This blog provides information related to Frank E. Blokland’s PhD research at Leiden University, mostly presented as ‘notes on’. The title of the research, which started in 2007, is shown in the masthead here. Prof.dr. Adriaan van der Weel is Blokland’s principal supervisor.
It should be noted that although Blokland has formal permission from his Dean and his promoter to publish material here, the information provided is not in any way ofﬁcially approved or endorsed by Leiden University.
Some of the (in the meantime updated) information provided here has been published earlier on for instance the Typophile forum, and on the ATypI members list. Also some of the theories and images were presented by Blokland during talks at conferences on type and typography, such as the ATypI conferences in St. Petersburg (2008), Dublin (2010), and Reykjavik (2011), and at the Type[&]Design 2009 conference in The Hague.
The acknowledgement of the central place of the pen in the historical development of type and hence the importance of (knowledge of) writing for the designing of type has been always shared by many in the ﬁeld. There is no discussion possible about the fact that written letters were initially standardized and eventually formalized by the Renaissance invention of movable type. In his notes collected by Heather Child and published in Formal Penmanship and other papers (London, 1971), Edward Johnston wrote: ‘The ﬁrst printers’ types were naturally an inevitably the more formalized, or materialized, letter of the writer.’ And Stanley Morison wrote already in 1926 in Type designs of the past and present: ‘Handwriting is, of course, the immediate forerunner of printing, and some knowledge of its history is essential to any sound understanding of typography.’
Books printed with movable type were an inexpensive alternative for handwritten ones. B.L. Ullman notes in Ancient writing and its inﬂuence: (New York, 1932) ‘The early printers based their fonts on the writing which was current in books of their day. They imitated it as closely as possible so that their product might not suffer by comparison.’
This may have been the case for books printed in Textura types like for instance the ones by Gutenberg, and Fust and Schöffer. After all, the written Textura Quadrata was the most perfect model for justifying and casting, because it made the equal distribution of space between the letters when placed on rectangles quite simple.
The transition from the handwritten Humanistic minuscule and later Humanistic cursive to roman and italic type must have been more complex than the transition from Textura Quadrata to Textura type though. It is actually hard to trace a literal interpretation of Renaissance handwriting in early movable type. However, producing roman type with the same scheme in mind as was used for casting the morphologically related Textura type could have helped to simplify matters. This way standardizations and systematizations could be applied on different levels: on punches, matrices and the casting of type.
Blokland’s hypothesis is that such an approach requires a standardization of the proportions of type, not only in horizontal direction for the widths, but also in vertical direction, because these dimensions are inextricably related. Basically this would imply that Renaissance type was made on prediﬁned system, which not only made the design part easier, but also the justiﬁcation of the matrices and the casting of type.
If the existence of such a system can be proven, this would help to explain the transition of a profession practiced initially by only one person, i.e. the punch cutter, who manufactured the punches, matrices, and cast the type, into basically three different professions: that of the punch cutter, matrix manufacturer (justiﬁer), and caster. The distribution of type all over Europe must have been easier in case the spacing-intelligence (an extrapolation of the standardization of character-proportions) was included in the matrices, of course.
The regularity of the written Textura Quadrata made it relatively easy for Gutenberg and consorts to standardize and systematize their movable Gothic type, which was directly based on its written precursor. This standardization and systematization resulted in a calculable horizontal structure, and a translation of this into ﬁxed vertical dimensions (in handwriting vertical boundaries are not very strict). When this was accomplished, it was obvious to apply the same system to the new roman type (and decades later to italic type). In contrast to the generally embraced theory that handwritten Humanistic models were interpreted by ‘the mythical eye’ of the Renaissance punch cutters, are roman and (and to a lesser extent) italic type the result of this standardized process. What we ﬁnd optically appealing in Latin roman and italic type is actually the result of standardizations applied during the production of ﬁfteenth-century movable type, which we all are familiar with due to conditioning. Due to this conditioning we consider the roman and italic ‘typefaces’ from the early days of typography amongst the very best still.
Subsequently, this leads to the following research questions:
– How exactly then did these regularizations inﬂuence the structures and proportions of roman and subsequently italic type?
– How does this theory relate to the generally embraced one, in which ‘the eye’ of the punch cutter seems to have been the deciding factor and calligraphic models the guides, and in which Jenson, Griffo and Garamont, of whom the ﬁrst was an engraver and the other two goldsmiths, i.e. craftsmen, are subsequently more or less considered ‘type designers’?
– How come that 17th and 18th century descriptions of the type founders’ practice by for instance Moxon and Fournier do not seem to mention forenamed regularizations? Could there be a direct relation to the appliance of ‘set patterns’ for the setting of mould-registers and the change of proportions in type, such as due to the ‘goût Hollandais’? Could this be because the information was regarded as conﬁdential (a professional secret)? Or, perhaps even because of the latter, was this knowledge forgotten in the course of time?
– Did these standardizations preserve optical preferences for letter forms, rhythm and harmony (dictated by the handwritten origins), or did they create new ones due to the forced canalization of the handwritten basis?
Note: one would expect that the top is reached (much) later on during an evolution, but this is clearly not the case with the models from Garamont and consorts we are so much familiar with.
The central argument is that the harmonic rules for grapheme systems and subsequently for typography, and the related conditioning, which forms the basis for the mythical ‘eye’ of the type designer (or ‘the supreme judge’, as Pierre Simon Fournier named it in his Manuel Typographique [1764–1766]), always are relative to the applied models. This is what Blokland baptized ‘model-doctrine’. The underlying harmonics, patterns and dynamics of these models are the result of evolution, changes in taste, and (the moments in history of) technical innovations. What is considered to be harmonic, rhythmic, and æsthetic in type is merely the result of the conditioning, i.e. cultural habituation, of their creators, i.e. type designers, their appliers, i.e. typographers, and their users, i.e. readers. If harmony would be an absolute matter, there wouldn’t be so many differences between scripts
In case of the Latin script, grapheme systems were formalized and ﬁxed by the early Italian Renaissance punch cutters Nicolas Jenson and Francesco Griffo. Their archetypes were and still are –directly or indirectly– the prototypes for later variants, such as made by for instance by the sixteenth-century punch cutter Claude Garamont, the seventeenth-century punch cutter Christoffel van Dijck, and the twentieth-century type designer Jan van Krimpen, to name just a few.
In the dissertation all facets of harmony in formal representations of the Latin script are described. This is basically unexplored territory. The underlying structures of type in use since the moment that the invention of movable type was introduced in Italy in the ﬁfteenth century have not been coherently mapped so far. Attempts have been made to capture letter forms into geometric models, like the reconstructions of the Roman imperial capitals by for instance Felice Feliciano, Luca de Paciolli, Albrecht Dürer, Giovan Francesco Cresci, and many other Renaissance artists, calligraphers, and scholars. There were also the geometric patterns by the Académie des Sciences for the construction of roman type during the passage from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century.
However, these Renaissance and Baroque pattern-descriptions were absolute, i.e. they were meant to describe and deﬁne certain letter forms via outlines created with ruler and compass. The mutually different patterns for basically the same capital letter forms from Feliciano and consorts, and later the ones by Jaugeon’s committee for roman type, did not serve as generic models for describing the underlying structures, but their purpose was to provide speciﬁc construction methods for speciﬁc letter forms. So, the structure of these letter forms were ﬁxed and the patterns were not meant for further modiﬁcation.
By contrast the present research comprises the development of software for parametrized type design, and for measuring and analyzing (digital) type and typography. This site provides some more insight into Blokland’s research, and it reveals a couple of the models and patterns he developed over the years.
Some of the models that also can be found on this site are purely theoretical, and others are the result of empirical research. For distilling information from historical type, like proportional and rhythmic systems, Blokland measured punches, matrices, prints, and even digital revivals. For measuring standardizations of width and possible unitizations of matrices and type, only the research of this metal material makes sense, of course. For measuring the proportions within the body, i.e. the relation between the x-height of the lowercase, the capital-height and the length of the ascenders and descenders, punches, matrices, prints and also meticulously made revivals can be used.
For those who consider Blokland’s research to be primarily focused more on the technical fundamentals of type design than on the artistic aspects, it is perhaps good to know that he is by origin a calligrapher, lettering artist, and type designer. The small –relatively arbitrary– selection from Blokland’s œuvre presented in his biography, proves his work never suffered from dogmatically applied patterns and grids, although sometimes the use of these was unavoidable.