The development of Neacademia

Another Aldine revival?

Neacademia is a typeface with a past. Like other fonts that are inspired by a historical model, it conveys a feeling from a bygone era and transports it into a modern format. Where it differs to many others however, is its approach to be historically sensitive, rather than historically accurate.

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The typeface that served as an example for the development of Neacademia is Francesco Griffo’s type, found in Aldus Manutius’ 1499 edition of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (further abbreviated as HP). Its lower case is a direct descendant of Griffo’s De Aetna typeface (commonly known as “Bembo”), but its capitals are significantly different. Stanley Morison had a low opinion of them, because they are ascender-high (in reality they aren’t). He preferred the lower and darker De Aetna capitals.

Figure: Detail of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.

The capitals of De Aetna were taken from a much older set of Greek capitals, and were only used in combination with the De Aetna lowercase for three years until a new set of HP capitals replaced them in Aldus Manutius print shop. Morison’s preference however stuck – Griffo revivals such as Morison’s own Monotype Bembo, John Downer’s Iowan Old Style, or Matthew Carter’s Yale all look back at De Aetna capitals, not their HP counterparts which seem to be closer to Griffo’s intentions.

Figure: A close-up of De Aetna taken at the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp.

This is where Neacademia and most other Aldines part ways – it deliberately draws its inspiration from Griffo’s post-Bembo typefaces; from the freshly invented italics used in 1501 octavo series, as well as from type used in Leoniceno’s De Epidemia of 1497 and books printed after 1502 by Gershom Soncino in Fano. Neacademia brings Griffo’s italics and italic capitals into its fold and harmonizes them with the romans, while staying true to the calligraphic style of Griffo’s Venetian contemporary, Giovannantonio Tagliente.

Lost & fount

The admiration towards a historical typeface, however strong, is rarely in itself a good enough reason to make a revival of it. For such an idea to make sense, it should fit into a modern typographic environment, fill a need not currently served by any of the existing fonts, and express something that does not have a typographic expression yet.

Neacademia’s historical sources are by no means original. The novelty lies in its approach to revivalism. At a time when mainstream typography shifts to digital media, it takes a step in the opposite direction, assisting the book-as-an-object community in its struggle to keep the art of making physical books alive. This relatively small group of retrogrades can hardly be considered a “market”, but they are very determined and capable of making things of exceptional beauty. In the not-so-recent past they had all tools of the trade at their disposal. Nowadays, hand-set type is disappearing at an alarming rate, with high-quality book paper and printing equipment following the same path. Thankfully, some losses are offset by technological advances; the arrival of relatively inexpensive photopolymer plates, which can be processed in small print shops, helped bring new life to letterpress printing. The process of typesetting can now be fully digital, and involve digital fonts.

Figure: Neacademia on a photopolymer plate with the ink being applied.

Digital descendants of highly esteemed metal typefaces first made an appearance in the 1980s. The main concern of those involved in the process of digitization was first and foremost commercial. If you could make similar looking books to the ones deemed acceptable by readers at a much lower price, compromises in visual quality were justified. The original authors of the metal typefaces were mere spectators of that process, so simplifications of all sorts were commonplace. Shapes were copied over from letter to letter, curves got straightened up, inflections disappeared. There was also a feeling that metal fonts were crude results of inferior technology – with the new tools, everything can be cleaned up and harmonized. Little was thought of the fact that excessive harmonization (e.g. repetition of details) could hinder legibility, especially in combination with printing processes involving high-contrast inks, and bright, smooth paper. Only a handful of printing establishments entered the new era of photo- and then digital printing with a clear understanding of what made the books of the past such a pleasure to read.

Figure: Neacademia in use: Someone somewhere by Dana Mills (designed by Andrew Steeves from Gaspereau Press) was awarded in the 32nd edition of The Alcuin Awards, Canada’s national competition for excellence in book design.

A fantasy metal revival

The point of Neacademia’s departure begins in 1998, when I first encountered ITC Founder’s Caslon by Justin Howes. Its appearance pointed to a whole new range of possibilities. Designing a digital type family with optical sizes had been possible since the days of Prof. Donald Knuth’s Metafont, but Howes’ Caslon demonstrated that it could be done in a way that is faithful to the punchcutter’s hand. The approach would produce enough variation on the page to give it a natural, man-made character. On the other hand, by that time, the “harmonization” movement was in full swing, every new font was “cleaner” than the previous one. When taken to the extreme, they looked as childish as a poem with perfect one-syllable rhymes.

Figure: ITC Founder’s Caslon at different sizes.

Since no punches or matrices had survived from the Renaissance, you had to imagine how they were made, and examine printed examples from that period carefully in order to produce a “fantasy metal revival”. Harvard college’s Haughton library hosts an extensive collection of Renaissance manuscripts for close inspection, Peter Burnhill’s Type Spaces could serve as an invaluable reference for printing methods of the time, and Giovanny Mardersteig’s & Charles Malin’s Griffo typeface, as well as Monotype Poliphilus provided some insight into what metal revivals may look like.

Hurry slowly

The original plan for Neacademia envisaged six optical sizes, which later was adjusted to four, to keep the scope realistic and not to overtax the user. All styles should be suitably different, as required by the intended use, sticking to the basic set of roman capitals, small caps, lower case, italic capitals and lower case. A Cyrillic counterpart already saw the light of day, with a Greek version to follow eventually. In keeping with the initial idea of a “fantasy metal revival”, all optical sizes were designed separately, so they ended up looking quite different when magnified to the same size. The effect on the page is exactly opposite; when each typeface is set at, or close to its design size, they look more “the same” than if they had a common frame.

Figure: Two different approaches to developing optical sizes in comparison – Neacademia (left) and Adobe Jenson (right).

The idea of making the glyphs look like they were traced from printed samples, with their wobbling contours and wart-like features, had been rejected. If the new typeface is designed to be used for letterpress printing, the physical processes of etching the photopolymer plate, inking it, and pressing a sheet of paper on it, would provide enough fine-grain variety to make any form of artificial irregularity unnecessary, as well as highly suspect from a philosophical standpoint.

Alternate shapes were however still considered an essential part of Neacademia’s character. Since each letter was created from scratch, there were no shared parts that were exactly identical, resulting in each letter having its own unique shape. Furthermore, the frequently-used letters, such as ‘e’ or ‘a’, also received several alternative variants which change depending on their surrounding context. This allows the letters to fit their context better, by creating ligature-like combinations, as well as reduce the need for kerning in many cases.

The actual styling of individual Neacademia variants exceed the needs of optical adjustment. The Small Text variant is simplified and rounded, with more effort spent on making shapes easily recognizable than on their detailing. The Text variant is closest to its historical typographical prototype, owing much to the punchcutter’s graver, as it worked its way through the steel, making short curves and leaving sharp details in tight corners. The Display variant is more “calligraphic”, clearly influenced by Tagliente’s hand and “constructed” initials of Luca Pacioli and his contemporaries, which, had Griffo to design a typeface to be used at 24 points and higher, would most likely serve as sources of inspiration. Unlike Text and Small Text that were ‘cut’, Display evokes a more “drawn” expression, imitating the effect of a variable-width pen on stems and curves. And finally, Subhead is a child of two worlds in that aspect, nestled between Display and Text, it takes cues from both approaches.

Figure: An overview of all styles of Neacademia.

Neacademia started out in 2009 as an investigation into the working methods of Francesco Griffo. Since then, I have been developing and releasing not more than one style per year. This is very much in the spirit with Aldus Manutius’ favourite saying: "Festina Lente" (hurry slowly). It allowed enough time for new ideas to find their way into the design to make the variants even more different than they would be if they had been all drawn at once.