13. September 2016 | von Marcel Henry Kommentieren


Erasmus cared deeply about the typographic design of his works. Wishing to commission a new typeface specially for the occasion, the HMB initiated a typography competition adjudicated both by an expert jury and the public at large. The winning entry was a font based on Italy’s typographic heritage designed by Katharina Wolff, whose capitals recall the Capitalis Monumentalis of Ancient Rome, while the lower case letters are modelled on early Italian printed matter. Its italic style, moreover, is based on Cancellaresca Corsiva – the “chancery hand” developed by Italian chancery scribes. Erasmus’s preference for this style was among the factors contributing to its success as a modern, Humanist typeface. Inspired by 16th-century handwriting, Wolff’s cursive font captures the flow and rhythm of Erasmus’s own hand.


An Interview with Katharina Wolff 

Given the popularity of sans-serif typefaces among young typographers and designers, how would you explain the enduring attraction of Antiqua?

I assume your use of the description 'Antiqua' is actually a more specific reference to 'Renaissance-Antiqua' types, which are characterized by a tipped axis, apparent in the letter 'o' for example. This particular feature is the consequence of writing with a broad-edged pen held at a constant 30° angle,  which in turn produces thick and thin strokes. In English-American type nomenclature these first printing types, interpretations of written letterform, are called Roman, or 'Old Face' and sometimes 'Old Style'.

According to the German Din Typeface Classification System, however, even a sans-serif type is also designated as an 'Antiqua' type—a 'serifenlose Linear-Antiqua'. The name in German describes a linear letterform without thick and thin contrast, of antique origin, and without serifs. The shorter French description, 'sans' serif has been universally adopted to describe the same type of letterform. 

In case anyone is interested why the Germans have applied the general term 'Antiqua' to most all of our current types, it is for the following reason. During the years from ca. 1465 through 1500, our western alphabet was given its overall typographical shape by printers who used two formal alphabets of Roman origins—the majuscule and the minuscule. These separate 'antique' writing models, the classical inscriptional capitals of the first century and the Carolingian script of the early Middle Ages, respectively, were adapted to each other by the first punchcutters of the 16th century and conceived anew as a single alphabet comprised of both uppercase and lowercase letters. In other words, all western printing types stem from antique origins! 

Now back to your question: I am not convinced that among young font designers sans-serif typefaces are any more in fashion than Antiqua typefaces. The consummate beauty of a well-designed roman face is indeed an acquired taste, but many young people are rising to the challenge of understanding their complexity and the inherent kinship to writing with a broad-edged instrument. The axis (noticeable in the tipped o-form) may seem old-fashioned to some, but this is a superficial judgment – it is simply a characteristic to be reckoned with, especially when dealing with curves and the dynamic of the swelling. It could be a matter of avoidance. I have been teaching for many years and have finally realized that most beginner students are terrified of curves because they don't understand them. Add to this the rhythmic undulation within a stroke, how these strokes are put together, and how each letter is different yet reflective of this quality and it's no wonder that the task of designing an “old style” alphabet seems daunting.

There are algorithms which generate curves in font production programs, of course, which is not to say that a sans-serif has no curves – it is mostly those curves that result from a tipped axis that baffle us. Calligraphy is back in style as a wonderful means of understanding a curve and of experiencing an Antiqua typeface through the body with a form-generating tool in hand. It might be the young typographers’ or graphic designers’ corporate clients that still assume that only a sans-serif can be modern, or what remains of an ideology stemming from the Bauhaus and its streamlining tendency towards reduction for its own sake.

You have devoted a lot of time and energy to the study of Erasmus’s handwriting. How would you describe his hand? What are its essential characteristics?

I don't think Erasmus could write fast enough to keep up with his intellect. His handwriting indicates a lack of patience compensated for by verve and spontaneity. You mentioned on the tour arranged as a preliminary to the font design competition that Erasmus was accused of having an illegible hand and required a secretary. I found that very amusing because I think Erasmus was primarily writing for himself, for the sheer joy of it!

There are certain letters that he loved, irrespective of their conventional shape: the capital R, minuscule g and x, capital E – of course! – the long s, capital Q (who doesn't love a capital Q?), capital T and V, lowercase d and f, and many others. He also created several interesting and varied experiments with ligatures, like ET and other combinations and abbreviations. He thoroughly relished a good flourish now and then, but he could have used an assistant to sharpen his quill for him at least every ten minutes, which is the time it takes for the quill to dull at normal writing speed. Either that, or he did indeed write with a reed pen (as depicted in Holbein’s famous painting), which is a softer writing tool than the quill. In any case, there is no fragile thick-and-thin stroking, and nothing prissy about him as evidenced by his writing, especially when compared to his secretary’s formal cursive. 

To what extent do the typefaces used by Froben differ from the other lead type being used at the time?

In the early days of printing there was still a division of Europe into north and south: In the sixteenth century and much of the seventeenth, people in the Low Countries wrote gothic script and demanded liturgical books in the vernacular. This affected business and communications, of which typecasting was a significant part.

It seems that the furthest the Germans would stretch towards the adoption of a roman shape was the use of Italian gothic, the rotunda – not necessarily for Humanism, at first, but as the New Learning spread, so rotunda type, cut in a range of sizes, was commonly used to convey it. Froben also set the Vulgate in this style in 1491. His growing advocacy of roman lettering was foreshadowed by other Basel printers, but more importantly, he believed that the printer’s choice between gothic or roman should be determined by the character of the writer. To his mind, any author of texts expressing liberal opinions should be set in roman script corresponding to the language of the original text. In Froben, Erasmus met a kindred spirit who enabled his translations and writings to be typeset and finally printed in Latin, with Latin words represented by Latin elements. According to Christine Christ-von Wedel, it was the high aesthetic standards of Froben’s type that attracted Erasmus to Basel, and when he came, he brought with him what he had learned from Aldus Manutius of Venice.

Compared to his contemporaries in the other German-speaking countries of Europe, Froben was forward-thinking and up-to-date in punch-cutting technology. In medieval times, there were numerous restrictions on trade away from home, and the craft guilds allowed buying and selling only between fellow citizens. Before type foundries came into existence, there were book fairs held twice a year in Frankfurt am Main, where the market for type matrices was a regular event. The famous Basel printers whose names are recorded among the visitors to those book fairs – Amerbach, Wenssler, Kessler and Froben – would very likely have dealt in matrices there.

How would Erasmus write if he lived today?

Katharina Wolff: This is an unanswerable question that sets off a chain reaction of further questions. How do we write today? Do we write today? What do we write? What do we read? How do we read? In Finland, teaching children to write has been abolished. And this is only the beginning. In Die Schrift, Vilem Flusser describes in radical terms what will happen to Western culture as writing disappears and is replaced by codes and pictures. So in lieu of a verbal response, allow me to submit my answer in pictorial form:

Modified Portrait of Erasmus by Hans Holbein d.Y.

To what extent was Erasmus’s own handwriting in line with other hands of the period? 

Many of his contemporaries were practicing cursives based on handwritten gothic manuscripts as opposed to Erasmus’s preference for the Cancellaresca corsiva of Italian origin.

Initiates file downloadHandwriting samples 16th century

Where might writing with a fountain pen differ from writing on the computer?

Do you mean the physical act of writing or “writing” as the formulation of thought into words? I ask because at one point in our history, the mechanical typewriter was suspected of ushering in the potential demise of true literature.

Writing on the computer (typing) is a practical process, especially for editing. There is a significant difference, however, in how light reaches the eye. Light from the screen enters the retina directly; we blink less and get sort of hypnotized. There is also a sort of unnaturalness to the precision of the computer and the ease of magnification. A well-known type historian has argued that even just the improvement of eyeglasses during the latter part of the fifteenth century would account, at least in part, for the change of taste in book layouts and typefaces. If even spectacles can change your perception, certainly the computer will alter how we perceive things. Or ask yourself: Why would a woman over 60 years old use a magnifying mirror for applying makeup? It has advantages and disadvantages.

Writing at a desk, we “cradle” the paper and because we are looking downwards can adjust the incident light to suit our needs. In any case, it is reflective light, and as it bounces from objects to surfaces the color is always different, always in motion, be it daylight, light from a lamp, diffused or direct, or even candle light. For formulating and remembering, re-experiencing, telling stories, fantasizing or for healing pain (whether physical, emotional or psychological), there is no substitute for calligraphy in its purest sense, meaning everyman’s writing. Erasmus knew the intimate magic of writing.

Initiates file downloadDownload Font ERASMUS MMXVI
Initiates file downloadDownload Instructions

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