Venetian roman at its best

Two leaves from Vitae illustrium virorum by Plutarch (‘Plutarch’s Lives) printed by Nicolaus Jenson in Venice in 1478 (each page 414 x 270 mm) 

These two leaves form a conjoined pair known as a bifolium. Together they show the size of the sheets of paper Jenson’s printers used for this book.

In the pantheon of notable early printers, two who practised the art in Venice are particularly prominent: Nicolaus Jenson and Aldus Manutius. Aldus we will meet a little later; the two leaves shown here were printed by Jenson, in a typeface which according to Morison is ‘by common consent ... the characteristic Venetian roman in its finest expression’. Steinberg, in Five hundred years of printing, calls Jenson ‘one of the greatest type-designers of all time’.

Despite his name, Jenson was a Frenchman, who attained high office in the mint at Tours, before being sent by the King, Charles VII, to Mainz to spy out how these newfangled ‘printed’ books were being produced. He never returned, and in 1470, at the age of 50, he set up a press of his own in Venice. My leaves were printed there eight years later.

Experts with a more discerning eye than mine point to several ways in which Jenson’s work excels. First there is the look of the page – or rather each spread – seen as a whole. Not just its shape and ample size, but also the ‘mise-en-page’, the layout and the balance between margins and blocks of text. Then there is the ‘colour’ of the text – how dark or light a shade of grey it appears en bloc and the extent to which this fluctuates from place to place on the page. Colour is determined by the size of type, the thickness of the lines that form each letter, the spacing of words and letters, the line spacing and of course the blackness of the ink.

Letter O from Adobe Jenson Pro font, showing the direction of maximum stress.

But where Jenson truly shows himself a master-craftsmen is in the design of the letters themselves – their shape, their serifs, the thickness of their lines and the ‘stress’, which is the way the thickness of line, for instance in a letter O, varies on the way round. He drew letters that would look harmonious on the page, all members of the same family. It is possible he even cut with his own hands the punches used to create the moulds from which the type itself is cast.

Experts credit Jenson with being the first type designer to break free of the notion that typefaces should strive to resemble the scripts they replace. Instead they should be legible and pleasant to read in the new medium of print.

After Jenson died in 1481, a successor wrote of his types that ‘the characters are so methodically and carefully finished by that famous man that the letters are not smaller or larger or thicker than reason demands or than may afford pleasure’. Five centuries later, fonts based closely on Jenson’s are still in use.

In the centuries since Jenson, type designers have frequently turned to his roman type as an inspiration for their own versions. Adobe Jenson Pro, released in 1996, pays homage to the master. How closely it follows Jenson’s example can be seen by comparing letters from the computer-generated Adobe font (upper row) with Jenson's own appearing on these leaves (lower row).