You are reading Typologia, by Frederick W. Goudy

III : The First Types

THOUGHT," said the seer, "is the property of him who can entertain it and of him who can adequately place it." The brick stamps of the ancient Babylonians and the brass signet of C. Caecilius Hermias foreshadowed movable types; yet it is none the less honor to Gutenberg, who probably was the first to conceive the principle of casting letters in metal, that some germ of the principle itself was known and in use centuries before him. The intellectual activity of his times made "ars artificialiter scribendi" necessary and brought about the practical application of the ancient principle.

The types of Gutenberg, and to a still greater degree those of the Italians, were the natural and inevitable materialized letters of the manuscript writer, supplying to the art about to come into existence its noblest models,which needed but to be formalized and simplified to meet the technical requirements of type founding. The vagaries of the letter artist and the constantly varying whimsicalities which naturally appeared in his work were seldom repeated there, or exactly duplicated to the point of irritation; hence they were entirely acceptable in manuscript. But variations of this kind could not always be carried into mechanically produced types except at prohibitive expense, if indeed the technical difficulties could be overcome; nor would they always have been desirable-too much mechanical repetition would only have produced an effect of tedious mannerism.

The history of the origin of printing is so full of confusion and intricacy, so obscured by irrelevant and distorted details, so lacking in clear, simple statements by contemporary writers, or the survival of any of the ancient equipment of those pioneers, that the student is likely to be misled and discouraged. Notwithstanding the careful investigations of Blades, Reed, Watson, Lemoine, Mores, Hessels, DeVinne, and others, each with adherents, who arrive at different conclusions on important details, the identity of the actual inventor of printing remains still a matter of uncertainty. But whether printing from movable types originated at Mainz, or whether it didn't, does not especially matter; it was from that place that typography spread throughout the civilized world, and it was demonstrated there that it was possible to produce books from types and illuminations as beautiful as the manuscript books produced by the scribes.


Part of a Column From a German Manuscript Book, Circa 1350

Three men were in the main responsible for the development of the then new art, though we cannot precisely say just what share to allow to each. First may be mentioned Johann Gutenberg, the most famous [to whom the invention itself is usually credited], born at Mainz about the year 1400. Of his early life, education, or profession, next to nothing is known. In fact, about all the information we have of him is in connection with lawsuits or with his efforts to obtain money to prosecute his invention. It is from a suit against him for breach of promise that we get our fair working knowledge of what equipment he had for printing.

At one time Gutenberg resided in the deserted convent of Arbogastus at Strassburg. If it could be exactly ascertained how far he pursued his work in the old convent--if, as seems probable, he went as far as the fashioning of matrices [even if matrices were not used for the casting of his types, until he had returned to Mainz], --then Strassburg might dispute with Mainz for the right to be called the "birthplace of typography" -footnote 3-

Gutenberg was so constantly in need of funds to carry on his business that he took into partnership a goldsmith, the second of the three referred to, John Fust, who furnished large sums toward the working expenses of the firm. From the records of a suit brought by Fust against his partner Gutenberg we obtain our first definite information concerning the history of his endeavors, as the judgment rendered in this suit compelled Gutenberg to give an account of his receipts and expenditures, an inventory of his equipment, and to hand over to Fust all his apparatus to cover his debt. This, of course, dissolved the partnership. Gutenberg left Mainz. Fust continued the business of printing with the assistance of Peter Schoeffer, last of the three, to whom, it is said, are due improvements in the methods of cutting punches and sinking matrices. Schoeffer probably invented the metal mold in which the firm's types were cast, for he was a skilled mechanic.

That Gutenberg was the actual inventor of printing from movable types may never be known for certain. In considering the claims of other countries to the invention, however, we find the evidence for other printers not as substantial as that for him. We have in his favor the evidence of the actual printed books, and documentary corroborative evidence as well. In France, at Avignon, there are certain documents in the legal archives on which to base the French contention that Walfogel was the inventor, but no books. In Holland, books were printed which are held by some to date from an earlier year than 1454, but there are no documents to support by direct evidence the claims for Coster at Haarlem [1440]. The claims by Italy for Castaldi of Feltre rest only on tradition, as there remain neither books nor documents on which to base a case for him.

One of the earliest allusions in print to Gutenberg is found in the Chronica Summorum Pontificum , a book printed by John Philip de Lignamine at Rome, about 1471 [less than five years after Gutenberg's death], which mentions Gutenberg, Fust, and Mentelin as printing books in the pontificate of Pius II [about 1459]. But the printing of block books did not cease entirely for nearly sixty years after the invention of movable types, the latest one being printed at Venice by Andrea Vavassore in 1510.

It is not, however, with the inventor of printing or the history of his business that this study is concerned, but rather with the actual type forms used by him and the first printers. When printing began, the bookmaking practices of the scribes were as law, and printers were reluctant to break away from the customs of their predecessors. Even after printing was in full sway the ornamentation of the printed page remained a separate art--the province of the rubricator. -footnote 4- In many towns this artisan was a member of the guild or corporation of miniatores and painted in the initial letters and the borders on the printed pages, and was entrusted also with the writing in of the titles.

It is almost entirely from him that such important information as the dates of books is obtained, and not from any statement of the printer or publisher. The reader is left in complete ignorance by the early printers concerning where, when, and by whom a book was produced.

The earliest block books, as well as those printed from types, were made to imitate manuscripts, and often so closely as to deceive the inexperienced. To carry the illusion as far as possible, spaces were frequently left both in the block books and in those printed from types for the insertion by hand of painted initials and illuminations. In the first monument to printing--the Gutenberg Bible--one is not even told that the volume is a Bible; and this reticence on the part of the early printers seems to have been the rule rather than the exception. A copy of an Indulgence now preserved at The Hague has the date of November 15, 1454, filled in, thus supplying the first authentic date we have on any printed document. The Mainz Psalter has a statement written in by the rubricator giving the date [1457].

In many printing offices, scribes were employed as correctors of the press, since their experience in bookmaking made their services valuable; their familiarity with the handwritten books developed the good taste which later was carried into printing, since the same artistic considerations controlled the books produced by the new art. The practice of ornamenting printed books with painted illuminations continued until the beginning of the sixteenth century, although as early as 1480 several books show the first page of text within a woodcut or engraved border printed with the letterpress.

Type, after all, is merely handwriting divested of the exigencies and accidents of the scribes, conceived as forms to be executed in metal, revised and recast from the Carolingian writing of the ninth and tenth centuries and formalized to meet the requirements of new materials and new conditions. The early printers borrowed the more economic forms and achieved results of surprising beauty for first attempts, a fad which must be attributed directly to the high quality of the models upon which they based their types. Then, too, they did not forget that legibility was the great desideratum, and expended every effort to bring about this result. This quality of legibility is difficult to explain and is not generally understood, since it requires a degree of taste and a knowledge of facts not always possessed by the man in the street--who is the person most likely to criticize most severely. The designers of the first types, being more intent on the uses of their productions than upon any display of their own handicraft, shaped their type forms so that the letters combined insensibly into words--the sole elements which the reader should be conscious of.

Certain characteristics developed in letters principally because of the materials on which they were formed--the use by the ancient Assyrians of so stiff and sluggish a substance as clay was the primary reason for the cuneiform or wedge-shaped symbols; the waxed surface of the tablets employed by the Greeks and Romans compelled a broken and disconnected style of writing; the frail papyrus made a light touch and slender characters necessary,--but when smooth and hard-surfaced vellum was introduced, firm, clear letters with marked contrasts of fine and thick strokes became the fashion. Lettering had reached this stage when the first printers sought models for their types.

In the days before printing, the scribe was born into a tradition; certain forms were already universal and fundamental and actually in the process of growth and development under the hand of each writer who used them. The first printers employed the materials that came ready-made into their hands. The Roman capitals derived by the scribes from the stone-cut forms and bequeathed by them to the printers were accepted with almost no alterations. The printers, however, in their anxiety to compete successfully with the manuscript books, adopted the minuscules which had gradually altered from their original forms to meet the exigencies of the writers, and did not question their entire suitability as shapes for reproduction into metal types. Nor did either printer or founder, until printing had been recognized for its own sake, make any attempt to seek or create minuscule forms better adapted to type reproduction than the written characters. For many years, too, after any necessity for their use was apparent, printers retained the abbreviations and contractions of the scribe [see, e.g., the Donatus fragment], as well as the mannerisms of the manuscript book.

Although the first types [patterned after the beautiful manuscript forms of the scribes] were designed to meet technical limitations and comply with mechanical conditions, the punch cutter soon drew away from an esthetic standard in pursuit of a utilitarian ideal--and brought about an entire revolution of ideas. In the early days of the craft, when printing was beautiful, writing was its model; whereas today printing is held superior to writing ["writing" as used here means the formal book hands, not the cursive writing of correspondence]. Alfred Pollard asserts that "we may take it as an axiom, that for the first half century of printing every fount of type cut was based on some particular manuscript."

The early printer, who often was also the founder of his characters, possessed no tools of precision and no system for any gradation of sizes of his types; but he did nevertheless produce forms that were quaint and pleasing and always sturdily bold. One critic has referred to the types of two printers who worked near Rome in 1465 as not having been "drawn in true proportions," but as modern readers are not even yet agreed upon a faultless standard for the forms of our types or their proportions, we need not be too severe with these early printers for seeming shortcomings. As a matter of fact, their types were the prototypes of our lower-case letters, and are of interest for that reason if for no other. True, their forms were needlessly bold and rugged, even so far as to lack neatness, but the designer of them purposely avoided hairlines or other possible causes of indistinctness and produced type forms that were easily discernible and of marked personality.

Today, most types, except those frankly based on early forms, are characterized by wearisome commonplace regularities and exhibit few of the deficiencies and irregularities that are inevitable when the craftsman is more intent on the design it self than on mere execution. Types of distinction are created by artists only, and not by engineers or artisans--by craftsmen with a knowledge of the technical limitations and requirements of the craft, and by designers who place feeling above the cut-and-dried effect which comes from slavish adherence to workshop traditions. Here I should like to repeat the dictum that the fundamental forms of letters are absolutely fixed and that only slight changes in their general shapes or in the proportions of their component parts are ever necessary. A fine type possesses always a simple grandeur that makes it monumental.

The types of Gutenberg and his associates, as well as those of his immediate successors, were black-letter in form, and although the Roman letter was in general use for manuscripts at that time, yet for nearly a century after the invention of printing, black-letter was the preferred form, not only in Germany, but also in England, France, and Spain. The year 1465 is generally admitted to be the date of the earliest type issue in Italy. Two Germans, Sweynheim and Pannartz, printed in that year at Subiaco, near Rome, in a transitional type nearly Roman in form but Gothic in color or weight. Roman type letters of a crude form had appeared in Germany as early as 1464, but no fine Roman type had been produced until that cut in 1470 by Nicholas Jenson, the Frenchman, and in 1475 even he was forced to cut and print from a Gothic type in order to economize space and paper and so make cheaper books.

In 1458, legend says, Charles VII of France sent Jenson to study the new art of printing, of which he had heard marvels "the King having learned that Messire Gutenberg, living at Mayence, in the country of Germany, a dexterous man in carving and making letters with a punch, had brought to light the invention of printing by punches and types." On his return to France in 1461, Jenson met with a cool reception, for Charles VII had died, and his son and successor, Louis XI, did not have his father's interest in printing. Less than ten years later we find a disgruntled Jenson established at Venice, where he joined his art as engraver of letters to that of printer.

In 1469, John of Speyer was printing with a fine Roman type, and it is barely possible that Jenson based his famous fount upon it, but if he did, he incorporated new variations that would naturally occur to a good craftsman, and wrought with greater skill because of his long practice as engraver in the French mint. In his article on "The Art of Printing at Venice during the Italian Renaissance," Castellani says that John of Speyer introduced printing into Venice in 1469, using a "very beautiful round character," and that Jenson "formed a character known as round Roman, not very unlike that used by John of Speyer; but somewhat more regular and elegant." It is not known certainly whether Jenson cut his types after coming to Venice or whether he brought them with him from France. Theo. L. DeVinne believed that he brought his model types with him; but after an examination of the types of John of Speyer and those of Jenson, comparing certain essential features of each, similarities more apparent to a designer of types, possibly, than to a student of bibliography, I am inclined to believe that probably it was not John's types that inspired Jenson's; I think each may have used a similar manuscript hand as a pattern. Horatio Brown in The Venetian Printing Press specifies differences in the construction of certain letters made by Jenson and John of Speyer, but the differences are minor variations attributable to the personality of the designers, not to any radical differences in design, and the variations are not sufficient to affect materially the similarity of their printing in general appearance. It requires more than the different placing or shape of the dot of an "i", or the finishing stroke of a lower-case "h" or "n", to constitute a real difference in design. Neither debased the form of his Roman letter, however, no matter whence his inspiration.

In Italy the Roman form was in more general use than elsewhere and was the sort used by Ulrich Han, Philip de Ligna mine, Rubeus, Aldus, Renner, and others. Alfred Pollard has suggested that types in Italy took on a new aspect after 1480 and do not seem to be founded on manuscript forms. He suggests, and reasonably, that type cutters had by then become well enough practiced in their craft to discard their manuscript models and give their own ideas freer play. It is a fact, however, that while their later types are mechanically more perfect, many of them lack, for us, much of the charm of the earlier letters.

The early Roman types used first in Latin text gave a smooth and pleasing appearance in composition by the lack of such letters as "k" and "w" and other more or less ugly consonants which break up our English words unpleasantly. An exact imitation of even the best of the Venetian models, when used to print English text, might display accidental peculiarities unnoticed in their original use that would savor of affectation and would require some modifications to make them entirely satisfactory for modern uses.

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