Fun with Fonts

The Gutenberg Bible was the first book printed with moveable type in the west.* To own a copy would now cost tens of millions of dollars, and even a single folio will set you back tens of thousands. Yet it is difficult to remember that in the fifteenth century, the products of the moveable-type printing press were el-cheapo simulacra of the real thing, books written and decorated by hand, by a genuine team of craftsmen. Hence the GB’s hexagonal gothic typeface, which imitated monastic script, even including the abbreviation marks (which make it easier for monks to write things out, but which make printing things by moveable type more difficult). Plus the decorated initials and marginalia, added afterwards by hand.

Detail, first page of the Epistle of Saint Jerome, Gutenberg Bible, University of Texas copy. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Very quickly, however, Italian humanists came to view this sort of writing as carrying the foul stench of the monastic scriptorium. If we’re going to revive Ciceronian Latin, we need more appropriate clothing for it! So humanists derived the sort of Roman fonts (e.g. “Times New Roman”) that we’re familiar with today. These were not a slavish imitation of actual Roman letters (Romans did not use minuscules, after all), but the clarity and gracefulness of a good Roman inscription were highly valued and reproduced on paper.

Inscription on the Arch of Titus (first century AD). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Type specimen by Aldus Manutius, from Pietro Bembo’s De Aetna, 1495–96. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Eventually humanist letterforms triumphed all over Europe – except in Germany. Just as Gothic architecture held out in England long after the Italians switched to a neoclassical style, so also did medieval letterforms hold out in Germany, where they eventually became a badge of national pride. Here is a German article from 1894 that I got through interlibrary loan (thanks, Stephanie!) illustrating the distinctive German Fraktur font:

Note that the French expressions (fête des fous and fête de l’âne) are actually set in Roman type (or, as it was known in Germany, Antiqua) – the idea being that German language required a German font. According to a Wikipedia article on the Antiqua-Fraktur dispute, Otto von Bismark would return gifts of German books not set in Fraktur, with the notice that “I do not read German books in Latin letters!” This certainly helps to explain why Bauhaus typography was so outré in the 1920s. The irony is that Fraktur fell out of use under… the Nazis! You’d think that the Nazis of all people would have cherished it as an aspect of the ineffable Germanness that they claimed to represent, but instead they condemned it as old-school and fusty. From the page (Adolf Hitler this time):

Your alleged gothic internalisation does not fit well in this age of steel and iron, glass and concrete, of womanly beauty and manly strength, of head raised high and intention defiant… In a hundred years, our language will be the European language. The nations of the east, the north and the west will, to communicate with us, learn our language. The prerequisite for this: The script called Gothic is replaced by the script we have called Latin so far…

Fascinating stuff! (Every now and then the Nazis would claim to represent Modernity, although Hitler did not go in for architectural modernism nearly as much as Mussolini did.)

* The Chinese invented moveable type in the eleventh century, but it is much less useful with an ideographic script.