Bembo, a short history

Anyone who is familiar with typefaces (it’s my job) will know the name Bembo. It is probably the most elegant of book text faces that I use and only aficionados will know of its curious provenance. Although Bembo looks as fresh as a daisy and is quite at home in a newly printed book it is in fact over 500 years old. It comes from the time of Aldus Manutius, a powerful renaissance scholar, printer and publisher in Venice who employed a genius punch cutter named Francesco Griffo who in turn was responsible for creating a new alphabet of moveable type designed specially for an essay written by the literary scholar Cardinal Bembo which Aldus Manutius was publishing. He based it on pure Roman forms and also introduced for the first time an italic form based on a cursive handwritten style. The essay became very popular but it was the typeface which became much more famous, in use right up to the present day. Unfortunately Griffo, the creator of this typeface, had an unfortunate end and was arrested and finally executed for killing his son-in-law with an iron bar.

Most users of type are largely unaware of where they originated and how the best of these text faces are more than 500 years old (Jenson, Baskerville, Garamond etc) and that even so called modern faces like Rockwell and the famous London Transport typeface of Stanley Morrison and even Cooper Bold, the Easyjet typeface all date from very early in the last century. Also that they were initially hand drawn and later picked up by the font foundries. I’d like to deal with this in another post in which I can explore the origins of writing and lettering in both roman and arabic scripts –  rather a large subject. Understanding the sources of our civilisation is one way to help cure some its ills and a place to find new inspiration.

Read more about Aldus Manutius and Bembo at www.

About Ian Whiteman

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