Question from a user - Why do some fonts have obliques instead of italics?

This is an intriguing question. The answer is design, not technology.

Some digging into early history of printing and the handwritten pre-history

of printing is needed to see that design, not technology, was paramount.

In what follows, I omit many details of importance to type historians and

I simplify the overall picture but believe it is mostly correct.

1. Origin of Italic.

The earliest roman typefaces were cut in Italy and imitated humanist handwriting

of the era. Humanist book script was a clear, legible, upright style of handwriting

that Poggio Bracciolini, a scribe and scholar, developed circa 1400. The minuscules

(like lowercase) were based on Carolingian handwriting circa 800 AD.

The capitals of humanist book script were derived from Roman inscriptional

capitals, which had survived in Rome and many other places in Italy, and

which humanist antiquarians and architects studied, copied, and often tried to

construct in terms of geometric principles. The humanist scribes like Poggio,

Niccoli, and their later followers, reinterpreted the inscriptional capitals in

handwriting but didn't alter the forms by much, except that they were handwritten,

not inscribed in stone.

German printers, Sweynheim & Pannartz, working in Italy around 1465 in Subiaco

and later in Rome, cut perhaps the earliest roman types, to appeal to potential book

buyers who were likely to be humanists who preferred humanist handwriting. The

decisive roman typeface that influenced all later roman types was that cut by

Nicolas Jenson and first used in 1470 in Venice.

But, before printing, and after, there was a variant of the humanist book script,

a "running" or "cursive" style written by Niccolo Niccoli, a friend of Poggio.

Niccoli was not a professional scribe like Poggio but a collector and reader

of manuscripts, many of which he copied himself from borrowed manuscripts,

so he write fast. Speedy writing made his letters slant slightly and caused some

changes in shapes, for example to 'a' and 'g'. Niccoli's capitals slanted slightly,

but were not different in basic form from the upright, and didn't slant as much

as the minuscules.

As humanist handwriting gained popularity among the educated elite and the

rising class of new wealth in the Renaissance, the literati and "cognoscenti"

so to speak, adopted humanist handwriting not only for professional and scholarly

reasons, but for social status, it was cool. It was almost like you couldn't get

a date if you couldn't write humanistic script.

2. Aldus and Griffo, 1501.

The first italic typeface was cut by Francesco Griffo for Aldus Manutius and

appeared in a book of Vergil in 1501. Thirty years after Jenson's model roman.

The Aldine Italic lowercase was cursive, that is, with shapes influenced by fast

handwriting, but the capitals were upright. Griffo cut roman and italic type with

equal facility. The only technical issues with italic were that, as handwritten,

there were lots of variant forms used by the scribes, and Griffo was able to

reproduce those in type, but later typefaces tended to have fewer variant letters

because they added cost in cutting, casting, composing, and distributing type.

Printers began to economize to compete.

3. Later 16th century italics.

Griffo's italics were imitated by other printers, but in the 1520s, a different style

of italic appeared in print. It was based on a refinement of Niccoli's cursive

handwriting that had been adopted by the Papal Chancery decades earlier.

It could be written quickly but remained legible, and the Chancery scribes

endeavored to make is elegant as well. As printing replaced traditional scribal

jobs in reproducing manuscripts, except in official church and civil chanceries,

some scribes specialized in fancier forms of writing. The Papal "chancery cursive"

was more sophisticated that Niccoli's original hand, which was practical, not elegant.

So, then there were two kinds of italic in print, and they were used in competition

with roman, not in subordination.

In the late 1520s and through the 1530s, printers experimented with italics.

There were several variations from different printers in different countries.

It was a great period of aesthetic variation. As a few styles became more

popular, their shapes, spacings, and weights were harmonized a little more

with roman types. Around 1539, there two important advances. The first was

inclined capitals to mate with the cursive lowercase. The slanted capitals had

the same shapes as the roman, but were slanted and optically adjusted to make

the stems and strokes harmonious. The other big change was that italics began

to be used as subordinate companions to romans, not as competing styles, and

this relationship became established by the 1560s. Some say earlier. The first

type "family" of roman and italic cut by the same punch-cutter was around

1568 or 1570, by Guyot.

4. 17th, 18th, and early 19th century italics. As with most other type, each

new generation of styles imitated earlier types, not handwriting. All the way

from Garamond to Jannon, to the Dutch styles of Van Dijck, to Caslon, to

Baskerville, to Fournier, to Bodoni, to the Didots. Again, it was accepted

style that made italics truly cursive, not slanted romans. But, importantly,

italic capitals had always been slanted romans ever since the early cuts

by Garamond around 1539. So, punch-cutters could slant type quite

effectively when the shapes were called for, but there was no tradition of

merely slanting lowercase.

5. The Grotesques.

In the mid 19th century, English typefounders developed several versions of

sans-serifs. The earliest, around 1815, from the Cason foundry is known

from a specimen, in capitals only, but appears not to have been used much.

Later sans-serifs, called "Grotesque", came from the Thorowgood foundry

in the 1840s. These were in upright form only. They began as display faces

but later in the century, adopted by German foundries, who used the term

"Grotesk", were cut at smaller sizes for everyday printing, like labels, schedules,

etc. It appears that in the 19th century, typefounders didn't think of cutting italics

for Grotesques. Italics weren't needed for jobbing work.

6. 20th century. I'm not sure when the first slanted sans-serifs were cut.

Certainly by the first decades of the 20th century, when Morris Benton

designed "italics" for Franklin Gothic at American Type Founders, and

the Bauer foundry produced slanted versions of Venus Grotesk. It's

worth noting that for many grotesques, there were no italics even then.

Slanted versions of grotesques became more common and popular

in the 1920s and 1930s, when the avant-garde typographers and "neue"

typographers adopted grotesque as the type style of "our time". Because

there was a tradition of italic in seriffed type, once modern typography

went to sans-serif, it inherited a need for something slanted. However,

the connection between italic/slanted type and handwriting had long

before been broken, so there was no handwritten sans-serif to inspire

sans-serif type. Sans-serif types were sculpted forms long divorced from

handwriting, so there was no tradition, and simply slanting the upright form

was deemed adequate. As late as 1926, Stanley Morison wrote an article

on "Toward an Ideal Italic" in which he argued that for seriffed typefaces,

a sloped roman would be ideal, but with fastidious Anglo-Saxon sensibility,

he didn't even mention slanted sans-serifs. Nevertheless, when Monotype

commissioned Eric Gill to design sans-serif type in 1928-30, Gill drew an

Italic, which, notably, was based more on traditional cursive writing and

stone carving, than on merely slanted roman.

In the 1950s, when the neo-Grotesque styles of Univers and Helvetica

were released, the need for italic was evident, as it had been since the

1920s, so those sans-serif families were provided with slanted versions

loosely called italic. One technical issue did arise that appears to have

prevented Univers from becoming the dominant sans-serif of our time.

Frutiger designed Univers with a fairly steep angle of 16 degrees.

This was OK for phototype, which was the intended medium, and also

OK for foundry type by Deberny & Peignot, but when Linotype wanted

to put Univers on the Linotype line casting machines, they had to reduce

the italic angle to 12 degrees for technical reasons. The steeper angle

could not be achieved in Linotype matrices without excessive spacing.

Frutiger said the steep angle was important to distinguish roman from

italic and to give italic its own snappy, strong effect, but the Linotype

machinery couldn't handle it. Hence, Linotype adopted Helvetica as their

dominant sans-serif, with its lesser slant for italic. There were, of course,

other technical issues involved, involving letter spacing and so on, and

the differences between foundry type, Monotype, Linotype, and phototype.

In a parallel path, some sans-serif types did offer cursive italic companions.

The first, to my knowledge, was Eric Gill's Gill Sans. Gill was a traditionalist

in some ways and had been a student of calligrapher Edward Johnston, so

he understood the historical origins of italic and, having a strong minded

character, he didn't hesitate to impose his views on italic, and Monotype

went along with it. Some 40 years later, Hans Ed. Meier made his Syntax

Italic a true cursive, although for reasons of humanist origins and modern

legibility, he kept the older humanist forms of 'a' and 'g' even in italic.

Lucida Sans italic, of 1986, went back to humanist cursive for its italic.

And later sans-serif designs by some Americans and several Dutch designers

also had cursive sans italics. Today, a cursive humanist sans italic seems

like a no-brainer. Many young designers do it.

Frutiger always liked a strong slant, even with his later "Frutiger" design.

Its italic was a slanted version of the roman, with subtle visual adjustments,

not a simple mathematical slanting. Later, a version of Frutiger was brought

out with a cursive italic. But, it turns out, that was designed by someone

else, a younger designer, and Frutiger never liked it. So when an even later

version of the Frutiger family was brought out, Linotype reverted to the

slanted form of italic, as Frutiger wished.

7. In digital types.

In the early days of PostScript and Apple Laserwriters, Helvetica "italic" was

merely an algorithmically slanted roman, slanted automatically in the printer,

not a separate font. This was to save space in the computer memory. Extra font

outlines would have made the printer too expensive, back in 1985.

A variation happened with Lucida Grande in OSX. Apple licensed Lucida

Sans roman and "italic" from us, but their font "expert" didn't understand the

difference between true cursive and slanted roman as italic. We delivered to

Apple the true cursive Lucida Sans Italics. But later, their user-interface

designers balked, and when they were finally permitted to talk with us (Apple

liked to keep things compartmentalized) they told us they wanted something

simpler looking, like a slanted roman, although their "expert" never told us

that. We made Apple a set of slanted romans for italics, but that time, they

were so close to launching OSX in 2000, they had no time to include slanted

versions of Lucida Grande, so italics were just left out entirely, Some users

 complained, but Apple never explained why italics had been omitted and

never got around to offering Lucida italics, whether slanted or cursive.

So, there is really no big technical problem with sans-serif italic. It is mainly

an issue of origins, traditions, and aesthetics. Occasionally, some technical

problems arose, like with Univers on the old hot-metal Linotype machines,

or slanted Helvetica on the first Laserwriter. But, in the main, the different

developments and adoptions of true cursives versus merely slanted italics

for sans-serif faces are matters of design, both in the creation of the forms

and in the tastes of typographers and graphic designs who use type in

various contexts.

Newer Post

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published



Sold Out