A 21st Century Guide to the Mind-Body [Problem] of Print: Robert Bringhurst’s Palatino: The Natural History of a Typeface

According to Robert Bringhurst, the typeface name Palatino is linked both to Renaissance calligrapher Giovanbattista Palatino and to Palatine Hill in Rome – where Romulus and Remus were suckled by the she-wolf – and marks at once a sense of culture, history, and a “permanent indebtedness to the wild.” These same three preoccupations infuse Bringhurst’s story of the creation and recreation of Palatino, which combines the historical narrative of a typeface from the eras of letterpress through phototypesetting to digitization, an account of its relation to painting and sculpture, and its evocation and classification along botanical lines.

Palatino: The Natural History of a Typeface is part celebration of Palatino creator Hermann Zapf’s artistry, part elegy for a bygone era in which “reading…involved the corporeal as well as the mental imagination,” part manual to the Palatino faces for the student of typography, part lyric essay on the metamorphosis of letterforms in response to environmental pressures, and part meditation on the continued possibility of a typographical art form in the digital era.

The main text is elegant, accessible and striking. In the space of a page or so, Bringhurst weaves together analyses of letterform features, historical vignettes, extended metaphors, and arguments. The beauty of the illustrations and the precision and lyricism of the prose play against and illuminate one another. Bringhurst’s metaphors, for all the pleasure they afford in their own right, are honed to the task of directing and transforming the reader’s attention to the letterform and its history. Like the enlarged images of individual letters that fill the pages of Palatino, the book’s metaphors invite the imagination to note the physicality of the forms: the chins of Gs, the noses of 4s, the sculptural qualities of letterpress or the two-dimensional art of the digital. In a handful of sentences, Bringhurst illustrates the artist’s mind at work as it transforms the proportions of penstrokes to those of architectural columns and musical tunings. At the same time, he transforms for the reader the letters out of which those same sentences are formed. “Columns bulge to display their muscle and to show they are bearing a load,” he writes. “The stems of letterforms contract, like the stems of roses and wineglasses, or the pasterns and cannons of horses, because they are raising something up. What are they lifting? Meaning, life, intelligence, the alertness of the senses, the aroma of the rose.”

This is not exactly a book for casual reading. There is much that will reward a reader (like this one) who comes to this book more or less ignorant of typographical art. Bringhurst’s account of the changing shapes of asterisks, for instance, is notable at once for its easy erudition, its powerfully understated call for physically rooted typographical forms and its direct appeal to the senses. But a good chunk of this book is taken up with exact catalogues of Palatino typefaces (clearly marked off in the text in bold), described in terminology that, though often suggestive, assumes the reader has a certain level of familiarity with the subject matter. That said, the typographical neophyte can gain a great deal from these pages. Whether she chooses to focus on the main text and just skim the catalogue sections, or decides to undertake a deeper study, the reader of Palatino will find in Bringhurst a skillful guide to seeing typeface through both its up-close details, and its broad cultural and natural roots.


Sarah Feldman’s poems have appeared in journals and anthologies in Canada, The U.S., and the U.K., including The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, and Undercurrents: New Voices in Canadian Poetry. Her first poetry collection, The Half-Life of Oracles, is forthcoming from Fitzhenry & Whiteside in Spring 2018.



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