If Helvetica, at the “youthful” age of 50, can inspire a hit movie and renew interest in everything sans serif, then why not celebrate the other side of type: the noble serif? A proper start would be turning the spotlight on the classical Roman letterform that’s spawned no less than two millennia of fervent analysis and debate, and inspired type creators from Gutenberg to Adobe (to say nothing of providing the means for countless inscriptions on buildings and memorials). Award-winning graphic designer, typographer, calligrapher, writer, and educator Paul Shaw was just the person to take on the monumental (pun intended) task of presenting a variety of truly fascinating essays on Trajan-based type in The Eternal Letter, published this month by the MIT Press. (A launch event for the book will be at the Type Directors Club on February 19th.)
Classical Roman forms first appeared in 43 BC as capitalis monumentalis, or Imperial Roman capitals, but it’s the text famously carved into the base of Trajan’s Column in Rome in 113 AD that the book draws upon. As Shaw writes, “It is the lodestar and lightning rod for nearly all of the individuals—both authors and subjects—in The Eternal Letter.” He delineates exactly what makes a serif a “classical Roman” (think Adobe Trajan) by comparing it to the “industrial” serifs (think Clarendon) that appeared in the late 18th century. Classical Roman capitals have more variation in width (the upper case O is much wider than E), subtler differences in stroke changes, a “Goldilocks” weight—not too heavy, not too light—and other structural cues like the splayed legs on the letter M. It’s these details that keep designers and artists coming back.
“The fact that classical Roman capitals require more discipline and skill to make than industrial Roman capitals is surely part of their allure. They are a challenge to everyone who takes the making of letters seriously. They do not have to be embraced or even accepted, but they do have to be confronted.”
Perhaps the visual magic found in classical Roman capitals derives from their geometry. The book includes two brilliant essays—“The Trajan Secrets” by Tom Perkins and “On the Origin of Capital Proportions in Roman Type” by Frank E. Blokland—showing there’s so much more going on than the golden rectangle.
The Eternal Letter abounds in photos, rubbings, and illustrations; there’s plenty of armchair-sightseeing of Europe here. But readers don’t have to travel to Rome to see firsthand Trajan forms carved into stone. Renowned British letter carver Richard Kindersley interviews two generations of American letter carvers, the Benson family of Newport, who have “forged their own contemporary take on the classical Roman capital—including sans serif variants—in the inscriptions they have carved for tombs, monuments, and buildings throughout the United States.” For example, look to the Stone of Hope at the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The book tells the fascinating story of Chicago signwriter-turned-Iowan-priest, Father Edward M. Catich, who, in the early 1960s, upended all previous theories about the methods used to create the Trajan inscription with two self-published books. He also traveled around giving a series of lectures “accompanied by bravura demonstrations of his ability to quickly render the Trajanic capitals with a broad brush.” There are two chapters here devoted to him as well as an essay Catich wrote himself and Shaw admits, “his spirit hovers over the entire book, extending beyond stone carving to calligraphy and type design.”
Proving that the classical forms live on today, The Eternal Letter includes several type designers talking about their own Roman-inspired typefaces, like Matthew Carter (Mantinia), Jonathan Hoefler (Requiem), Lance Hidy (Penumbra), and Julian Waters (Waters Titling). And there are brief sections by Maxim Zhukov and Gerry Leonidas who advised Adobe on Trajan Pro 3’s Cyrillic and Greek letterforms, respectively.
This is no dry, academic tome: each page is alive with passion and images that will make you sensitive to serif letters around you, whether you’re a type nerd or not. Shaw has a crisp, bold writing style that carries you along and makes you lose track of time. If a movie ever does get made about Trajan, he’s definitely the guy to tap for the screenplay.