | Douglas Wolk on TODD KLONE | Mark Kingwell on GILL SANS | Joe Alterio on AKZIDENZ-GROTESK | Suzanne Fischer on CALIFORNIA BRAILLE | Gary Panter on SHE’S NOT THERE | Deb Chachra on FAUX DEVANAGARI | Peggy Nelson on FUTURA | Tom Nealon on JENSON’S ROMAN | Rob Walker on SAVANNAH SIGN | Tony Leone on TRADE GOTHIC BOLD CONDENSED NO. 20 | Chika Azuma on KUMON WORKSHEET | Chris Spurgeon on ELECTRONIC DISPLAY | Amanda French on DIPLOMA REGULAR | Steve Price on SCREAM QUEEN | Alissa Walker on CHICAGO | Helene Silverman on CHINESE SHIPPING BOX | Tim Spencer on SHATTER | Jessamyn West on COMIC SANS | Whitney Trettien on WILKINS’S SPECIAL CHARACTER | Cintra Wilson on HERMÈS vs. HOTDOG | Jacob Covey on GOTHAM.
2013: HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (old-school hip hop tracks): Luc Sante on “Spoonin’ Rap” | Dallas Penn on “Rapper’s Delight” | Werner Von Wallenrod on “Rappin’ Blow” | DJ Frane on “The Incredible Fulk” | Paul Devlin on “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | Phil Dyess-Nugent on “That’s the Joint” | Adam McGovern on “Freedom” | David Abrams on “Rapture” | Andrew Hultkrans on “The New Rap Language” | Tim Carmody on “Jazzy Sensation (Bronx Version)” | Drew Huge on “Can I Get a Soul Clap” | Oliver Wang on “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” | Douglas Wolk on “Making Cash Money” | Adrienne Crew on “The Message” | Dart Adams on “Pak Jam” | Alex Belth on “Buffalo Gals” | Joshua Glenn on “Ya Mama” | Phil Freeman on “No Sell Out” | Nate Patrin on “Death Mix Live, Pt. 2″ | Brian Berger on “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” | Cosmo Baker on “Here We Go (Live at the Funhouse)” | Colleen Werthmann on “Rockit” | Roy Christopher on “The Coldest Rap” | Dan Reines on “The Dream Team is in the House” | Franklin Bruno on The Lockers.
2012: KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Captain Kirk scenes): Dafna Pleban: Justice or vengeance? | Mark Kingwell : Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | Nick Abadzis: “KHAAAAAN!” | Stephen Burt: “No kill I” | Greg Rowland: Kirk browbeats NOMAD | Zack Handlen: Kirk’s eulogy for Spock| Peggy Nelson: The joke is on Kirk | Kevin Church: Kirk vs. Decker | Enrique Ramirez: Good Kirk vs. Evil Kirk | Adam McGovern: Captain Camelot | Flourish Klink: Koon-ut-kal-if-fee | David Smay: Federation exceptionalism | Amanda LaPergola: Wizard fight | Steve Schneider: A million things you can’t have | Joshua Glenn: Debating in a vacuum | Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons: Klingon diplomacy | Trav S.D.: “We… the PEOPLE” | Matthew Battles: Brinksmanship on the brink | Annie Nocenti: Captain Smirk | Ian W. Hill: Sisko meets Kirk | Gabby Nicasio: Noninterference policy | Peter Bebergal: Kirk’s countdown | Matt Glaser: Kirk’s ghost | Joe Alterio: Watching Kirk vs. Gorn | Annalee Newitz: How Spock wins
2011: KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Jack Kirby panels): Douglas Rushkoff on THE ETERNALS | John Hilgart on BLACK MAGIC | Gary Panter on DEMON | Dan Nadel on OMAC | Deb Chachra on CAPTAIN AMERICA | Mark Frauenfelder on KAMANDI | Jason Grote on MACHINE MAN | Ben Greenman on SANDMAN | Annie Nocenti on THE X-MEN | Greg Rowland on THE FANTASTIC FOUR | Joshua Glenn on TALES TO ASTONISH | Lynn Peril on YOUNG LOVE | Jim Shepard on STRANGE TALES | David Smay on MISTER MIRACLE | Joe Alterio on BLACK PANTHER | Sean Howe on THOR | Mark Newgarden on JIMMY OLSEN | Dean Haspiel on DEVIL DINOSAUR | Matthew Specktor on THE AVENGERS | Terese Svoboda on TALES OF SUSPENSE | Matthew Wells on THE NEW GODS | Toni Schlesinger on REAL CLUE | Josh Kramer on THE FOREVER PEOPLE | Glen David Gold on JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY | Douglas Wolk on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY | MORE EXEGETICAL COMMENTARIES: Joshua Glenn on Kirby’s Radium Age Sci-Fi Influences | Chris Lanier on Kirby vs. Kubrick | Scott Edelman recalls when the FF walked among us | Adam McGovern is haunted by a panel from THE NEW GODS | Matt Seneca studies the sensuality of Kirby’s women | Btoom! Rob Steibel settles the Jack Kirby vs. Stan Lee question | Galactus Lives! Rob Steibel analyzes a single Kirby panel in six posts | Danny Fingeroth figgers out The Thing | Adam McGovern on four decades (so far) of Kirby’s “Fourth World” mythos | Jack Kirby: Anti-Fascist Pipe Smoker