Nicholaus Jenson by Nicholas Fabian.
The grand master of type design
Nicholaus Jenson

by Nicholas Fabian

Nicholaus Jenson was born 1420, in Sommevoire, (Aube) France. He was trained as an engraver and became a Master of the Royal Mint. On October 4 1458, the French king, Charles VII, ordered him to Mainz, Germany to learn the art of printing. He completed the task and returned to France in 1461. Having no interest in printing, Charles VII's son and now successor to the throne provided no futher assignments. Jenson then emigrated to Italy where he worked as an independent printer, punch-cutter, and engraver and later, in 1475, became the head of a syndicate. While in Venice, Jenson's first documented roman font was used by him in 1470 to publish De Evangelica Praeparatione of Eusebius. Using the same font in 1472, Jenson printed Pliny's Natural History. Jenson's Roman is one of the greatest typefaces ever designed in the world. In 1475 he was made a papal count by Pope Sixtus IV.

Jenson font
Jenson's classic font in "Laertius," Venice, 1475.

Jenson's classically proportioned and harmoniously designed roman characters, combined with his meticulous precision punch cutting created a major milestone in the history of type design. It is important to remember that Jenson was also a highly skilled designer, compositor, and printer, and therefore the resulting superbly printed pages of his books were the pinnacle of a multi-talented craftsman's art. One only has to examine some pages from his work, De Evangelica Praeparatione of Eusebius, to appreciate the genius of Nicholaus Jenson. He worked mostly in Venice as a printer, type designer, punch cutter, and engraver from 1470 until his death in Rome in 1480.


Type fragment from Virgil's Bucolica, printed in 1475
with type designed and punches cut by Nicholas Jenson in 1469.

Up to now, every western type foundry of any expertise made an attempt to create an 'improved' local variation of Jenson's model without reaching any significant new creative hights. Most type designers in the last 500 years examined, to various degrees, the possibility of coming face-to-face with the Jenson character shapes, a daunting typographical design task if there ever was one. Design variations on the Jenson models were made by Nicholas Kis, William Morris, Emery Walker and T. J. Cobden-Sanderson, Bruce Rogers, Hermann Zapf and several others. Nicholas Kis the Hungarian scholar, designer, and punch-cutter created the most noteworthy Jenson Roman variation in the late 1680s, in Amsterdam. Most of Jenson's original punches and matrices survive to this day and are currently being held by the Stempel Foundry in Germany.

Nicholaus Jenson was one of the true giants of type design and typography. He created a model that is yet to be surpassed. His character shapes, proportions and page composition became the foundation for western type design and typography to the present day. His spirit will live on forever in the works of type designers who are willing to submit to the rigours of Jenson's design discipline, a task that few will ever master.

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