We don’t know for sure what prompted Hans Gensfleisch to leave his hometown of Mainz in western Germany for Strasbourg in the south but leave he did, probably in the early 1430s. Founded in the first century BC by the Romans, under emperor Augustus, Mainz had for a time, after the construction of its cathedral in the tenth century, flourished. However, by the 1430s, the city’s fortunes had taken a turn for the worse and soon was on the verge of bankruptcy.
The Black Death of the fourteenth century, a disease named after the symptomatic boils and darkened skin caused by internal bleeding, claimed as many as 200 million lives. Even by the fifteenth century, when populations were just beginning to recover, outbreaks of the same plague were still regularly reoccurring throughout Europe.
During the first half-century of printing in Europe (c. 1450–1500), there were few restrictions on the printing trade, either on who could start a print-shop or on what they chose to print. As new printers rushed to establish themselves and cash-in on this new technology, they sometimes sought protection in the form of privileges. The first documented protection or ‘privilege’ was issued in 1469 by the Venetian Senate to Johannes de Spira, the first printer in Venice. In short, it was designed to protect Johannes’ investment by preventing others from establishing rival print-shops in Venice for a period of five years.*
For the first in this new series of Fonts in Focus, we visited the New York offices of Hoefler & Co. For this second installment, we remain in New York, just fifteen minutes’ walk from Broadway to Lafayette street and the stateside offices of Commercial Type, established in 2007 and headed by Christian Schwartz in New York and Paul Barnes in London.
The pointed finger must surely be one of the oldest human gestures. In deep prehistory, long before the evolution of spoken language, and when we were considerably hairier, it is not difficult to imagine one of our primitive human ancestors pointing to a lion, a landmark, or a lemon.
Printing was introduced into the Americas by the Italian Giovanni Paoli, better known as Juan Pablos. The first book issued from his press in Mexico City was Doctrina breve, a Spanish handbook of Christian doctrine, written by Juan de Zumárraga, Mexico’s first bishop, and printed in 1539 — making it the Western Hemisphere’s first printed book. But almost a century would pass before Stephen Daye, in Cambridge Massachusetts, printed his Puritan translation of the Psalms in 1640, commonly known as the Bay Psalm Book. In 2013, one of the surviving eleven copies was sold at auction for $14.2 million.
The European Renaissance was obsessed with classical antiquity. For many of its intellectuals it marked a cultural and scientific golden age. Many classical authors, among them the likes of Lucretius and Cicero, were rediscovered and celebrated. And among the disciplines given a new lease of life during the Renaissance was geometry. A branch of mathematics developed most significantly in ancient Greece, geometry was most famously formalized by Euclid in the fourth century BC. His Elements would be the primary text on geometry for the next 2,000 years.