Nicolas Jenson was a Frenchman who lived in the late fifteenth-century and ran a successful print shop in the early days of commercial printing. His works are relatively obscure today, but his contributions to typography and type design are still relevant.
The modern printed book had its start roughly five-hundred years ago when a German goldsmith named Johann Gutenberg commercialized a method of printing with moveable type. Book production had been an expensive and time-consuming process, so Gutenberg’s moveable type had an immediate commercial impact.
Nicolas Jenson recognized the potential of the nascent print industry and used his well-established engraving skills to start his own print business. Jenson used his experience designing and manufacturing coin-forging dies to start a successful print business, and in doing so shaped the future of print design.
Nicolas Jenson was a master die-maker working for the French royal mint whose reputation as a highly-stilled engraver caught the attention of the king, Charles VII, and was apparently sent on a secret mission to Mainz, Germany in 1458 to learn Gutenberg’s method of printing with moveable type. Charles VII died before Jenson returned to France and the reputation of the replacement king convinced Jenson to take what he learned elsewhere.
Type design is a subtle art in which a combination of factors to do with the thickness, proportion and balance of the lines and curves which make up the letters determine the success of the end product.
Books as History
Nicolas Jenson was a successful printer in his time, but his most significant contribution to the field has been in the field of typography, or the study of how words are shaped, spaced, and placed on a page. Type design, a field within typography, considers how the shapes of individual letters construct the words of a printed work. According to Pearson, “the look and layout of the lettering in a book is an important aspect of that invisible design skill, something we rarely stop to think about but which contributes significantly to the impact and character of the finished product” (43).
With modern technology precise letter shape and efficient letter spacing are usually managed through a familiar computer interface, but with moveable type of five-hundred years ago each letter shape had to be cut into steel punches by hand and at the same scale as the letters of the final printed work. The fifteenth-century printer’s task was not just to press ink to paper and sell the result, he first had to manufacture his own type face, or letters, so they could then be arranged and re-arranged for each page. According to Eliot,
For each character, a punch was cut in steel, the hardest available metal. The steel punch was used to stamp the character in a copper matrix of fixed dimensions. The matrix was carefully adjusted to fit exactly into a mold, a hinged form which, when closed, was filled with hot, liquid metal with a low melting point, an alloy of lead, tin, and traces of other metals (commonly antimony). (208)
The process of manufacturing moveable type is daunting in itself, and scholars today “surmise that the method of manufacture of type with steel punches and matrices, which became the standard for more than four centuries of typography, was introduced…by Nicolas Jenson” (Eliot 208), so it is quite impressive that Jenson’s letter forms continue to inspire type designers. According to McMurtrie,
It is not until Nicolas Jenson printed with his own letter in 1470 that there was produced a successful combination of a pure letter of great beauty in design, accurately placed on the type body so that it harmonized perfectly with the other characters which preceded and followed it. (201)
Jenson had a relatively short, ten-year printing career that could have started much later if not for the timely death of the John of Spires, the most powerful printer in Venice at the time. On September 18, 1469, John of Spires “received from the Senate of Venice the extraordinary privilege of being the only printer permitted to exercise his art within the jurisdiction of the city for a period of five years” (Orcutt 55), and such privilege would have excluded all printers, including Jenson, from the bustling Venice market. Fortunately for Jenson, “John of Spires enjoyed this sweeping monopoly only a few months, and the extraordinary privilege conferred was automatically cancelled by his death in 1470” (Orcutt 56).
Jenson’s roman of 1470…is the oldest roman type to have been revived for use in our own time.
Methods of Book Design: The Practice of An Industrial Craft
Business tends to focus on profit and efficiency, especially when technology is concerned, and it rewards success with immediate financial gain, but then moves on without dwelling no past success. It is interesting, then, that Jenson’s contributions to the business of printing are still relevant, over five-hundred years after he passed away.
It is not, however, his business acumen that is salient today, rather it is the craft of his letter forms that continue to inspire print professionals, and “at least thirty imitations [of his type face] were used in various parts of Italy during the next fifty years” (Williamson 107). The 1995 revival done by Robert Slimbach for Adobe (that type, Adobe Jenson Pro, is used in this essay) is a recent example of the influence, but two type designers working earlier are particularly significant.
Both William Morris and Bruce Rogers went back to the roman type face of Nicolas Jenson to create their own type faces. Morris commented that “‘Jenson carried the development of the roman type as far as it can go’” (Morison 42), and considered Jenson’s 1476 Historia Naturalis of Pliny as well as Jacobus de Rubeis’s letter forms found in his Historia Florentina of the same year. Morris, in the end, “decided against the delicacy of Jenson’s drawing and preferred the distinctly darker version of the design used by another Venetian, Jacobus de Rubeis” (Morison 42), but that Venetian was himself directly influenced by Jenson’s 1470 roman.
For his part, Bruce Rogers looked to Nicolas Jenson after being commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to produce a new type face, and “produced a delicate and graceful adaptation of Jenson’s 1470 roman” (Williamson 107). His creation, Centaur, was first used to print an English edition of Maurice de Guérin’s Le Centaure.
It is perhaps just coincidence that a technological innovation complimented Nicolas Jenson’s pragmatic craft well enough for him to remain relevant (if only in an arcane field), or perhaps he was not just a pragmatic businessman. Rogers’ Centaur and Morris’ Golden type are both beautiful fonts, with curves and character like Jenson’s 1470 roman, but neither are letters for commercial publications: they, like Adobe Jenson Pro, have too much of Jenson’s idiosyncratic charm. Golden type, Centaur, and the many renditions of Jenson’s 1470 roman, are highly readable, but, unlike more uniform type faces of the modern age, they are distinctly refined and artistic. The revivals are suitable for refined, artistic works, but are too mannered for mainstream publications.
Nicolas Jenson’s 1470 roman type face, on the other hand, proved quite appropriate for the mass publications of his time since the reading public was used to texts written by hand in artistic script letter forms.
Nicolas Jenson was a skilled craftsman, astute businessman, and intuitive type designer before it was a distinct profession. His contributions continue to enrich the aesthetic potential of the printed word.
Eliot, Simon and Jonathan Rose. A Companion to the History of the Book. Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2007.
McMurtrie, Douglas C. The Book: The Story of Printing & Bookmaking. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Morison, Stanley. A Tally of Types. Cambridge: University Press Cambridge, 1973.
Orcutt, William Dana. The Book in Italy. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1928.
Pearson, David. Books as History. New Castle: Oak Knoll Press, 2008.
Williamson, Hugh and Albert Fordyce. Methods of Book Design: The Practice of An Industrial Craft. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.