Putting the “Human” in Humanist Typography

The invention of movable type in 1450 by Johannes Gutenberg completely revolutionized the diffusion of information. Setting off a string of progressively more convenient technologies, the printing press established a system that allowed for publishing to occur more quickly and inexpensively. This in turn allowed for more books to be created, spreading literacy and information more rapidly than ever before. More than anything else, the invention of printing allowed for increased access to information— through factors as simple as increased book production to those as seemingly small as allowing for standardized spelling throughout  copies.


Calligraphy in a Latin Bible of AD 1407 by Adrian Pingstone via Wikipedia.

Still, while it immediately made the printed word more accessible, the first books were printed in black letter, a condensed style of type based on handwriting. Due to it’s heavy, crowded appearance, black letter was soon replaced with easier to read humanist typefaces. The rise of humanist type reflects much about what was changing in the world of printed information. More than just a style of lettering, humanist typography reflected the greater intellectual movements of the time. Just as humanist thinkers of the Renaissance turned to Roman texts and advocated the study of anatomy and natural sciences, humanist type reflected the rational thinking.


Spread from “Champ Fleury” by Geoffrey Tory, published 1529. Copy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, via Wikipedia.

French printer to the king Goeffroy Tory published Champ Fleury in 1529, illustrating the proportions of Roman lettering as based on human anatomy. The book embodies the movement from crowded black letter to simplistic humanist type and and the overall Renaissance ideals of beauty in proportion. Before the invention of the printing press, books were methodically copied by scribes. The process was slow, costly, and unreliable. The rise of humanist type established script as based not on personalized and complicated handwriting but on ideals of simplicity and proportions, emphasizing the broadening of access to the written word through the advent of printing.


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