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PARKER TYPE HISTORY · October 13, 2010

Mike Parker’s Story of Type: Nicholas Jenson

The beginning of Chapter II is the fourth installment of Mike Parker’s Story of Type. Old style roman and italic typefaces are introduced, where capitals modeled after ancient Italian incised inscriptions are combined with a lowercase modeled on the forms of the Carolingian minuscule. The time period spans from the mid 15th century to the early 19th century and focuses on punchcutters of Italian, French, Dutch, British, and Hungarian origin.

II. Old Style Roman and Italic Typefaces

Nicholas Jenson (French, 1420–1480)

In Venice, the first great cultural center of the developing Renaissance, the blackletter used by the mediaeval church was soon held to be unsuitable for the developing commercial world. Scholars of the Italian Renaissance deliberately set out to separate their humanistic work from monastic blackletter.

Our present alphabets were designed there using letterforms revived from the past. Classical engraved capitals from ancient Rome were rediscovered and considered suitable for the renaissance, or “rebirth,” of ancient knowledge; these capitals were placed in the upper of two typecases. Letters revived from the Carolingian minuscule, a written alphabet from the ninth century, were placed in the lower case, with figures developed to harmonize.

Once equipped with humanistic letterforms, the little instrument that we know as the typefounder’s mold quietly opened the way for the modern world. Editions printed in the new styles ended the hegemony of the Church and opened the development of the commercial world as we know it. The Frenchman Nicholas Jenson, working in Venice, started the trend, printing with a single press from 1470 until 1480. He devised the earliest types that appear fully familiar to our eyes.


Sample of roman typeface by Nicolas Jenson, from an edition of "Laertius," printed in Venice 1475. Source: Wikipedia

Font Bureau’s library contains three typefaces that take Nicholas Jenson’s work as a reference: Parkinson, Hightower, and Houston.

Jim Parkinson remembers with fondness drawing Parkinson originally for Rolling Stone in the mid-seventies, saying it was “a sort of Nicholas Jenson on acid.”

Tobias Frere-Jones was dissatisfied with others’ attempts to bring Nicholas Jenson’s 1470 roman up to date and drew his own rendition, which he called Hightower.

Inspired by the exuberant Jenson headlines in the Hearst papers of the 1920s, Roger Black directed Christian Schwartz to design an updated Jenson as the foundation for a redesign of the Houston Chronicle.


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