From Poetry Magazine

The Origin of Poetry Magazine's Iconic Bembo Typeface

Poetry magazine covers with Thom Gunn poem

This blog post by Robert Williams follows Poetry magazine art director Fred Sasaki's note about the magazine's January 2019 interior redesign by Pentagram and the change of typeface from Pietro, drawn from the iconic Bembo, to Untitled Serif. Williams served as art director for Poetry and was a book designer for University of Chicago Press. 

The origin of the names of typefaces is an fascinating subject. Some are named after their creators, such as Baskerville, Bodoni, Caslon, and Garamond. None of these designers called their types by their own names, however, and these names were given to later versions of the original faces by commercial type foundries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Other faces were christened for the particular institutions for which they were made, like Times Roman (for the London Times newspaper) or Doves Roman (for the Doves Press). Some, such as Centaur, carry the name of the title of the book in which they were first used. Then there are types named after the authors of books where they first appeared. Among these is Bembo, the type used for nearly 50 years in Poetry. Bembo has an interesting history that some readers may not be aware of.

Although Western printing from moveable type was invented in Germany around the middle of the fifteenth century, it was in Venice during the latter part of that century that printing flourished and where the two principal type styles still used today, roman and italic, were established as typographic norms. Printers first set up presses there in 1467 and by 1500 it was home to some 150 workshops that produced nearly a quarter of all the books printed in Europe during the final third of the century. Venice's earliest printers were, of course, German journeymen, but the Venetian printers who shone brightest were other immigrants to La Serenissima such as Nicolas Jenson from France and the incomparable Aldus Manutius, born in a small town near Rome.

Jenson is credited with designing one of the earliest roman typeface and it appeared in a book he printed in 1470. The use of roman type rather than gothic letters might be expected in the country where renaissance humanism had been born and whose leading scholars embraced the Carolingian handwriting found in many of the medieval manuscripts that they studied. They called it lettera antica, or old letters, and erroneously believed it was the writing style of ancient Romans. Therefore, gothic, or black letter (some forms of which they called lettera moderna), and which had been used by the first German printers, was soon replaced with roman type by printers catering to a humanistic market that found it far more legible.

Manutius, sometimes described as a scholar-printer and who today would be considered more of a publisher and editor than a printer, set up his presses in 1495 with the aims of publishing scholarly editions of classical Greek texts and both classical and humanistic works in Latin. It comes as no surprise that his first type commission was for a Greek font for a Greek-Latin grammar. Manutius, unlike Jenson, was neither a designer nor a cutter of type and probably did not physically operate his press. His types were designed and executed by another outsider living in the city, Francesco Griffo of Bologna. In 1496 Manutius published a brief Latin account of a daring ascent of Mount Etna during an eruption. For this book, De Aetna, Griffo made an elegant roman typeface similar to Jenson's earlier one that has since then inspired a multitude of type designs. The author of the book was the Italian scholar and poet, Pietro Bembo, and when, in 1929, the British Monotype Corporation issued a redesigned version of a typeface based on the font used in De Aetna, they called it after the book's author. Why not call it Griffo or Manutius you may well ask. Perhaps in the 1920s these were obscure names known only to a select few, while Bembo, who also contributed to the establishment of the Tuscan dialect as the standard for the Italian language, was a better known figure, or maybe his name had more of a scholarly cachet.

Shortly after Greer Allen, head of the University of Chicago Printing Department, redesigned Poetry in 1957, he changed the magazine's Monotype Garamond typeface to Monotype Bembo. (The University Printing Department printed the magazine and was among the few US presses that had Monotype typecasters.) As Paul Gehl has written in his survey of Poetry's design, Allen was probably motivated to choose Bembo for its clean, classic look. But I would posit he had a practical as well as aesthetic motive: Bembo characters are slightly narrower than Garamond and, therefore, it is possible to set more words per line in Bembo than in Garamond. This meant that in poems with long lines there might be fewer run-over lines and thereby a reduction of excessive white space on the page.

From a visual standpoint Bembo also has a delicate, one might say, poetic appearance when printed directly from metal type (letterpress). This grace was lost when the printing of the magazine switched to offset. This printing process can be summed up by saying the printed version is a copy of a copy of a copy with an inevitable deterioration of the appearance of the type. For offset printing an impression of the text is made on paper from metal type and then photographed. Next, a flexible photosensitive plate is exposed to a negative of the type image. This plate, similar to a lithographic stone, is then inked and the image is transferred onto a rubber blanket which then transfers (offsets) it onto the paper. Each step somewhat degrades the type. In the case of Bembo the thin lines and serifs become even thinner in relation to the thick parts of the letters (especially in smaller sizes) resulting in a grayish looking page. New printing technologies and digital redesigns of Bembo have corrected this problem to some extent, but, to my eye, Bembo never looks lovelier than when printed in letterpress.

A side note: De Aetna not only introduced a new roman typeface, it also introduced some rules of punctuation. Manutius, the consummate editor, invented the semicolon and used the colon, comma, and period in a consistent manner that ultimately became standard practice.

Originally Published: January 22nd, 2019

Robert Williams is the retired assistant design manager of the University of Chicago Press.