Lettercentric: Russell Maret’s Books on Italian Lettering

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By: Paul Shaw | May 12, 2010

Medieval in Padua (2008)

Published by Russell MaretNew York: Swan & Hoop, 200844 pp. limited to 226 copies $2508 colors; photos; letterpress


Russell Maret, a New York-based private press printer who has been making letterforms his subject over the past decade, has published four recent books that explore letterforms that are not part of the Western canon: Mute: A Promethean Alphabet (2001), Eclectic Geometric, or Lunch with Nicolete (2001), Medieval in Padua (2008) and Aethelwold, Etc.: Twenty-Six Letters Inspired by Other Letters and Non- Letters and Little Bits of Poetry Rendered with Accompanying Notes (2009).

Maret, currently a fellow at the American Academy in Rome, delivered a talk last April as part of the Book History Colloquium at Columbia University. Entitled “Notes of an Alphabetical Fetishist: Lettered in Rome,” it was not about book history but about his personal quest to find letters that resonate emotionally with him, letters that he can caress and love rather than those that can be coolly appreciated for their logical perfection. It was a funny, poetic and engaging talk and it made me not only nostalgic for Rome—the most alphabetically-rich city in the Western world—but also eager to see Maret’s books in person, to be able to fully appreciate their tactile presence and, if the librarians were not looking, caress them. The crispness of the paper, the impression of the images, the subtle shades of color cannot be translated into the digital realm.

At Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, I was able to examine both Medieval in Padua and Aethelwold, Etc. Medieval in Padua (more detail on the project here) is more than a collection of annotated letters but rather a sustained study of a specific class of letters. His essay is not scholarly, yet it is wholly serious. In it, Maret tells how he and his lover Annie came to discover the Round Gothic capitals of Padua and their travails in trying to record and research them—stories filled with bureaucratic red tape, museum guards who are at one moment obstreperous and the next incredibly helpful (even complicit), byzantine opening hours, and bad weather that are achingly familiar to anyone who has tried to do research in Italy. This personal story is interspersed with Maret’s musings on the evolution of the Round Gothic capital from the Romanesque capital and how it not only differs from the mundane Lombardic capital but also from the Renaissance revived roman capital that followed it. His thoughts not only echo and continue themes from his other books but they build upon the work of Nicolete Gray, the iconoclastic lettering historian.

Following in Gray’s footsteps, Maret favors the valleys rather than the peaks of Western lettering. The Middle Ages are one such valley and the Round Gothic capitals, derived from manuscripts and refined in inscriptions, are of particular interest. We know these letters today in their debased form as initials and drop capitals. “Although the letter forms are lively and decorative as drop caps,” Maret writes, “to fully appreciate the essence and energy of the alphabet, they need to be viewed en masse in words and groups of words, though not in paragraphs.” This is best done by examining inscriptions such as those on the tombs of Antenor (1283) and Lovato de’ Lovati (1309)— two revered Paduan figures—as well as on those of lesser-known citizens scattered throughout the city.

The Round Gothic capital was the form of a new era, one marked by the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Like the Roman Imperial capital it too was intended for public declarations and grand titles, yet that is virtually all it had in common with its famous predecessor. In place of subtlety and restrained authority, the Round Gothic capital has vitality and exuberance. One of its distinguishing features is elongated serifs which in the case of letters such as L and T lead to new counter shapes. As the alphabet became solidified and stylized in the 14th century texts, it took on an overall pattern that trumped any emphasis on the legibility of an individual letter. To achieve this rich patterning, there was a heterogeneity of form which, in Maret’s opinion, was its downfall as well as “the source of its incipient verve.” Once it was used for rubrics in printed books, the Round Gothic capital was ruined. The demands of mass production forced it to fit into the uniform blank spaces left by the compositor. Inevitably, its letters became more consistent in width and predictable in form. Bifurcated serifs with ball terminals appeared. The alphabet became a caricature of itself.

“We see in these thoroughly un-modern letters,” declares Maret, “the genus of modernity, the replacement of the ecstatic with the quantifiable, and the movement of alphabetical form from the variable to the fixed. What we are seeing in this transformation is the dawn of the typographic mind.” Yet today, digital fonts and software have transformed the typographic mind, loosened it up so that alphabets such as the Round Gothic capital—formerly an outcast from the history of Western lettering—are now more easily and widely embraced. Gray blazed this path decades ago, but it is Maret—“an intermillenial love-child of the Quattrocento” who prefers “to linger in the Middle Ages”—who has paved it for us.