The Hungarian Type Designer
by Nicholas Fabian
Nicholas Kis was born 1650 in (Alsó) Misztótfalu, Hungary, a well-to-do agrarian township of about 1200 people at the time. His proper (non anglicized) name is M. Tótfalusi Kis Miklós. Kis received his public and high school education at the highly acclaimed "Schola Rivulin" in Nagybánya, his College degree at "Enyedi Kollégium", where in 1673, he entered post graduate studies for Theology. In 1677 he won the highest honour possible for a student, the "Senior Prize". Having spent nearly twenty years with his studies, Nicholas Kis was getting ready to fulfill his appointment with destiny. It was customary from the middle ages onward for Hungarian scholars, artists, and craftsmen to broaden their education by going to work in foreign countries. Most often the destinations were Austria, Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
Nicholas Kis left Hungary on August 19, 1680 and arrived in Amsterdam, Holland in the second week of October. His initial mandate was, directly from Bishop Mihály Tofeus, to get information about book publishing and 'test the waters' about printing a Hungarian Bible in Amsterdam. Kis made contact with both the Elzevir and the Blaeu companies, and he made an organized effort to understand and document the technical complexities of the various trades involved in the production of books. By January 15, 1681 he reported back to Hungary that he was willing to take on the challenge of the Hungarian Bible project.
After having some experience at Elzevir, it was at Blaeu that he was advised to learn the craft of engraving and punch-cutting. It was here, under the careful guidance of Dirk Voskens, a master craftsman, that Nicholas Kis learned his new trade. It can be said, without any fear of contradiction, that when it came to the cutting of letters Nicholas Kis was a "natural". It is almost unbelievable, but after just six months of training, he was sitting in for his instructor to cut complex cursive fonts and fix up defective matrixes! In 1681 in Amsterdam, Holland Nicholas Kis met his destiny.
His life's work can be clearly divided between his work in Amsterdam (mostly in Latin) and his frustrating native Hungarian effort in Kolozsvár. In Amsterdam, in addition to his type design and punch-cutting masterpieces, he produced the Hungarian Bible (1685), the St. David Hymn Book (1686), and the New Testament (1687). A monumental undertaking for any one human being. In Kolozsvár, he produced books on a wide variety of subjects, including multilingual (Latin & Hungarian) Law, Mathematics, Bible Guides, Religious Instructions, Genealogy, popular Tragic-Comedies, household Cook Books, and many others. Probably, his best remembered non-religious book was "Mentség", part of which is an emotionally charged autobiography.
Nicholas Kis had a personal historical mission. He wanted to elevate the cultural level of his people through literary exposure. Kis wanted to produce high quality Hungarian books, in Hungary. Unfortunately, he had no wealthy patrons or sponsors to help him financially, so, he struggled on his own using all the ingenuity he possessed. It is well documented in "Mentség", that he was often in dire financial need.
There is an overall qualitative difference between Nicholas Kis's work in Holland and Hungary. A certain part of this difference is culturally based while others are technical in nature. In Amsterdam, he had to conform to the accepted local style to remain commercially viable, but in Kolozsvár, Hungary he was free to experiment to his own delight, but, here he was without the required skills of the meticulous Dutch compositors and pressmen to showcase his punch-cutting virtuosity. The comparatively crude quality of Hungarian paper, ink, and press-work in Kolozsvár created an obstacle that not even a genius engraver could overcome. The printed quality of his work had noticeably suffered.
Nicholas Kis was a fastidious scholar and he created practical and informative books with a title page, table of content, and well researched reference pointers. His title page design elements were a short title, sub-title, geographic location, publication date, his own name, M. Tótfalusi KIS MIKLÓS, and some suitable repetitive decorative graphic element. (Actually, it was quite a modern concept.) At Kolozsvár, Hungary, his stock included in addition to all the material brought back from Amsterdam eight different sets of large fancy wood engraved initial alphabets and 17 new text fonts he designed and cut in Kolozsvár, with all the Hungarian accents. These were beautiful, and easy to read, roman text fonts with great matching italics. Kis always made a conscious effort to use his own fonts for body text, and by necessity, he often had to rely on leftover older stock for display lines. It was very difficult trying to be a superb typographer in Transylvania in the 1690s!
Internationally, in the field of type design and punch-cutting Nicholas Kis was preceded by some major historical figures, including Peter Schöeffer, Conrad Sweynheym, Arnold Pannartz, Erhard Ratdolt, Nicholas Jenson, Francesco Griffo, Ludovico degli Arrighi da Vicenza, Giovanantonio Tagliente, Giovanbattista Palatino, Claude Garamond, Granjon, Jean Jannon, and Christoffel van Dijck.
Typefaces that were directly influenced by the types of Nicholas Kis are:
Mergenthaler Linotype JANSON, hot metal version (1954), was produced under the supervision of Hermann Zapf.
Monotype Erhardt (1938). The type is named after the Erhardt foundry in Leipzig, where the original (Nicholas Kis) types were found in the early eighteen century.
Mergenthaler Linotype JANSON, digital version (1985).
Adobe JANSON (n/a). The design was based on the original matrices and punches of Nicholas Kis.
Bitstream (Nicholas) KIS Roman and Italic (1990-1993).
Since 1919, the Stempel Foundry in Germany has been the proud owner and historical caretaker of the original matrices and punches of Nicholas Kis.
Nicholas Kis was a scholar, type designer, punch-cutter, printer, and publisher but above all, he was a cultural visionary, and a pursuer of beauty with his types and the printing of books. He died in 1702, at age 52. We, all of us, must make an attempt to live up to his ideals and not squander our typographical inheritance on trivial pursuits. We own this much to him and to ourselves.
(Alsó) Misztótfalu is located near the large commercial community of Nagybánya. ("Alsó" means "Lower")
The name "Tótfalusi" translates to "from the village of Tót", "Kis" equates to "Little", and "Miklós" is the Hungarian for "Nicholas".
Based on the Yalta agreement by the Allied Forces in World War-II, the eastern part of Hungary was annexed to Rumania and Kolozsvár was renamed to the Rumanian name of "Cluj".
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Visit the City of Kolozsvár where Kis did most of his work in Hungary.
To visit his grave site located in the "Házsongárd" cemetery, click HERE first, and select Házsongárd and Misztótfalusi Kis Miklós when you get there.
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