For August, the writers at HiLobrow will have a month of appreciations of fonts and typefaces, lovingly titled “Kern Your Enthusiasm.” Matthew Battles kicks things off with the legendary Aldine Italic developed for Venetian publisher Aldus Manutius, a new set of metal letters that helped jumpstart a little thing we call the Renaissance.
When Aldus put the first version of a typeface we call italic to use in 1501, the printing press had been proliferating in Europe for half a century. In other words, it was about as old as the computer is now. It was a time of immense invention and swiftly spun variety in the printed book, and a time of new mobility and independence of thought and activity among certain classes of people as well — and the combination of new ways and new tools meant new kinds of books. Crucially, the book was getting smaller, small enough to act not only as a desktop, but as a mobile device.
Previous HiLobrow series include “Kirb Your Enthusiasm” (on Jack Kirby), “Kirk Your Enthusiasm” (on Star Trek’s Captain Kirk) and “Herc Your Enthusiasm” (on old school hip-hop, where I contributed a short thing on Afrika Bambaataa.)
This is a page from a book called Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.
Any guesses as to when it was published? The title, Latin text, yellowed paper, and lack of page numbers might tip you off that it wasn’t exactly released yesterday. Turns out that Hypnerotomachia Poliphili was published in 1499, more than 500 years ago and only 44 years after Gutenberg published his famous Bible. It belongs to a group of books collectively referred to as incunabula, books printed with a printing press using movable type before 1501.
To contemporary eyes, the HP looks almost modern. The text is very readable. The typography, layout, and the way the text flows around the illustration; none of it looks out of the ordinary. When compared to other books of the time (e.g. take a look at a page from the Gutenberg Bible), its modernity is downright eerie. The most obvious difference is the absence of the blackletter typeface. Blackletter was a popular choice because it resembled closely the handwritten script that preceded the printing press, and I imagine its use smoothed the transition to books printed by press. HP dispensed with blackletter and instead used what came to be known as Bembo, a humanist typeface based on the handwriting of Renaissance-era Italian scholars. From a MIT Press e-book on the HP:
One of the features of the Hypnerotomachia that has attracted the attention of scholars has been its use of the famed Aldine “Roman” type font, invented by Nicholas Jenson but distilled into an abstract ideal by Francesco Biffi da Bologna, a jeweler who became Aldus’s celebrated cutter. This font — generally viewed as originating in the efforts of the humanist lovers of belles-lettres and renowned calligraphers such as Petrarch, Poggio Bracciolini, Niccolo Niccoli, Felice Feliciano, Leon Battista Alberti, and Luca Pacioli, to re-create the script of classical antiquity — appeared for the first time in Bembo’s De Aetna. Recut, it appeared in its second and perfected version in the Hypnerotomachia.
In that way, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is both a throwback to Roman times and an indication of things to come.
The MIT Press site also notes a number of other significant aspects of the book. As seen above, illustrations are integrated into the main text, allowing “the eye to slip back and forth from textual description and corresponding visual representation with the greatest of ease”. In his 2006 book, Beautiful Evidence, Edward Tufte says:
Overall, the design of Hypnerotomachia tightly integrates the relevant text with the relevant image, a cognitive integration along with the celebrated optical integration.
Several pages in the book make use of the text itself to illustrate the shapes of wine goblets. The HP also contained aspects of film, comics, and storyboarding…successive illustrations advanced action begun on previous pages:
All of which makes the following puzzling:
The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is one of the most unreadable books ever published. The first inkling of difficulty occurs at the moment one picks up the book and tries to utter its tongue-twisting, practically unpronounceable title. The difficulty only heightens as one flips through the pages and tries to decipher the strange, baffling, inscrutable prose, replete with recondite references, teeming with tortuous terminology, choked with pulsating, prolix, plethoric passages. Now in Tuscan, now in Latin, now in Greek — elsewhere in Hebrew, Arabic, Chaldean and hieroglyphs — the author has created a pandemonium of unruly sentences that demand the unrelenting skills of a prodigiously endowed polyglot in order to be understood.
It’s fascinating that a book so readable, so beautifully printed, and so modern would also be so difficult to read. If you’d like to take a crack at it, scans of the entire book are available here and here. The English translation is available on Amazon.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently purchased a painting called Madonna and Child by Duccio di Buoninsegna. The Met paid $50 million for the early Renaissance piece, more than they’ve paid for any single acquisition to date. The New Yorker has the story of how they came to own the last Duccio in private hands. In the article, Calvin Tomkins explains the reason for the painting’s importance:
Small as it is, the painting has a powerful presence. It captures the eye from a distance, and commands, up close, something like complete attention. Holding the Christ child in her left arm, the Virgin looks beyond him with melancholy tenderness, while the child reaches out a tiny hand to brush aside her veil. Centuries of Byzantine rigidity and impersonal, hieratic forms are also brushed aside in this intimate gesture. We are at the beginning of what we think of as Western art; elements of the Byzantine style still linger—in the gold background, the Virgin’s boneless and elongated fingers, and the child’s unchildlike features—but the colors of their clothing are so miraculously preserved, and the sense of human interaction is so convincing, that the two figures seem to exist in a real space, and in real time. Candle burn marks on the frame, which is original, testify to the picture’s use as a private devotional image. It is dated circa 1300.
I had the good fortune to stumble across the Duccio at the Met a few weeks ago (I was there for the Diane Arbus exhibition and passed it by accident on the way to another part of the musuem). What struck me at the time was a certain oddity of the piece…almost like it wasn’t what they’d said it was but magical all the same. I know Jack about art, but after reading more about Madonna and Child, it probably seemed odd to me because it’s a transitional piece, not quite Renaissance but not quite Byzantine either. The piece is a thin slice of a phase transition that had barely begun, a moment frozen from when the artists of the day were collectively working out how a Renaissance painting would eventually differ from earlier European styles and represent the wider cultural changes then occurring. Marco Grassi writes in The New Criteron:
More importantly, the artist places the Virgin at a slight angle to the viewer, behind a fictive parapet. She gazes away from the Child into the distance while He playfully grasps at Her veil. One must realize that every aspect of this composition represents a departure from pre-existing convention. With these subtle changes, Duccio consciously developed an image of sublime tenderness and poignant humanity, almost a visual echo of the spiritual renewal that St. Francis of Assisi had wrought only a few decades earlier.
More more on Duccio, check out his biography on Wikipedia and some collections of his work (1, 2, 3), including other Duccio representations of the Virgin and Child),
 I wish I’d taken an art history class in college, but my 18-yo self wasn’t that interested.