From Writing to Typography

The decline of Roman civilization and the rise of Christianity and of the book were punctuated by the advent of new scripts: some kept to all caps, others moved away from upper case, some waned and died out, others emerged and evolved. Carolingian (or Caroline) miniscule, a round, regular and exceptionally readable script, was chosen and developed at the end of the 8th century by the English theologian Alcuin of York, advisor to the future Emperor Charlemagne, for use in schools and in monastic scriptoria. Its dominance slowly eroded, giving way to gothic scripts, which succeeded it throughout Europe.

It was in this context, in which handwritten copies of texts held sway and paper became the principal medium for writing, that the invention of xylography – hand printing of texts and pictures carved into wooden blocks – ushered in the first phase of the development of printing in the late 14th century. Several decades later it was followed by a second, more crucial, development when a German goldsmith from Mainz, Johannes Gensfleisch, known as Gutenberg, built the first mechanical press and “invented” typography. Contrary to a firmly held belief, the printing press did not first appear in the West, but in China, in the 11th century.

What is typography? It can be defined as a technical, technological and aesthetic system for the creation, production, composition and printing of mechanical forms derived from writing and the design of letters. In a certain sense, Gutenberg can be said to have rediscovered typography through the following steps: first, the reverse or negative shape of a letter, numeral or punctuation mark is carved into the tip of a hard metal rod. This rod – the punch – abruptly strikes and penetrates a rectangular copper block – the matrix –, which receives the right-side-up or positive imprint of the hollowed-out stamp. The matrix is placed in a mold inside of which an alloy of molten lead, tin and antimony is poured with a special spoon and then immediately ejected: this is the template or type, a perfect replica of the punch, which can be reproduced in abundance.

Gutenberg adapted Blackletter (aka Textura), a Gothic script used in most handwritten books at the time, for cutting and casting the type in which he composed the text of the first European letterpress book, a bible in large folio format (the “42-line Bible”), printed between 1452 and 1455 in partnership with his financial backer Johann Fust and copyist Peter Schöffer. The rest is history, literature, typography…