Typography and architecture
Changing attitudes, shifting forms

The goal of placing these images side-by-side in three different domains but in similar historical periods leads to the understanding that, in this century, ways of thinking lead artists and craftspersons into different areas to modify forms and tastes with respect to comparable sources.


Ernst Gombrich talked about how the architects of the West struggled to build vaults in their churches, and how the idea was born in northern France from the principle of the Gothic style. This seemingly simple technical innovation allowed them to build a brand-new type of church: a hitherto unknown structure of stone and glass.

Most of the great cathedrals of the late twelfth century and early thirteenth centuries were designed on a scale so magnificent and so daring that few were completed according to the original plans. These new cathedrals offered the believer an earthly vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, that of songs and praise, its doors "each made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of gold, as pure as transparent glass" (Revelation, 21:21).

During the thirteenth century, the time of the great cathedrals, France was the richest and most powerful country in Europe. The University of Paris was the intellectual hub of the Western world. However, although the design and methods of the great French cathedral builders were widely imitated in Germany and England, they did not – with some exceptions, such as the Cathedral of Milan – take root in Italy. Some Italian cities like Venice were in close contact with the Byzantine Empire, and Italian artists looked to Constantinople rather than Paris for example and inspiration.

Architecture shows us the trend in the fourteenth century towards taste, towards refinement instead of grandeur. The early Gothic style evolved towards a décor that was more effusive and complex, made possible by the growth of trade and the heyday of the prosperity of cities. In Italy, the Renaissance spirit had been born, and continued to grow and expand. The Italians had not forgotten that the power and the glory of Rome, which was once the heart of the civilized world, had vanished under the invasion of Germanic tribes. Compared with this Renaissance, the intervening period had been a Middle Age, and this term is still used today. They saw the Goths as destroyers of the Roman Empire, and designated art from this period Gothic.

For the Italians of the fourteenth century, art, science and scholarship had flourished in the Classical period, only to be virtually destroyed by barbarians from the North. They saw it as their mission to revive their glorious past. Starting with Brunelleschi, architects were expected to possess a sort of erudition, to understand the rules of the Classical orders and the correct proportions of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns and entablatures. They had to be familiar with ancient ruins and Classical treatises, such as that of Vitruvius, who codified Greek and Roman architecture. Above all, they "translated" a Gothic concept into classical forms, rounding off the pointed arch, which was deemed "barbaric".

A true Renaissance architect's ambition was to design a building that was completely devoid of utility. All that mattered was the beauty of the proportions, the harmony of the interior space and the overall grandeur. Practical matters generally made the desire for unity and perfect symmetry unattainable. Donato Bramante had fully assimilated the principles of architecture. His "Tempietto", which was to have been surrounded by a cloister of the same style, featured Doric columns topped with triglyphs and metopes and a small dome. The central cella arising within the building gives the building a completely unique character, while using the full range of the classical vocabulary.


The layout of medieval manuscripts offers a good illustration of the importance, in medieval education, of the gloss and of discussion. In all fields of knowledge, commentary lends authority. The texts of philosophers and theologians are presented accompanied by opposing arguments, based on the quotation of other, corresponding texts. The scribe brings together on a single page the sacred text and its (much longer) exegesis, or commentary. The primary text is completely surrounded by the gloss; writing size distinguishes the two, and symbols make connections between them. All of this makes reading the page a complex experience. Access to the text and its meaning requires knowledge beyond one's abilities at an initial reading.

Humanist printers were well-versed in their profession and concerned about the presentation and the physical quality of their publications. They turned book production on its head, making books easier to read, and also rigorously corrected previous editions that contained errors or imprecisions. At first, the layout of an incunabulum resembled that of a manuscript, and the first printers faithfully copied and reproduced the marginal glosses. However, if we compare the manuscript of the Book of Isaiah with the Code of Canon Law, we can see that that the mechanization of writing resulted in alignments that already improved readability. The metamorphosis of the page occurred in line with cultural shifts, and with improved techniques of typography and engraving.

On the other hand the innovators, supporters of the dissemination of secular thought eagerly took up printing to spread their ideas. It is no coincidence that the first book published at the College of the Sorbonne in 1470 was by an Italian humanist. Humanists who advocated a return to the original classical texts, stripped of their commentaries, provided impetus for new editions, and influenced research to find an ideal typeface and a clearer and more readable presentation, in the service of understanding the text. Notes were relegated first to the bottom of page and then gradually to the end of the chapter, and then to the end of the book. The main text was divided into airier lines that, between the newfound margins, was more easily readable. The text on the page of this incunabulum from 1492 is still somewhat compact, but the typography is neat, titles appear in capital letters in an open space and allow readers to find their place in the text. The proportions used to arrange the text on the page are reminiscent of calculations based on the Golden Canon, the Fibonacci sequence or the Canon of Villard de Honnecourt, a French architect from the thirteenth century.


Since printing was a lucrative activity from the very start, the early practitioners secured a return on their investments in machinery by printing texts that had already been a success in manuscript form. Initially, the technological breakthrough of printing increased distribution and decreased choice. Commercial success was assured by disturbing the tastes of the time as little as possible. The first incunabula were painstaking copies of manuscripts, down to the type characters imitating the scripts used to compose them: the characters were narrow, highly regular, dense and uniform. Text lines emerge only slowly, as the letters' upstrokes and downstrokes did nothing to improve readability. The goal of written and printed texts was to be an aid to the memory rather than to be actually read, as the reader was generally already familiar with the text.

Before the advent of the printing press, the church and the university kept the proliferation of writings under tight control, and this watchfulness increased with the acceleration that printing provided. Political and religious movements meant that printers often had to move their workshops. Their migrations and the slavish imitations of hand-written forms led the humanists to impose the ideas and forms of classical antiquity. Southern Europe tenaciously resisted cultural influences from the north. An illustration of this is the type that was designed and employed by Konrad Sweynheim and Arnold Pannartz, just a few years after the spread of Gutenberg's printing press, when they fled Germany and sought refuge near Rome. These letters retain the density and the narrowness of blackletter type, but the shapes of the letters stand out more from each other. The "m" and "n" in particular show the influence of the lowercase humanistic manuscripts, and the curves in the "o", "b" and "d" also display characteristics of southern calligraphic styles. The upper and lower parts of letters stand out more from the line of text, and letters are more detached from each other within words.

In the end, forms became more slender, and display contrast thanks to a perfect balance between roundness and verticality. The text became lighter to the eye. These formal changes accompanied texts that were both new and devoid of commentaries, provided to readers for critical reading and study. Careful observation also reveals the disappearance of a number of ligatures and abbreviations that made the act of reading more complex. This formal balance between movement and stability is reminiscent of the canons of classical antiquity as expressed in architecture and sculpture.

Teaching guide n°1




History, geography, arts, art history

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The cathdrals of Villard de Honnecourt

The Renaissance
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