Nicholas Jenson, 1475; Another possible Contextual Alternative example?

ebensorkin's picture

1475 Nicholas Jenson

I need a better sample to begin to take this seriously but it has piqued my interest.

Part of why I think it's possible is that he is thought to have trained in Mainz, and knew the type of Johann and Wendelin of Speyer (de Spira), and Sweynheym & Pannartz's Subaico.

( RE: Subaico )

It would be great to be sure about this. Does anybody have any high-rez images? Or suggestions?

ebensorkin's picture

I just found a high rez in the Arno Pro booklet we got at the last TypeCon. Look on page 7 in the upper right hand corner. I think it is real now after all.

blank's picture

Eben, find out if it was used in anything in the Library of Congress collection of Incunabula, and if so I can get up close and personal with it.

ebensorkin's picture

The best way to sort that out would be to get a list of books he printed & see if they have any of them in their rare books area etc. If I find such a list I will post it for you.

Right now I am working hard on getting the Bodleian Library image Adobe used, ( Eusebius; De Evangelica Preparatione ), or some other digital source. I want to get it into a talk I am working up and I am far far away from the objects themselves. I am in Alaska.

blank's picture

Is this the correct book?

It’s a Eusebius by Jenson, but dated 1470.

ebensorkin's picture

That looks like a match for the Oxford source - yes! Are you going to go try to look at it? If you do - call ahead. I wonder if they have images... I wonder too if they would allow photos... Especially with a macro lens!

blank's picture

I’ll call and check about on viewing incunabula, but the LOC is usually pretty cool about letting people handle rare books in the Jefferson reading room. Armed guards search anyone going in or out, and it’s usually only got a few visitors. They’ve let me take a camera in before, but there are a few downsides: no flash, and the room one can shoot in has fluorescent lights. I’ll have to borrow a much nicer camera for this, of course. If I’m really lucky I can talk someone there into doing a photo for us!

How soon do you need an image? I can probably drop by next Thursday or Friday.

blank's picture

Nobody is answering the phone over there right now, so I’ve emailed one of the rare books librarian about accessing the volume and photographing it.

I have to admit, I’ve always wanted to dig that book up, it’s nice having an excuse :)

ebensorkin's picture

Yes, that would be uber-cool! I would suggest a point & shoot of recent vintage with a macro (often using flower as a symbol) feature. The one I have can be pretty remarkable. And learn how to to make SURE the flash doesn't go off. Of course an SLR with a tripod can be even better but that can be tricky to learn if you don't own it already. And the tripod needs to be a little above average to allow for shooting down. Time frame wise, any time this month would be great! I would want to use the image for TypeCon.

Isn't it the case that all the Jenson punches are missing? I will have to check on that...

blank's picture

No tripods in the LOC either, although I might be able to get a tabletop model past the guards.

And yes, Jenson’s punches disappeared centuries ago.

ebensorkin's picture

That's what I thought. So then it really is exclusively & only the evidence of the page that would be of any potential use.

blank's picture

Not necessarily. The library should have equipment and staff for this sort of thing. Given that you don’t need the images in a hurry it’s likely that arrangements can be made for photography, although they may charge something if they’re the ones doing it.

ebensorkin's picture

I am confused. What do you mean by Not necessarily. ? When I said the evidence of the page I meant that there would not be be any metal type or any punches to help us figure out what Jenson was up to. So it would be the pages he printed that would be our best evidence. Maybe you mean something totally outside this though.

Miss Tiffany's picture

Eben, you should get in touch with Miguel about the image in the Adobe Specimen book. (If you haven't already.)

ebensorkin's picture

Here is something from a similar time period printed by Leinhart Holle* of Ulm in 1842

He goes with ligatures common in scribal blackletter

* I mis wrote "Leinart Holm" in a pre-edited post

I will make a separate thread for his stuff, he has a TON of special shapes/ligatures. I don't think they are all that successful but they are interesting.

ebensorkin's picture

Thanks Tiff, I will do that.

blank's picture

Sorry Eben, I completely misunderstood you so just ignore that last post. There’s just too many thoughts running through my head right now.

ebensorkin's picture

And I completely forgot to say, so please let me say now - Thank you very very much!

ebensorkin's picture

Here are two examples and they examples put over each other. In the example below the wider a is in blue and the more narrow one is green. This is from a leaf in the University of Iowa's collection. Comments?

blank's picture

It’s certainly interesting. I should be able to get to the library next week. I meant to drop by yesterday but something came up at the office.

kentlew's picture

Eben --

It's a little tricky to discern which differences may be due to design intention and which to printing exigencies. The differences here are subtle.

What strikes me is the relative consistency of the majority of the glyph between the two versions, as shown by your overlay. A couple of thoughts occur to me -- pure speculation and probably completely fanciful:

1) Perhaps the wide punch was cut and the matrix struck; and then the punch was reworked, trimming the upper terminal, and a new matrix struck.

2) At the very least, I can imagine that the same counterpunch would have been utilized.

3) Perhaps it is all in our imagination and the one that seems narrower has simply worn down at the top.

I suppose you've examined this closely enough to clearly identify a pattern of narrow variants and can rule out number three.

-- K.

ebensorkin's picture


1) - that's my guess but I would want too see the pattern occur again & again. And even that wouldn't be proof. But the relative consistency does make that tip interesting.

2) I think so too.

3) Definitely still a possibility.

What James Mosley said "But it seems to me that the short-headed a is probably just damaged -- either accidentally or on purpose."

He also sent me this which I have altered to show what I think is the same pattern. It's also not conclusive but to my eye it continues the pattern.

Antonio Cavedoni's picture

Eben, I think you might want to have a look to Griffo’s De Aetna lowercase, too, since it had many versions of the same glyphs.

Giovanni Mardersteig wrote that he believed the alternates where mixed in the case to give a more calligraphic feel to the text, but maybe we could find instances where they were used consisently in certain contexts?

ebensorkin's picture

Sorry the image is so big but you can scroll around.

Here is a smaller one:

I had thought bent top of the "a" but the inside would be deformed then too. No?

ebensorkin's picture

Jonathan Hoefler mentioned Mardersteig to me too just this Morning. Would you tell me more about him? I have not even looked yet.

Antonio Cavedoni's picture

One of the finest printers of the 20th century, he was allowed to recast Bodoni’s types from the original punches/matrices which he used to set the text of the first books from his own letterpress studio/publishing house, the Officina Bodoni. He then designed his own typefaces, cut by the great Charles Malin. Try to find specimens of Mardersteig’s Griffo, Dante, Zeno, Fontana, Pacioli, etc. they’re incredibly beautiful. There’s quite a bit of information here on Typophile, too.

He was a friend of Stanley Morison and produced extensive, scholarly research on Francesco Griffo da Bologna, Felice Feliciano, Aldo Manuzio, Leon Battista Alberti, calligraphers from the Renaissance and roman inscription in Italy and abroad, among other subjects.

In a word, he’s a legend.

Re-reading my earlier post now, maybe it might have sounded as if I was talking about Jenson’s type being mixed in the case, but I was still referring to the De Aetna type, which I think might share some of the traits of Jenson’s Eusebius type concerning the presence/use of alternates.

James Mosley's picture


Giovanni Mardersteig discussed variant sorts in the roman types of the De Aetna in the introductory note to his reprint of the De Aetna text published in 1969. This is his redrawing of them, taken from Nicolas Barker’s reproduction in his essay of 1974 on the Aldine types in Paris.

The De Aetna is printed from newly cast type and it has been called a kind of type specimen. But it is an odd piece of setting. There are several examples of u used upside down for n, and the other way round too I think, so maybe the caster was still at work and had not produced enough sorts to be used for the page in hand. It seems an odd thing to say about a book and a type that have been so endlessly discussed, but someone should really look at both of them more carefully.

I am not sure I fully accept all Mardersteig’s variants as being derived from different punches rather than variations caused by the casting and handling of the type. He redrew them to emphasise the variations he undoubtedly believed that he saw. But an actual example, like the image below, is more ambiguous.

There is not much doubt, I suppose, about the variant m and n (not shown here), and c too, but are the examples of different-looking a and e and u all really from different punches and intended as alternative forms? Still, the example shows some alternative sorts that are not in Mardersteig’s examples: a swash form of e that seems to be intended for the end of a word (there was a swash m too). But what is the long-tailed a doing in the middle of a word? And what was the function of the two p’s? Was the ‘majuscule’ style an experimental new form that might have replaced the other? More investigation needed.

One needs to remember that the e with its horizontal crossbar was equally experimental. We accept it as the normal form because of the prestige of the French imitations of the De Aetna type of over thirty years later.

There are plenty of ligatured sorts in Griffo’s italic for Aldus. But are there variant forms of single letters? I remain to be convinced.

ebensorkin's picture

Having been to see the original in the SF Public Library today with a loupe and a camera I am growing much more convinced in the case of the Jenson and I am surprised by this - the Aldus. In the case of Aldus I think there is less intention involved in the use of varients except in the ra, although I am not utterly settled about this. In the case of the Jenson it is looking more & more deliberate to me. The Aldine seems to have far more varients than the Jenson. In both cases it was the lightest inkings that seemed most useful. they look less good but as evidence they seem great. I will post the photos I took through a loupe soon. I am going to try to visit again on Sat if I can. But if not, maybe I can convince some SF type types to be surrogates! If I can go you are welcome to join me if you can make it.

Antonio, James - thanks very much for your comments!

blank's picture

I’ve done some more poking in the LOC catalog and found that there are 25 of Jenson’s books in the catalog. I think it would probably be best for me to look at Eben’s results and then see if I can corroborate them in at least half a dozen other titles, posting images for everyone else to look at. Thoughts?

ebensorkin's picture

Wow. 25! You can wait if you like. I can see where you would want to have some targets. I can certainly give you a list of probable targets but you may want too see what you would be looking for feature-wise for even more context. I might practice in the meantime. I got much better at it by the time I left the library. Managing a camera and a loupe at once is slightly tricky. Also, it's way to easy to let the flash come on - and they may toss you out with a flash going off or just warn you. It depends.

blank's picture

If you want to give me a list that’s great. Just do a keyword search for “jenson, nicolaus” and it will bring up to goods.

I’m not too worried about the camera flash. It can hit a button and turn it off, and there won’t be anyone else in the old card catalog rooms where photography is allowed even if it does.

ebensorkin's picture

My flash reasserts itself when the camera "wakes up". In terms of targets I meant target glyphs, eg t,a, s, r, g etc.

blank's picture

Oh, well I was going to be looking at those anyway. I just thought that it might be good to try and track down specific volumes known to be printed with the same faces—although if he was only printing for a decade, he couldn’t have had that many varieties.

Nick Shinn's picture

What if printing was so immensely profitable that they didn't need to re-use type?
At the very least, if they were reusing type, they had the time to sort through the huge character-sets they used.
In that case, perhaps they "locked up" frequently-used two-letter combinations (strung together via the holes in the type body, or soldered) and put these back in the case.

At any rate, the metal was relatively soft and malleable, so it would have been possible to fit the letter r to following letters in an on-demand, ad hoc basis. That r-a combination seems to have been a motif in Jenson's design process, a focus of how left median-height serifs fitted. Was Jenson compositor and printer? When did specialization evolve?

Comparing the economics and job functions of the changeover from phototype to digital should produce insights into the incunabula.

If they were attuned to the necessity of ligatures, but in a process of reducing the number of ligatures from the vast number mandated by following the scribal model, then they would perhaps have felt that treating certain non-ligating letter combinations with the same care and attention that they applied to truly ligated forms, was not an onerous burden, but a necessity.

The lengths compositors will sometimes go to with metal type was brought home to me by The Book of Oz,(mid 20th century) which was set in 14 pt Cooper Oldstyle (a similar size to Jenson's text), shaved and fitted letter by letter, to produce an effect that we would liken to negative tracking.

blank's picture

What if printing was so immensely profitable that they didn’t need to re-use type?

If my understanding is correct, early printing was done on such tight budgets that old type had to be melted down to reduce to cost of type-metal for new fonts. But Venice was among the wealthiest places in Europe, and the printers were setting up shop with subsides from the uber-wealthy, so they may have had a lot of options.

At any rate, the metal was relatively soft and malleable, so it would have been possible to fit the letter r to following letters in an on-demand, ad hoc basis.

It begs the question: were some of the variant sorts of that era letters that were customized for one job and then got mixed back in with the rest?

…shaved and fitted letter by letter, to produce an effect that we would liken to negative tracking.

I always wondered how common these practices were. My design history professor has been working in design for fifty-plus years, and talked about it a lot. It seems like something that would have been especially likely in Monotype shops.

Nick Shinn's picture

early printing was done on such tight budgets that old type had to be melted down to reduce to cost of type-metal for new fonts.

Recycling was a well-established practice in the technologies involved in printing, so was not a cost-cutting measure.

But Venice was among the wealthiest places in Europe, and the printers were setting up shop with subsides from the uber-wealthy, so they may have had a lot of options.

Subsidies? Unlikely to be the driving force in a new media boom.

Again, compare the incunabula with recent events. DTP was a revolution because it drastically reduced the cost of publishing. The same was true of printing. So forget about tight budgets and subsidies--there was a shit-load of money to be made in printing.

ebensorkin's picture

here is teaser for the images I will be posting to flickr in a while

blank's picture

I just left the Library of Congress. Unfortunately I was not allowed to take a camera into the rare books reading room! That makes this much harder, when I have some time after graduation I’ll get the library to do some macro shots.

The books I looked at were the Biblia Latina, Naturalis Historia, and De Evangelica Praeparatione. The bible turned out to be set in blackletter, and is very butch with studded leather covers and straps, but not especially applicable as the heavy impression and chunky letters make spotting alternates a nightmare. But there did appear to be at least two versions of a, distinguished by their upper counters, one appearing narrower and more geometric, the other slightly wider and rounded. The narrower version often appears at the beginnings of, and after t and r. Again, the type design, heavy imprint and thick paper make it hard to discern if these differences are intentional.

In the other two books I focused on the letter a after t, r, and g. I noticed the same patterns as Eben—a is often a narrower sort after t and r, as well as at the beginning of words. There is a very narrow, effete a that sometimes appears after g, the difference is so strong it is obvious without magnification. What stood out to me was that the use of the alternates appeared inconsistent—it does not occur everywhere, but not random. I don’t know latin, so I cannot tell if this is somehow related to the grammar.

And now for a tangent: the next time you feel bad about shipping a book with a nasty error, remember that Nicholas Jenson shipped at least one without checking to be sure that the rubricators filled in all of the drop caps!

ebensorkin's picture

James I am really sorry that they didn't let you take the camera in. Thanks for looking & reporting on what you saw. That's great too. I will have to look at the "g" again to see what I might have in my images. One of the books I looked at was "De Evangelica Praeparatione" too.


blank's picture

I’m watching the BBC Gutenberg documentary (fabulous!) and about 31 minutes in Fry states that the old printers had alternate characters of different widths to keep lines of type justified. If he is correct, could that be part of what’s going on here? It would certainly explain the inconsistent use of the variants. If Fry has a source to back that notion up it would make a lot of sense, as Jenson is believed to have learned printing in Mainz.

ebensorkin's picture

Gutenburg did have a ton of extra sorts. This is well researched & checked on. Partly this was for the reason Fry gives but partly it was because in order to look like a book and to make a text that people would recognize as a legitimate text you simply had to have them. Think about how fancy pants typophiles feel about f ligatures and bump it up 12+ notches or so!

The thing is, when you read about the Bremer Presse the reason for their sorts ( as given) is the same - to make a more even page. But if you actually look at how they are used it doesn't 100% totally wash. What is true though is that if you have a tight line of text where you wish you had more space it is easy to swap those narrow r shapes & narrow s shapes in - and they do work reasonably well.

What is certain is that the letter culture of the day in which Jenson made his letters was one where having more than one r would be seen as traditional/natural/obvious etc. The other thing is that what Jenson as was doing was high craft - like - well it's hard to say now because we don't have places to go buy custom made stuff much anymore. But they definitely did. 99% of everything you could buy would have been. Standardization would have been the novel notion - not custom design. Standardizing on 5 or 6 r shapes might have seemed like a big leap!

I think Alan May is a good source for Fry. ;-)

aszszelp's picture

Nice new developments. Interesting comments, James!

ebensorkin's picture

I got a new sample today from Vassar. They say it's 1470. And... It seems to lack the features I had seen elsewhere. There do seem to be two "a" shapes but their differences are subtle and their use does not seem to follow a pattern. One "a" has a spring tail and the other is lightLook at the word "natura" on the 3rd line. I would have expected a variant "a" after the r there. I don't see one. It may be that at this size casting differences obliterate any possibility of detective work.

The font is is quite small I think. I have included some paper texture and some brushwork next to the sample to give you some idea. The sample didn't have a ruler but I think I can draw some inferences.

I am still looking at the r. In general the r used is the one with the flat (vertical) end. But there is the word "inferre" at the bottom of this sample. The second r seems like a variant to me.

The diamond shaped colon ":" is pretty cool isn't it?

The long serif under the r's arm is great.

Sorry you have to scroll.

ebensorkin's picture

I am still looking for more examples and I am starting to get some help from Librarians and other reserachers. Still, if anybody can take additional images or has them I would be grateful for the help.

Even though it does look a little like there could be a pattern in the "r"s in this sample it's pretty weak I think.

The fact that this image doesn't show paper fiber is also a strike against trying to use it.

eliason's picture

It's off your point but it's striking to me just how far the dots of these i's "lag" to the right.

blank's picture

Craig, I was also pretty surprised by that when I was looking at the Jenson books. When all’s said and done I’m still impressed by Jenson’s achievement and letters, but there’s some nasty stuff in there that leaves me wondering why people label his letters the most beautiful Romans ever printed.

ebensorkin's picture

I mean yes in fact if I looked around I might choose something else in the end as my #1 - but have a look. It really is lovely.

blokland's picture

Graig: […] it's striking to me just how far the dots of these i's "lag" to the right.

If you look at the other accented characters, you will see the same for the ones that can be combined with the f and the ‘long’ s. This positioning simply prevents collisions with the terminals of the forenamed two letters.

You also will have noticed that in Jenson’s type the ‘long’ s shares the width with the f, which creates a gap to the next letter. The f and ‘long’ s in the type for the Aetna, which Griffo clearly based on Jenson’s model, show shorter terminals and a ı (dotless i) is used after these letters. I have seen a ı erroneously used upside down in the Aetna, but unfortunately at the moment I don’t recall where.

The two following examples (of which one is taken from this topic) show that Jenson for instance also applied alternatively kerned T-capitals.


Nick Shinn's picture

I surmise that Jenson’s wide /f and /ſ are designed to provide disambiguation between these glyphs, via the substantial width of the crossbar of /f.

blokland's picture

Nick: […] disambiguation […]

Really? I reckon that this text will not be too diſſıcult to read, although I made some strange miftakes.


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