Unusual fifteenth-century fonts: part 2

Nowadays, with tens of thousands of fonts available, we are accustomed to a great variety of letterforms. But, of the approximately 1,000 cataloged fifteenth-century roman fonts, very few stand out as unusual. Most share the same fundamental attributes. Almost all roman typefaces of the period are, what we now call humanist: of low contrast, lowercase e with an inclined crossbar and, in most instances (from Jenson), capital letters shorter than the ascenders of the lowercase alphabet. Not until the subsequent century do we begin to witness any significant changes to these features.

Previously, I wrote about several of Günther Zainer’s unusual fonts from the 1470s. I have since discovered another example of the pearl decoration in two fonts issued by Petrus Caesaris and Johannes Stol, in 1473, from their print shop in Paris — less than a year after Zainer’s in Augsburg.


Type 1:109R by Petrus Caesaris and Johannes Stol, Paris, 1473, shares the pearl decoration of Zainer’s fonts (Types 3:107R & 4:95R), includes some bifurcated (split) serifs, and, for the 1470s, a not unusual uncial influence, especially evident in letters like E and P. Some unusual lowercase forms (that k!) a number of familiar contractions, e.g. the (an abbreviation of the Latin, ergo); some not so familiar, like the reversed c (which stands for con or contra, I believe); and a couple of question marks that resemble interrobangs. The fat capital T (that resembles the capital I) is very tuscan with its bifurcated serifs. Image courtesy of Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke.

When first coming across these embellishments in Günther Zainer’s fonts, my initial reaction was: Where did he get the idea? What influenced his designs? Zainer is the first to use this pearl decoration as an embellishment to printed roman capitals, so I had to look to manuscript books in search of precedents.

Zainer type 4, 1472

Günther Zainer’s Type 4:95R, 1472. Image courtesy of Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke.

In my search for manuscript exemplars for the pearl decoration, I wrote to Dr. Erik Kwakkel, who teaches paleography and codicology at Leiden University, and who kindly replied with a number of medieval examples. The detail of a twelfth-century manuscript, (figure 1) shows a diacritic, the macron (with ‘pearl’ decoration), above V (where it stands for vt, I believe).

V-macron with pearl decoration

Fig. 1: V macron with pearl decoration in “Cu[m] venit igitur.” Troyes, Bibl. mun., ms. 0900, f. 125 – v 2. Dated 1158. Courtesy of La Bibliothèque Virtuelle des Manuscrits Médiévaux.

When it comes to the first roman types, we are left in no doubt as to their origins and influence. There are numerous manuscript exemplars written in contemporary humanist book-hands — these letterforms didn’t simply pop into existence; but the origin of our unusual pearl-decorated fifteenth-century fonts remained something of a mystery. Perhaps this decoration has its origins in Greek or Cyrillic letters. Reproduced below is a page from an eleventh-century Greek manuscript with letters decorated with ‘pearls’ or spurs.

Theodore Psalter ms-19352

Theodore Psalter, Add MS 19352. Photo courtesy of The British Library.

Fig. 2: Bibliothèque municipale, MS 121 (France, 1052). Image from Catalogue des manuscrits en écriture latine portant des indications de date, de lieu ou de copiste. Paris, 1984.

Figure two is a mid-eleventh-century example of an actual letter (initial H) bearing the pearl ornament. Therefore, this style of letterform predates gothic script.

It is, I think, highly unlikely that Zainer, Caesaris and Stol had before them an eleventh-century manuscript. Perhaps a fragment or a later copy, though I have found no evidence of these letterforms in later medieval manuscripts. I think the most likely source of their letterforms is medieval or early Renaissance painting. In fact, those very sources were the inspiration for Jonathan Barnbrook’s twentieth-century, Nylon.


Jonathan Barnbrook’s Nylon (1997) inspired by letters in European paintings dating from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries.

Petrus Caesaris and Johannes Stol’s type in use: Ars versificatoria, ca. 1480–81 (ISTC ig00006800.) Photograph courtesy of Die Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Bavarian State Library).

In conclusion, I think it likely that we have answered the question, where did Zainer get the idea for these letterforms? We know that these letterforms existed prior to gothic script, then reappear in thirteenth-century paintings. However, what remains to be answered is precisely where and when these unusual and distinct letterforms originated.

Thanks to Dr. Erik Kwakkel for his generous & invaluable assistance. Be sure to check out his wonderful Tumblr dedicated to medieval manuscripts.

And thanks to Jonathan Perez, who after reading my piece on Zainer’s fonts, happened to visit Musée des Beaux Arts de Limoges, where he spotted and photographed the image in the header: a French painting of Saint Léonard, dated 1509.