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Vendetta
By John Downer

This text was first published in the Spring of 1999 in Emigre #50.

 
The famous roman type cut in Venice by Nicolas Jenson, and used in 1470 for his printing of the tract, De Evangelica Praeparatione, Eusebius, has usually been declared the seminal and definitive representative of a class of types known as Venetian Old Style. The Jenson type is thought to have been the primary model for types that immediately followed. Subsequent 15th-century Venetian Old Style types, cut by other punchcutters in Venice and elsewhere in Italy, are also worthy of study, but have been largely neglected by 20th-century type designers.

There were many versions of Venetian Old Style types produced in the final quarter of the quattrocento. The exact number is unknown, but numerous printed examples survive, though the actual types, matrices, and punches are long gone. All these types are not, however, conspicuously Jensonian in character. Each shows a liberal amount of individuality, inconsistency, and eccentricity.

My fascination with these historical types began in the 1970s and eventually led to the production of my first text typeface, Iowan Old Style (Bitstream, 1991). Sometime in the early 1990s, I started doodling letters for another Venetian typeface. The letters were pieced together from sections of circles and squares. The n, a standard lowercase control character in a text typeface, came first. Its most unusual feature was its head serif, a bisected quadrant of a circle. My aim was to see if its sharp beak would work with blunt, rectangular, foot serifs. Next, I wanted to see if I could construct a set of capital letters by following a similar design system.

Rectangular serifs, or what we today call "slab serifs," were common in early roman printing types, particularly text types cut in Italy before 1500. Slab serifs are evident on both lowercase and uppercase characters in roman types of the Incunabula period, but they are seen mainly at the feet of the lowercase letters. The head serifs on lowercase letters of early roman types were usually angled. They were not arched, like mine. Oddly, there seems to be no actual historical precedent for my approach.

Another characteristic of my arched serif is that the side opposite the arch is flat, not concave. Arched, concave serifs were used extensively in early italic types, a genre which first appeared more than a quarter century after roman types. Their forms followed humanistic cursive writing, common in Italy since before movable type was used there. Initially, italic characters were all lowercase, set with upright capitals (a practice I much admire and would like to see revived). Sloped italic capitals were not introduced until the middle of the sixteenth century, and they have very little to do with the evolution of humanist scripts.

In contrast to the cursive writing on which italic types were based, formal book hands used by humanist scholars to transcribe classical texts served as a source of inspiration for the lowercase letters of the first roman types cut in Italy. While book hands were not as informal as cursive scripts, they still had features which could be said to be more calligraphic than geometric in detail. Over time, though, the copied vestiges of calligraphy virtually disappeared from roman fonts, and type became more rational. This profound change in the way type developed was also due in part to popular interest in the classical inscriptions of Roman antiquity. Imperial Roman letters, or majuscules, became models for the capital letters in nearly all early roman printing types.

So it was, that the first letters in my typeface arose from pondering how shapes of lowercase letters and capital letters relate to one another in terms of classical ideals and geometric proportions, two pinnacles in a range of artistic notions which emerged during the Italian Renaissance. Indeed, such ideas are interesting to explore, but in the field of type design they often lead to dead ends. It is generally acknowledged, for instance, that pure geometry, as a strict approach to type design, has limitations. No roman alphabet, based solely on the circle and square, has ever been ideal for continuous reading. This much, I knew from the start.

In the course of developing my typeface for text, innumerable compromises were made. Even though the finished letterforms retain a measure of geometric structure, they were modified again and again to improve their performance en masse. Each modification caused further deviation from my original scheme, and gave every font a slightly different direction. In the lower case letters especially, I made countless variations, and diverged significantly from my original plan. For example, not all the arcs remained radial, and they were designed to vary from font to font. Such variety added to the individuality of each style. The counters of many letters are described by intersecting arcs or angled facets, and the bowls are not round. In the capitals, angular bracketing was used practically everywhere stems and serifs meet, accentuating the terseness of the characters. As a result of all my tinkering, the entire family took on a kind of rich, familiar, coarseness - akin to roman types of the late 1400s.

In his book, Printing Types D. B. Updike wrote: "Almost all Italian roman fonts in the last half of the fifteenth century had an air of "security" and generous ease extremely agreeable to the eye. Indeed, there is nothing better than fine Italian roman type in the whole history of typography."

It does seem a shame that only in the 20th century have revivals of these beautiful types found acceptance in the English language. For four centuries (circa 1500 - circa 1900) Venetian Old Style faces were definitely not in favor in any living language. Recently, though, reinterpretations of early Italian printing types have been returning with a vengeance. The name Vendetta, which as an Italian sound I like, struck me as being a word that could be taken to signifiy a comeback of types designed in the Venetian style.

In closing, I should add that a large measure of Vendetta's overall character comes from a synthesis of ideas, old and new. Hallmarks of roman type design from the Incunabula period are blended with contemporary concerns for the optimal display of letterforms on computer screens. Vendetta is thus not a historical revival. It is instead an indirect but personal digital homage to the roman types of punchcutters whose work was influenced by the example Jenson set in 1470.

 

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