Robert Slimbach on Minion’s historical context: milestones in the evolution of old style roman typefaces

Old style roman typefaces form the core of text types used today, and remain a standard because of their visual appeal and readability. A short history of the evolution of the old style roman typefaces produced throughout the late 1400s to 1600s reveals part of Minion’s legacy.

Until the late 1800s, methods of book production remained essentially unchanged from Gutenberg’s time. The basic process of typefounding involved cutting the letter design on the end of a steel punch with gravers and files, pushing the hardened punch into softer metal to form a matrix, finishing and justifying the matrix, and finally placing the matrix into a hand mold and pouring lead into it to cast a virtually unlimited supply of type. This type could then be composed into text, inked, and printed on the hand press. Matrices were often sold to others who could then cast their own type from them. Through such commerce, typeface designs spread in usage throughout Europe.

By the end of the 1400s, printing from metal type had become the standard means for duplicating text in the production of books. In 1470, the appearance of Nicolas Jenson’s roman type was a major advance in the evolution of the roman book face. Although still influenced by the humanistic scripts of the time, his artfully inspired letters contain new elements that sprang from the punchcutter’s tools and imagination. His typeface displays a more sculpted quality throughout, and is one of the first to use true roman serifs.

In 1495, with the founding of the Aldine press in Venice, the great publisher and scholar Aldus Manutius set the stage for the next evolutionary step of the roman typeface. He employed Francesco Griffo of Bologna to design and cut a new roman type, which Manutius used in most of his new editions. This type, which today is referred to as the Aldine style of roman, became the model for many old style types to follow. Griffo’s roman typeface was unadorned and more workmanlike than Jenson’s. The even texture and well-conceived relationship between capital and lowercase letters was a movement toward classic beauty and permanence. The first italic typeface, also cut by Griffo, was based on the chancery cursive scripts of the time and was used by Manutius as a primary type for small pocket-sized editions. Griffo’s italic type was fairly upright in angle and condensed in its letter widths.

The focus in letter design shifted to France in the early 1500s. The sophisticated designs of the French typographic legends, Claude Garamond and Robert Granjon, built on Griffo’s accomplishments and brought the old style letter to a pinnacle of elegance. By the end of the 1500s, these types acquired a dominant position in the printing trade throughout Europe and remain today – in the form of revivals – among the most popular book faces.

By the early 1600s, the Netherlands had become a major center for the book arts in Europe. There, Garamond and Granjon’s typefaces profoundly influenced typefounding and inspired many look-alike types. The trend, however, was toward a more modern style of typeface. Christoffel van Dijck, a punchcutter during the mid-1600s, produced some of the finest Dutch old style typefaces. The Dutch typefaces generally show an increase in stroke contrast, larger lowercase x-height, and an overall heavier appearance than their French predecessors.