calligraphy lettering printing typography

Mardersteig and Felicano: a Christmas gift

The beauty of this illustration (taken from the privately-printed Two Titans by Hans Schmoller) requires few words. The original is hand-coloured and comes from Mardersteig’s Alphabetum Romanum published in 1960, some 500 years after the death of the Italian writing master.

Mardersteig and Feliciano

[Two Titans was published by The Typophiles, NY, 1990 and printed by Martino Mardersteig in Verona.)

Elements of Lettering

Roman lettercarvers named

It is rare for individuals who carve lettering to be remembered. I have carved a number of public inscriptions in the UK and I doubt anyone in a thousand years time will pause to reflect on the hand behind the cut. I would not expect otherwise. So I was taken aback when browsing Alan Bartram’s indispensable Lettering on Architecture (one of two books that should be on the bookshelf of any serious student of lettering – the other is Nicolete Gray’s A History of Lettering – see here for an earlier post on her) of the revelation that certain monumental inscriptions in Roman can be identified with one Luca Horfei and Matheo de Meli, in or around the late 16th century. Now I would like to write more on these characters, and Nicolete Gray gives a hint as to where to find further information – none other than James Mosley. For those who have not stumbled across that name before take note. He was librarian of the famous St Bride printing library in central London for many decades (until 2000) and what he didn’t know about printing history could…well, it could be written on the back of a postage stamp. He is a legend and I remember visiting that library when I was working in Fleet Street and being awed by the great man’s presence. Of Mosley, and this is a digression, a long one, I quote from Bulletin 32 [page 19] of the Printing Historical Society that I happen to have to hand: ‘After lunch, the company reassembled for James Mosley’s “Morris and the ‘Rugged’ School of Typography”. The most invigorating and original of the day’s offerings, this included a particularly fine and telling sequence of slides and [unscripted] commentary bringing to life an apparently neglected context of Kelmscott typography lying in some of the freehand drawn lettering of its period.’ You get my drift. Anyhow, regarding further commentary on Horfei and de Meli, that can be found in Mosley’s 1964 article ‘Trajan Revived’ printed in Alphabet. However, Gray offers a glimpse when she writes that Horfei followed the style of the writing master, G.F. Cresci, and designed ‘much of the lettering connected with the great town planning works in Rome inaugurated by Pope Sixtus V (1585-90)’ [p.147]. The illustrations below show: Luca Pacioli B; a B based on Trajan from Cresci (1570); and lettering designed by Horfei and cut by de Meli (1588).

Horfei and Matheo de Meli_0001 Horfei and Matheo de Meli

alphabet History of Lettering

The Letter K

The early Romans didn’t much like the letter K. Letter K_0003According to Tommy Thompson, writing in 1942 (The ABC of our Alphabet), Letter K thompsonthe letter was disliked ‘from a standpoint of design’, so they, he writes ‘substituted C for the voiceless K’.

He may be right but when it comes to the alphabet there is one writer I turn to: David Diringer and his The Alphabet, A key to the History of Mankind (Hutchinson, 3rd edition, 1968). Letter K_0002

Now Diringer has this to say of K: ‘…the Greek alphabet had two other signs for the k-sound, the K and the Q, and we find in the South Etruscan alphabet the sign C used (as a k) only before e and i, the K used before a, and the Q only before u (Etruscan has, as we have seen, no o). The Latin alphabet adopted all the three letters with their phonetic values, but in time it dropped the K (which, however, continued to be used as the initial of well-known or official words, such as Kalendae or Kaeso) and used C for the sounds of both g and k, the letter Q being retained for the k when followed by a u.’ (The Alphabet, 1968, vol 1, p.419).

I trust that is helpful – and I’d appreciate any comments.Letter K

KmartAs for the modern K, well, there are many variations and most of  them horrible. Particularly when in the Egyptian style!

My preference is for the style where the upright does not quite connect with the <

If you liked this you might like a diversion on R here.

Letter K_0001

Elements of Lettering History of Lettering Thoughts on lettering

‘…humble greeting to all true and devoted Lovers of well-formed Letters’

So wrote Geofrey Tory as introduction to his 1529 volume Champ Fleury, The Art & Science of the proper & true Proportions of the Attic Letters, which are otherwise called Antique Letters, and in common speech Roman Letters.  (All quotes from the 1967 Dover edition of the translation published by The Grolier Club, 1927.) Part two of this book considers the letters and proportions in context of the human body, or, more precisely, ‘compared to those of the natural body and face of the perfect man’. His method is geometry – the circle, square and triangle – and when I was starting out in letter carving I filled my notebook with examples of this system. Why? I forget, for the letters are, to the modern eye, stale, dull and passionless. Nevertheless, there is sometimes need to look back and reflect on how things were once done; maybe even learn something. (Such as to be reacquainted with the nine muses and the seven liberal arts – see page 38 of the Dover edition.) As for Tory (1480-1533), Steinberg writes that ‘… not least of his achievements – [he was] the teacher of Garamond’. (Five Hundred Years of Printing, Penguin, 1955, p35.) The first two illustrations are from the 1967 volume, the last is my effort back in the 1990s.

Elements of Lettering lettering, typography, alphabets, stonework

The Beauty of W

W. Poor thing. It has no place in the classic Roman script. A bastard letter. V + V = W. Nevertheless it can be transformed into one of the most beautiful of letters when carved in stone – also one of the most difficult. The intersections cause beginners the most trouble and often lead to the most appalling breaks. This is my most recent effort, from the Still Life carving which is  in progress. I hope to show you the various letters as they are cut. Note in this example the chisel marks left on the ‘wall’ of the letter – a sure indication of the human touch. No machine can replicate that. It is the very music of the hand and chisel as it moves through the stone.

alphabet History of Lettering lettering, typography, alphabets, stonework Thoughts on lettering

The Alphabet and U

A few days ago I posted on The Trouble with U. The reason – that I had always thought U was a usurper in the Latin alphabet, a bastard ally of V, and consequently there was a problem among designers on how to treat the letter. It is a pretty undistinguished character after all. There’s not a lot one can do with it. Does it take a leg or should it be like the outlet of a toilet?

Anyhow, this got me to renew friends with a fabulous book (actually two hefty volumes) written by David Diringer, called, without a shade of modesty: The Alphabet, A Key to the History of Mankind. This masterpiece was published by Hutchinson, firstly in April 1948. I have the third edition (‘completely revised, in two volumes’) of 1968.

The volumes are arranged thus: volume one, text; volume two, illustrations.

That 1948 was significant should not go unnoticed. The second world war ended, this would have been one of the first major titles on the subject off the press. And the optimistic sentiment of the age shows in the foreword by Sir Ellis Minns (a former Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge): “If it is speech that marks man off from the beast, and the great discoveries of the use of tools, the use of fire, taming animals, tilling the ground, working metals are long strides in his progress, the invention of writing and its improvement into a practical system may fairly be taken as the step leading directly to full civilisation”.

In his introduction Diringer notes (and this will be worthy of following-up): “On June 8, 1959, the present author founded in Cambridge (England) the Alphabet Museum and Seminar – now partly transferred to Tel Aviv – a main object being to collect and assemble all the material relating to the history of writing”. What happened to that?

He also refers to a branch of learning devoted to the history of the alphabet then gaining ground in the US and called, unhappily he thought, ‘alphabetology’.

Anyhow, all that is preface to the origin of U.

Diringer notes that the alphabet we are familiar with derives from Etruscan: “The importance of the Etruscans…cannot be overestimated,” he writes. “The Etruscans, an ancient people of uncertain origin and ethnic and linguistic affinities who were called by the Romans Etrusci (hence the name Etruscans) or, more commonly, Tusci (hence the modern name of Tuscany), and by the Greeks Tyrsenoi or Tyrrhenoi (hence the name Tyrrhenian Sea), were the leading power in Italy in the first half of the first millenium BC; an Etruscan dynasty reigned in Rome from the last decades of the seventh century to the end of the sixth century BC.”

[As an aside, when I was a student of archaeology at Cambridge in the 1980s I spent two long, hot summers in the Umbrian town of Gubbio, helping excavate an Etruscan site. I remember us finding the skeleton of a small child/baby; as well as tiny, bronze votive offerings, always a human-like figure with an enlarged phallus.]

By about 400BC, Diringer continues, the ‘classical’ Etruscan alphabet had evolved, with 20 letters, being four vowels, A, E, I, U, and 16 consonants, being G, V, Z,H,TH,L, M,N, P, SAN, R, S, T, PH, KH, F). This evolution was from an eighth century BC alphabet formed of 26 letters, which had been reduced to 23 by the fifth century.

When the Romans got going they adopted 21 of the Etruscans 26 (from the eighth century), rejecting, among others, U. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages, notes Diringer, that U, together with W and J were added.  (Y and Z were added after the conquest of Greece in the first century BC.)

There, in the proverbial, nutshell you have it. But I haven’t yet done with U….