Writing about typography—more particularly, writing about typefaces and their creators—can be a thankless task. On one side, the desire to impart every scrap of the writer’s research often results in the sort of book that many interested readers buy and enshrine on their shelves but seldom read in depth. Ultimately such tomes function rather like dictionaries, consulted as needed but rarely loved for their literary qualities. An opus like Daniel Berkeley Updike’s Printing Types: Their History, Forms, and Uses is, for me, one such title. Despite Updike’s astounding breadth of research and formidable erudition, those two thick, black volumes glower down from my shelf, a typographical Everest I never expect to scale in its entirety.

At the other end of the spectrum lie sparkling, showy things like Jan Tschichold, Master Typographer: His Life, Work & Legacy by Cees W. de Jong et al. While de Jong and his coauthors are no slouches as typographers and designers, their book feels overdesigned and underwritten. Wasteful and repetitious, it is ultimately most useful for its full-color illustrations of items that have rarely been reproduced, or only in black and white.

Between these poles lie books of lesser scholarship than that of Updike but greater readability (like The Form of the Book, which collects Tschichold’s essays), and books of great visual appeal that still manage to convey some interesting and useful aperçus (any of the old Typophiles chapbooks.)

To this range of possibilities, David R. Godine, Publisher, has added two titles that stake out their own points on the scale. Squarely at the scholarly end we find Robert Bringhurst’s Palatino: The Natural History of a Typeface.1 Edging from the decorative end toward the middle is The Noblest Roman: A History of the Centaur Types of Bruce Rogers by Jerry Kelly and Misha Beletsky.2

Bringhurst is highly regarded for his The Elements of Typographic Style, an authoritative (and occasionally authoritarian) discourse on the use of type and the composition of text matter for print. In Palatino he turns an intense, analytic gaze on Hermann Zapf’s extensive family of text and display faces, identifying and classifying each iteration and weight with a taxonomist’s attention to tiny variations between species.

Palatino has never been a definitively codified family of types, subject as it was to Zapf’s constant improvements, expansions, and modifications, all of them intended to accommodate different markets and evolving typesetting technologies. Starting with Zapf’s 1942 experiments for a text face he planned to name Medici, Bringhurst methodically traces the types’ development from the text weight of Palatino Roman (released in foundry metal in 1949–50) through the digital version of Aldus Nova Bold Italic (released in OpenType in 2005.) Between these milestones we encounter dozens of faces—the Sistina and Michelangelo display types, Linofilm Palatino with short descenders, and the Heraklit Greek types among them—sisters, cousins, and aunts of the original. Bringhurst catalogues each release in order of its first commercial appearance, although he admits that many of these instances in fact encompass several faces, sizes, or weights, making the actual count significantly greater than the stated 112 iterations.

Bringhurst has set himself a daunting task. Zapf ranks among the most protean type designers of the twentieth century. The Palatino family represents only a fraction of his output, and the sheer volume of drawings, proofs, and documentation he and his foundries generated would stun any researcher. Adding to his labors, Bringhurst elucidates chunks of underlying typographic knowledge—the differences between European and US measurement systems, complexities of adapting metal type to digital use, the mysteries of letterspacing, and so on. A recurring motif allying the type with Mannerist art is a shade fanciful, if not wholly implausible. The author is on firmer ground in his stroke-by-stroke comparisons of character forms— abundantly illustrated—and an eight-page insert of real letterpress-printed specimens is the highlight of the volume.

This is a vast amount of material to organize, and the author’s research is evident on every page in rarely seen type specimens and proofs, comparative settings, and detailed descriptions of the differences between sequential releases of a given face or weight, some of which vary only in the drawing of a handful of characters. Much of this will be of interest primarily to type designers, who will marvel at the number of times the lower-case “s” or the numeral “3” can be redrawn, or the masterful concentration it takes to revisit the same set of letterforms decade after decade. General readers will likely gloss over the minute details of character shapes or the backwaters of bygone typesetting systems, but they will find Bringhurst’s ideas about the mutability of type genuinely intriguing.

The careful organization of Palatino is particularly appealing to anyone who has actually tried to use the types. I remember long ago chuckling at an ad whose tagline asked exactly what Palatino looked like. At the time I was struggling with the differences between PostScript Palatino 1 and 2, frustrated that I couldn’t keep the distinctions straight or remember where the non-lining numerals were stashed. Even now, choosing among the various available packages of Palatino Nova or its close cousin Aldus Nova can be baffling to the uninitiated. If there is one outstanding disappointment in the book, it is that the author/designer has set it in Aldus Buchschrift and Palatino Sans while failing to provide any significant long-form showing of the primary Palatino types themselves.

While Palatino, with its broad array of styles and weights, attempts to classify types at the level of the family, The Noblest Roman focuses on a single species. Jerry Kelly, a book designer and lettering artist, and Misha Beletsky, art director at Abbeville Press, have joined forces to retell the story of a lone roman type, Centaur, designed by Bruce Rogers.

Rogers, among the greatest American book designers of the first half of the twentieth century, made only limited forays into type design. His first effort—used at the Riverside Press for a 1902 edition of Montaigne—he considered largely unsuccessful. His second, Centaur, was his last, a type that remains among the high points of classical type design.

Inspired by the leading lights of the British revival of printing of the nineteenth century (particularly William Morris, Sir Emery Walker, and T. J. Cobden-Sanderson), Rogers avidly studied Renaissance typography, particularly the work of Nicolas Jenson. Jenson’s types, then considered by many authorities to be the most perfect exemplar of the roman typeface for books, were adopted and adapted by Morris and his acolytes as an antidote to the industrial grayness of machine-composed types and high-speed presswork. The result was, to belabor Bringhurst’s taxonomic metaphor, a small genus of types descended from Jenson’s types, in Rogers’s case one used for a 1470 edition of Eusebius. But where Morris’s Golden type and Cobden-Sanderson’s Doves type were dense, slab-seriffed interpretations of the Jenson model, Centaur was something fleeter, lighter, and altogether more elegant.

Despite their formidable reputations among typographic aficionados and book lovers, these were types of limited utility. Planned as bespoke types for private presses and cut in a single size, weight, and face,3 these rather personal, somewhat idiosyncratic types were never adapted for commercial use.4 More contemporary in spirit and more adaptable to commercial printing and design, Centaur was eventually released to the trade by Monotype, though it never sold nearly as well as, say, Bembo, due in part to the relatively limited number of sizes in which it was cut. Another possible problem was its uncomfortable marriage to Frederic Warde’s Arrighi italic. Rogers felt himself incapable of drawing a Centaur italic, and Warde’s type—itself conceived as a free-standing text type—had to be redrawn and considerably modified to align with Monotype Centaur.

Despite some dull patches detailing Renaissance printers and writing-masters, Kelly and Beletsky do a serviceable job of assembling the story, digging into questions surrounding ownership of the so-called Museum Capitals licensed to Henry Watson Kent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and tracing Rogers’s involvement with the later Monotype adaptations. (The two sets of capitals are usefully shown in a small letterpress tip-in specimen.) The Kent story is especially revealing in its description of the clubby, genteel world in which Rogers moved and worked.

The book is handsomely produced, printed in two colors on an especially beautiful ivory laid paper that nicely reflects Rogers’s own taste in papers. Shoulder notes in red provide tidy pocket biographies of the major characters. I should note here that the book is set not in the current Monotype digital iteration of Centaur, but in Jerry Kelly’s own interpretation of the foundry type combined with a “caption” Centaur by Monotype’s Toshi Omagari. Amusingly, neither type is available for purchase, effectively returning them to the realm of proprietary types for private presses.

If Palatino is symphonic in scale, The Noblest Roman is, perhaps, a sonata for solo violin. The story is a slim one, and the book is at its heart more a love letter to Centaur and its creator than an in-depth analysis of the design of a distinctive typeface. The real value of the book lies in its illustrations: comparative type showings and reproductions of pages set in the type, both in foundry metal and in Monotype, some of them quite rare indeed. Rogers’s pages in particular hold essential lessons about the beauty of a perfectly composed page of classical type and the difficulty of achieving one: in direct juxtaposition, some of Kelly’s layouts here seem cramped and inelegant. The book also suffers from some careless writing and editing, at one point likening Richard Morris Hunt’s façade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to a Greek temple.

Students and amateurs of typographic history and of typographic design—at least those who are interested in something other than the current fad for disposable, undistinguished types that imitate hand lettering—will find plenty of inspiration in both books. In the long run, Palatino is likely to have more impact on the future of type design, and I can imagine readers using it as a springboard for new commercial faces. The Noblest Roman, on the other hand, points us back to a more elegant, historically informed approach to the printed page. Perhaps, if we ask nicely, Godine will provide more titles in the same vein.

  1.  Palatino: The Natural History of a Typeface, Robert Bringhurst; David R. Godine, 296 pages, $60.71.
  2.  The Noblest Roman: A History of the Centaur Types of Bruce Rogers, Jerry Kelly & Misha Beletsky; David R. Godine, 128 pages, $44.40.
  3.  That is, the types were generally only cut as romans and had no italic counterparts. One notable italic among the private-press types was cut for Count Harry Kessler’s Cranach Press, a type which had no roman face.
  4.  Many of these types have more recently been released in digital form, but their primary applications seem to be as decorative faces rather than as primary book types.