2.2 Notes on the mythical ‘eye’

Having learned and memorised the true proportions of roman letter as taught in the manuals of Moille, Pacioli and others, the goldsmiths, punch-cutters and printers relied on their eyes and not upon their measuring tools.’, according to Stanley Morison in Fra Luca de Pacioli of Borgo S. Sepolcro (1933).

Really? Did the Italian and French Renaissance goldsmiths and engravers purely rely on their eyes when they cut the first roman types, as Morison suggested, or did they actually use different, standardized, systematized, and unitized methods, perhaps inspired by the manuals of Moille, Pacioli and others? Morison’s statement seems to mystify the qualities of punch cutters such as Nicolas Jenson, Francesco Griffo, Claude Garamont, and Robert Granjon. Allen Hutt describes thes qualities in Fournier, the compleat typographer (London, 1972) as ‘[…] some indefinable talent in the best punch-cutters and type designers who aimed and continue to aim at optical harmony.’ But if this talent can be distinguished, then it should be possible to define it also, I reckon.

Although Morison’s statement on the punch cutters and their eyes seems to be nothing more than an assumption, it is actually generally embraced by the type world. Type historians connect the attempts to reconstruct the Roman imperial capitals by Renaissance artists and scholars like Feliciano, Pacioli, and, of course, Albrecht Dürer, with the Romain du Roi, but the appliance of geometric systems in the work of the Renaissance punch cutters seems to be completely out of order.

Is it possible that the early punch cutters, who were engravers or gold smiths from origin, i.e. craftsmen, only used their eyes in a profession that requires standardization? Why would they for instance have ignored conventions like the golden section that seem to have been applied everywhere else in the Renaissance world of arts? Was it because of technical limitations, or did Jenson, Griffo, Garamont, Granjon, and consorts have such trained eyes that they applied ‘divine’ proportions on the fly?

Every collection of graphemes representing an alphabet has its own rules, defined by their specific harmonics, patterns, and dynamics. The shapes of the graphemes can be the result of either a long or a short evolution; their domination can be the result of a fixation at a certain moment in history. When the graphemes are commonly accepted they define the rules for the conditioning of their users, i.e. readers, and their producers, i.e. type designers.
One wonders whether Fournier was aware of the fact that what the eye sees is merely the result of conditioning when he commented in his Manuel Typographique from 1764–1766 on the attempts of Jaugeon and co. to standardize the design of the Romain du Roi: ‘These gentlemen would have been well advised to a single rule which they established, which is chiefly to be guided by the eye, the supreme judge […].

Conditioning is based on conventions and conditioning preserves conventions. Thus the snake bites its own tail; to able to use one’s ‘eye’ like Fournier advocated, one has to be educated to look at type in the same way. What is considered to be harmonic, rhythmic, and æsthetic in type is merely the result of conditioning, i.e. cultural habituation. Familiarity is an important factor for the preservation of conventions; the appreciation of certain structures in for instance fine arts, architecture, typography, or music partly depends on this.

About Frank E. Blokland

Frank E. Blokland is type designer (of amongst other typefaces, DTL Documenta and DTL Haarlemmer), Senior Lecturer in type design at the Royal Academy of Arts (KABK) in The Hague since 1987, and Lecturer / Research Fellow at the Plantin Institute of Typography, Antwerp, since 1995.

Blokland founded the Dutch Type Library in 1990 and a couple of years later he initiated and supervised the development of DTL FontMaster, a set of professional font tools developed together with the German company URW++. Currently he is finishing a PhD study at Leiden University on standardizations and systematizations in roman and italic type since their Renaissance origin.

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