History of Roman typefaces

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History of Roman typefaces

Typefaces are our instruments to construct words and sentences. Of course this very article couldn’t be written without type other than writing by hand and scanning it in, but I wouldn’t know how to save the file or how to access the website to upload it to if I had no access to typefaces. Of course I don’t have to say where type can be found; it’s absolutely everywhere. However, most people don’t consider where typefaces come from. Most of my life and even the first 5 years or so of my design career I was absolutely ignorant of where typefaces came from. I mean, they were just "there" on the computer and I never considered someone actually had to make typefaces for us to use—letter by letter.  In this article I will discuss the history of Roman typefaces; how it progressed during the ages, how each style can be recognized and how to select typefaces consciously and logically rather than by personal taste alone.

The printing press
While the first movable type (the system of printing and typography that uses movable components to reproduce the elements of a document) was developed by Bi Sheng in China around 1040, the German  Johannes Gutenberg was the first to use movable type in Europe in around 1439. In that time Gutenberg was involved in a financial misadventure making polished metal mirrors for sale to pilgrims in Aachen, Germany—which supposedly captured the holy light from religious relics. That year the city was planning  to exhibit its collection of relics from Emperor Charlemagne but due to a flood the event was delayed by one year and the investors ended up losing money. In order to satisfy the investors Gutenberg promised to share a "secret" which is widely speculated to have been the idea of printing with movable type. Legend has it that the idea came to him "like a ray of light". In 1440 Gutenberg perfected and unveiled his secret of print and released an essay entitled ‘Kunst und Aventur’ (art and enterprise). After borrowing money to fund his project and a whopping 10 years later the first printing press was finally operational. In 1455 Gutenberg completed his 42-line Bible, the legendary Gutenberg Bible. The bible was printed in a blackletter typeface, which was a script commonly used during the Middle Ages. The specific style of blackletter for the Gutenberg Bible is a form of Textura called ‘Donatus-Kalender’.

The blackletter, also commonly known as Gothic script or Gothic miniscule, was a script used throughout Western Europe from approximately 1150 to well into the 17th century but continued to be used in Germany until the 20th century. The blackletter—as the name implies—is a particularly dark kind of style and tends to be quite illegible to the untrained eye. Styles of blackletter include Textura/Textualis, Schwabacher, Fraktur, Rotunda, Cursiva and Hybrida. The first typeface of the Latin alphabet to become available was a blackletter but this style would soon meet a rival type design: the Roman type.

History of Type - Blackletter2 by MartinSilvertant

The French engraver, printer and type designer Nicolas Jenson went to Venice in 1468 and opened his own printing workshop. It is hypothesized that Jenson studied printing under Johannes Gutenberg for a while, though there are no clear sources to verify that. Jenson would design all kinds of Gothic type but he also designed a new kind of typeface based on the humanist writing of Italian scholars of the Renaissance. For the first time a typeface was designed based on typographic principles rather than the constructed letters from the old manuscripts. He would use his first humanist typeface in ‘De Evangelica Praeparatione’ in 1470. In 1471 he introduced a Greek typeface which was used for quotations and in 1473 a blackletter typeface which he used for books on history and medicine. Jenson became a wealthy man and was eventually able to run as many as 12 printing presses at the same time and would release around 150 book until he died at 60 in 1480.

The Venetian typeface was very short-lived but it’s quite a prolific style of typeface which even nowadays still has its application. The Venetian typeface can be recognized by the following characteristics:
  1. Calligraphic, often almost handwritten appearance.
  2. Relatively small x-height. This means the lowercase letters are relatively short but with long ascenders and big capital letters.
  3. Low contrast between thick and thin strokes.
  4. Because of the low contrast the color of the text is dark. This means there is a lot of black space per line—as was specifically the case with the blackletter typeface.
  5. Weight distribution according to a diagonal axis.
  6. A sloping crossbar on the lowercase ‘e’. Often the right side of the letter featured a so-called ‘beak’ which is the pointy feature but in case of display typefaces could sometimes be larger and more elegant features.
  7. Very wide ‘H’, ‘M’ and ‘N’ and characteristic is also the double top serifs on the ‘M’.
  8. Small counters. This means the ‘eye’ of the lowercase ‘e’ and the ‘bowl’ of the lowercase ‘a’ are relatively small.

History of Type - Venetian type by MartinSilvertant

Notable typefaces of the Venetian/Humanist class are Berkeley OldstyleBrioso Pro, Centaur, JensonHightower and Spira.

Garalde/Old Style
After Jenson’s death his typefaces were employed by Aldine Press, a printing office started by Aldus Manutius in 1494 in Venice. Aldus Press is famous in the history of typography, among other things for being the first to release books in octavo size (comparable in size with a contemporary paperback) and most notably for the introduction of italics. The italic type was first used by Aldus Manutius and the Aldine Press in 1501, in an edition of Virgil dedicated to Italy. The italics were based on the Humanist cursive script first developed in the 1420s by Niccolò de’ Niccoli and first started as a distinct condensed type for simple, compact volumes. The punches for these types were cut by Francesco da Bologna also known as Francesco Griffo. It wasn’t until later when roman and italic were used together—italic being used for emphasis.

In the 1540’s Claude Garamond came to prominence first for a Greek typeface he was commissioned to create for the French king Francis I. Garamond’s typefaces would quickly become popular throughout France and Western Europe. Most italics used in contemporary Garalde typefaces are based on Garamond’s assistant Robert Granjon. In 1621, sixty years after Garamond’s death the French printer Jean Jannon issued a specimen of typefaces that had some characteristics similar to Garamond’s typefaces, though Jannon’s letters were more asymmetrical and irregular in slope and axis. For this reason many typefaces are misattributed to Jannon but it is said that in fact most modern revivals are based on Jannon’s work and not Garamond’s but the name just stuck. Whoever designed the typefaces we now know as Garamond, it remains a popular style and typeface even today.

Although the calligraphic influences were still obvious in the Garalde type, the typeface became a lot more constructed and designed. This refinement was the result of the improving skills and tools of the punchcutters. The Garalde style can be recognized by the following characteristics:
  1. Relatively small x-height and very long ascenders.
  2. Medium contrast between thick and thin strokes.
  3. Weight distribution according to an oblique axis—not quite as severe as in the Venetian type.
  4. A horizontal crossbar on the lowercase ‘e’.
  5. Wedge shaped serifs.
  6. Often very elaborate, elegant tales on the italic ‘Q’.

History of Type - Garalde type by MartinSilvertant

Important type designers and typefaces in the Garalde style can be categorized in 4 groups:
  • 1495 – Italian – Aldus Manutius and Francesco Griffo with the Bembo typeface.
  • 1540 – French – Claude Garamond, Robert Granjon and Jean Jannon with the Garamond and Jannon typefaces.
  • 1600 – Dutch – Christoffel van Dijck and Miklós Kis with the Ehrhardt typeface.
  • 1725 – English – William Caslon with the Caslon typeface. It should be noted that while English, the Caslon typeface was very similar to the Dutch typefaces at the time. Caslon became an immensely popular typeface and is an excellent book typeface even today.
Other notable Garalde typefaces are AthelasMinion and Sabon.

In 1692 king Louis XIV commissions a Jacques Jaugeon to create a typeface to for the Imprimerie Royale. The typeface is called 'Romain de Roi' (‘King’s Roman’). It’s engraved by Louis Simonneau and the punches for the metal type are cut by Phillipe Grandjean in 1698. The Romain du Roi was the result of rational design: the letterforms were mapped on grids before being cut into metal. The Romain du Roi was not the first constructed alphabet, however, this was the first time the letters adhered to the grid so closely that it shows a distinct shift in style, with an increased emphasis on the general composition and an increase in the contrast between thick and thin strokes. This style would later influence the transitional typefaces of Pierre Simon Fournier (known for the Fournier and Narcissus typefaces) and John Baskerville. The full Romain du Roi set consisted of 82 fonts and was finally finished in 1745.

The Transitional style can be recognized by the following characteristics:
  1. Medium x-height and relatively short ascenders and descenders.
  2. High contrast between thick and thin strokes.
  3. The weight is distributed according to a vertical axis.
  4. More horizontal head serifs.
  5. A greater focus on horizontal and vertical lines.
  6. More gradually curved serifs
History of Type - Transitional type by MartinSilvertant

During Baskerville’s lifetime his types had little influence in his own country, however, in 1758 Baskerville met Benjamin Franklin who returned to the US with Baskerville’s types; he popularized the typefaces by employing them in federal government publishing. Franklin was a huge fan of Baskerville’s work, and in a letter to Baskerville (1760) he defends Baskerville’s types, recounting a discussion he had with an English gentleman who claimed that Baskerville’s ‘ultra-thin’ serifs and narrow strokes would “blind its readers”.

In the 1920’s many revivals started appearing and the Baskerville typeface increased in popularity and sparked new transitional typefaces such as Times New Roman. Initially the Baskerville typeface was seen as disturbing, and according to the people—as was the case with the English gentleman Benjamin Franklin spoke of—took it too far in regard to the contrast and details. This is rather amusing considering the style of typeface the transitional typefaces inspired, which featured an even higher contrast.

Notable transitional typefaces are BaskervilleCapitolium 2FarnhamProforma and Tabac.

Scotch Roman
A sub-class of the transitional which should be mentioned is the Scotch Roman. It’s actually a gradual step towards the modern style which became popular in the early 19th century and you can see the last humanist traces are replaced by a minimal, mechanical appearance. The Scotch Roman typefaces feature ball terminals and are modeled on a design done by Samuel Nelson Dickinson in 1839 (cut by Richard Austin and cast by Alexander Wilson and Son in Glasgow).

History of Roman Typefaces - 04 - Transitional Sco by MartinSilvertant

Examples of Scotch Roman typefaces are Century SchoolbookGeorgiaHarrietMiller and Scotch Modern.

Baskerville’s typefaces featured a contrast which some considered to be “blinding the nation” but that’s not the furthest you could take the contrast as the Didone style shows. The first Didone typeface was Didot, designed by the Frenchman Firmin Didot and was first used in print in 1784. The Italian Giambattista Bodoni designed his Bodoni typeface around the same time and took inspiration from Baskerville’s typefaces; he took the horizontal serifs and high contrast and emphasized these features. Giambattista Bodoni would go on to personally engrave 298 typefaces during his life. In the image below you can see how Baskerville and Bodoni are in fact quite similar; Bodoni almost seems like a more minimalist design with a higher contrast.

History of Type - Didone and Transitional by MartinSilvertant

Characteristics of the Didone style are:
  1. Very high contrast between thick and thin strokes.
  2. Weight distribution according to a vertical axis.
  3. Due to the weight distribution a great emphasis on vertical lines.
  4. Unbracketed hairline serifs.
  5. Small aperture. This means that the letter shapes are rather closed.

History of Type - Didone type by MartinSilvertant

The Didone typeface features such a high stroke contrast that it’s very unpleasant to read in long texts. There is such great emphasis on vertical lines rather than the natural flow of letters we've grown familiar with due to the chirographic foundation of Roman typefaces that you effectively get what typographers call a "picket fence" effect. This effect tires the eye quickly and disturbs the reading experience. The Didone style is therefore best used in short texts such as titles and headings. As such it did increase the typographical variety in the First French Empire and particularly Didot remains a popular typeface in fashion and remains prolific in French culture.

History of Type - Didot and Bodoni by MartinSilvertant

Notable Didone typefaces are BodoniDidot (Hoefler & Frere-Jones' version is simply the best), RePublicTWT ProsperoTeimer and Walbaum.

Slab serif
The slab serif typeface is a style which pops up at the beginning of the 19th century coinciding with the Industrial Revolution. This era asked for a strong, robust typeface which is easy to produce and use in various applications such as advertising and posters. The first known slab serif typeface used was ‘Antique’ by the British punch-cutter Vincent Figgins in 1815.

The slab serif is often called ‘Egyptian’, which is a name given due to the craze for Egyptian artifacts in Europe and North America in the early nineteenth century, which led typefounders producing Slab Serifs after Figgins' work to call their designs Egyptian even though there is no connection with anything actually Egyptian—except perhaps for the robust structure of the letters which could equate to Egyptian architecture. The term Egyptian had previously been used to describe sans serif typefaces in the United Kingdom, so the term 'Antique' was used by British and American typefounders. The term Egyptian was adopted by French and German foundries, where it became Egyptienne.

Essentially the slab serif style can be further categorized into three groups:

  1. Large x-height and short ascenders and descenders.
  2. There is some contrast between thick and thin strokes.
  3. The serifs are bracketed, meaning there is a bit of a curve between the serif and the stem.
  4. Classical proportions, often with a long, curly spur and a teardrop bowl on the ‘a’.
  5. The Clarendon style often features teardrop terminals.

History of Type - Slab serif Clarendon by MartinSilvertant

The Clarendon style is the most classical slab serif and in construction relates most to the Scotch Roman and the classical Transitional typefaces. Notable Clarendon typefaces are Belizio, Clarendon and Suomi Slab Serif.

  1. Large x-height and short ascenders and descenders.
  2. Very low to no contrast between thick and thin strokes.
  3. The serifs are generally unbracketed.
  4. Minimal design and a construction like a sans serif.

History of Type - Slab serif by MartinSilvertant

The neo-grotesque typefaces are the most minimal slab serif variant and is often considered the most modern type of serif. It would tire the eye if long texts were set in a typeface of this style but in contemporary typography it’s often seen in short texts and display use.

Prolific neo-grotesque typefaces are AdelleKulturistaMuseo SlabPrelo Slab and Sánchez.

  1. Large x-height and short ascenders and descenders.
  2. The serifs are heavier than the stems.
  3. The serifs are often dramatic and decorative.
Italiennes are most easily recognizable as this is the only class of Roman typefaces which features decorative elements. These typefaces are probably mostly seen in the circus and Wild Western themes. Notable typefaces are Buckboard, De Louisville, Playbill and Wood Type.

Although sans serif type can be found in Latin, Etruscan and Greek inscriptions as early as 5th century BC, it was used in 1748 as an experiment and it wasn’t until 1805 that the sans serif would make its first appearance in printed media (in European Magazine). In 1832 the first sans serif printing typeface was finished including lowercase by William Thorowgood of Fann Street Foundry. Thorowgood also coined the term ‘grotesque’ based on the Italian ‘grottesco’ (‘belonging to the cave’).

Although ‘grotesque’ is often used interchangeably with ‘sans’ and other such terms as ‘egyptian’, ‘antique’ and ‘gothic’, the grotesque/grotesk style as we know it today is a distinct sans serif style:
  1. Large x-height and short ascenders and descenders.
  2. Very subtle weight contrast.
  3. Most commonly features the double story ‘g’.
Sometimes ‘neo-grotesque’ is considered a distinct style from the grotesque because the neo-grotesque would feature a more consistent stroke weight and a more mechanical appearance. For comparison, Akzidenz Grotesk would be considered a grotesque while Helvetica (which is based on Akzidenz Grotesk) would be a neo-grotesque. There are such few genuinely grotesque typefaces which have been digitized though and the differences are simply not very distinct so we will consider both styles ‘grotesque’.

History of Type - Grotesque by MartinSilvertant

Some of the best known grotesque typefaces are Akzidenz GroteskDINHelvetica and Univers but I also want to give attention to a few of my favorites: Alright SansBuloEpoca Classic and Marat Sans.

With the mechanization and increasingly minimalist approach to architecture and general design at the beginning of the 20th century there was a need for more minimal, modern typefaces. This movement in typography went parallel with the Bauhaus/De Stijl movement and featured the same design elements.
  1. Relatively low x-height (for a sans serif).
  2. Use of geometric elements and repetition.
  3. Often a minimalist approach and stylization of details, such as a spurless ‘G’ and a one story ‘a’ and ‘g’.

History of Type - Geometric by MartinSilvertant

Some of the most prolific typefaces in the genre are Brandon Grotesque, Futura, GothamNeutraface, NobelSofiaSoleil and Verlag.

The humanist sans serif—as the name suggests—features humanist elements. It doesn’t necessarily have to look that different from the grotesque and in fact grotesque and humanist typefaces tend to have some overlap. However, characteristic for a humanist sans are the chirographic features such as more weight in the curves and a subtle weight distribution according to an oblique axis. 
  1. Medium x-height.
  2. Weight distribution according to an oblique axis.
  3. Humanist proportions, meaning the eye of the ‘e’ and bowl of ‘a’ are often small and rounded letters tend to be relatively wide.
  4. Calligraphic features such as extra weight in the curves.
  5. Sometimes features soft terminals rather than a straight cut.
  6. Usually has a rather elegant double story ‘g’ reminiscent of serif typefaces.

History of Type - Humanist sans by MartinSilvertant

The best known humanist sans typefaces are FrutigerGill Sans and Scala Sans by far. The humanist sans class is my personal favorite though so I would like to name a few more typefaces I appreciate: Aragon SansElemental SansGraublau SansKarmina SansNovel SansTabac Sans and Winco.

And that’s the history of Roman type covered. When selecting a typeface for your design always consider both its appearance and its history. This becomes even more important when pairing two typefaces together because not everything works together. For example, you may pair two typefaces from the same time or the same proportions or you might pair two typefaces which contrast in style, color or proportions and compliment each other. There are so many combinations which work but you have to know a bit about a typeface in order to use it consciously and appropriately—particularly when establishing a brand with more than one typeface.

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Neo-Grotesque as a slab's sub-genre? Leaving that appart, great article!