Characteres Elzeviriens: another French beauty from the Lead Age

You may be familiar with the Adam-Tannery edition of the works of Descartes (it's canonical). If so, you know how beautifully it was set. If you don't know it, feast your eyes on one of the best post-didone French design. A wonderful "elzevirien." Just look at how soothing and transparent that face is. Beatrice Warde, eat your heart out!

I know that Mr Mario Feliciano has been working on a text version of his font, Parnaso. I hope he'll look to this French design for inspiration. If any old face deserves a revival, it's this one. 



  • And, another sample. In awe!

  • John HudsonJohn Hudson Posts: 2,940
    It looks like a nice setting, but the image resolution is too low to really appreciate the type. Are there high resolution images online somewhere?
  • There are several volumes on the Internet Archive. Is this the type you mean?

  • Yes, thank you, Mr Coles. I had scanned a few pages from volume X, at high resolution, but they're PDFs, and I didn't know how to display them here. So, I took a screenshot. But, yes, your sample is much better. 

    Incidentally, at around the same time, the Dutch Academy of Sciences was putting out Huygens' complete works. It's the most fantastic version of metal-press Fleischmann I've ever seen. I'll look for a good sample to post here. Unfortunately, it'll just put to shame most of the digital revivals we have of 18th-c. Dutch Baroque faces. Still, worth seeing it. 
  • A poor sample. I'll look for a better one. 

    (BTW, I think one thing that makes this Fleischmann superior -- for the reading experience -- is the lower x-height, relative to the modern revivals. And, of course, the lower contrast that comes from the ink spread. So wonderful... 

    I know I sound like An Old, but when I see these books, I must exclaim, "They don't make'em like they used to...") 

  • @konrad ritter The true genius of Fleischmann has yet to be revived.
  • I completely agree. Another genius in the same situation is Louis Perrin. I love Mr Cortat dearly, and I greatly respect his talent, but his Louize doesn't remotely do justice to the original. After I came across your scans of Perrin's serif (on Devroye's site), I finally felt what Adorno was getting at with his term, "aura," in that essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility. His lowercase Augustaux had this aura that no modern digitization has come close to capturing--at all. It's just ineffable. 

  • notdefnotdef Posts: 168
    edited December 2020
    Are you perhaps thinking of Walter Benjamin? I did not understand his writings on “aura” to mean what you imply, but admittedly I am not well versed in philosophy.
  • John SavardJohn Savard Posts: 1,086
    While I would rather not chime in simply for reasons of one-upmanship, I thought it would still be useful to provide an image from the Adam-Tannery edition of the works of Descartes at a significantly higher resolution, so as to permit a good look at the type:

  • Yes, sorry. Benjamin. I always confuse these two people. Adorno also wrote a lot about aesthetics. 
  • Thank you, Mr Savard. We'd never hold it against you. :-) Higher-res is always better. Makes me wanna cry with frustration, though. Why isn't anyone bringing this back? 
  • notdefnotdef Posts: 168
    It is my understanding that the “aura” in Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction refers to the contextualisation (associations, references, fetishisation, &c) that allows one particular work [of art] to be highly valued despite being just one of many equal reproductions. Benjamin’s essay is extremely relevant to understanding type design today, imo. 
  • I don't dispute that, Mr Helland. You're very likely right. I read those two Germans when I was an undergrad. In any case, both of them encouraged ambiguity and equivocation -- Benjamin by design, and Adorno after Auschwitz out of despair at the promise of Enlightenment rationalism. 
  • John SavardJohn Savard Posts: 1,086
    His lowercase Augustaux had this aura that no modern digitization has come close to capturing--at all. It's just ineffable.
    Of course, most modern digitizations don't even try. A few digital fonts are optically scaled, coming in an 8 point version, a 12 point version, a 24 point version, and so on, but so terribly few.
    I take it that you are a fan of types, like Doves, that were created by punch-cutting rather than by the pantograph.
    I'll have to admit that I don't go that far. I think that the pantograph era produced many excellent type faces in the era of metal, hot and cold. Because of that, I don't think our digital technology should make the design of good typefaces impossible.
    Instead, I am more inclined to suspect the economics of type design in the digital era, and other secondary factors.
    Why isn't anyone bringing this back? 
    The answer, I fear, is obvious.
    The general style of the type is very much out of fashion.
    Not all type revivals are done for purely commercial reasons, but those that aren't are revivals of what the type designer has a personal interest in - and that, too, is affected by fashion.
    I know there are those who might ask, "Does the world need yet another Jenson", perhaps even in a scream at the top of their lungs.
    They may have a point, but they will not get satisfaction.

  • konrad ritterkonrad ritter Posts: 200
    edited December 2020
    I as going to say, "does the world need yet another Bodoni?", but you pre-empted me. :-) 

    You're right about the Elzevirien coming in optical sizes. I compared the glyphs in the main text and the footnotes, and it's clear. 

    Lastly, I'm going to go out on a limb and say, yes, even for economic reasons, a revival of that French font would we a good idea. A good serif would make money. I've seen Lyon, Freight, Ogg, Sang Bleu, and Ivar on a lot of websites, billboards, web ads, and posters. I'd bet a lot of money a good, wide-ranging revival would sell really well. I wish I knew why the folks at Production Type didn't choose this path, when they made Spectral. They had to go and rip off Porchez' Le Monde. Why?!.....
  • Gallica also has a few digitized volumes of that edition of Œuvres de Descartes. I believe the resolution is slightly better than in the Internet Archive copies.
  • konrad ritterkonrad ritter Posts: 200
    edited December 2020
    Yes, very true. Thank you! Another great sample, below. 

  • Two more samples.  Two versions of the small-text optical size. Note the stark differences in the lowercase g/.  

    And another, even smaller. 

  • Finally, a glimpse at the text-size italics, which are also very good. 

    For comparison, I submit another version of Corps Douze italics that were in vogue then, very beautifully but also understated, just the way Frutiger liked a text font. These ones went by the strange name of Elzevir Plantin. 

  • John SavardJohn Savard Posts: 1,086
    edited December 2020
    Not only the lower-case "g" but also the lower-case "r" is very different in the smaller point size. I would suspect that rather than being a different optical size of the same typeface, we are, in fact, dealing with a different typeface here.
    If so, I am glad that you like it too. Because unlike the full-size typeface, which I believe has certain dated characteristics that would likely lead to its being dismissed out of hand and little used, the small-size typeface is considerably more acceptable to current tastes.
    Again, here is a sample on a larger scale, this time of the smaller typeface:

  • konrad ritterkonrad ritter Posts: 200
    edited December 2020
    Yes, I like it too. Maybe not as much as the regular size, though. In my book, Janson is the font that looks more versatile in the small-text variant; I mean, the hand-set, metal type Janson, not any digital versions.

    But, I'm more optimistic about this one, if it were done right. There's already a small corner in the market that an elzevirien could take over and grow from there:

    Part of the "taste" aspect nowadays is ruthless self-promotion, I feel. Exempli gratia: a lot of graphic design kewl kidz go with LL Bradford, which is far from a good font. But, 10 years in the making! But, expensive! But, Swiss! Same goes for the serif fonts coming out from those two other Western European way-hipper-than-thou foundries, which I leave unnamed for the sake of decency. Aren't they just novelties that feel stale after 15 minutes, unless you're an unread, insecure kid fresh out of design school? So, yeah, maybe it wouldn't make a big splash. But, if it comes out made well, it might stick around for a decade or so, until  the excitement over the next gimmick from Lineto wears off, and enough people can think with a cool head. 
  • John SavardJohn Savard Posts: 1,086
    edited December 2020
    At first I was going to say that I didn't see anything wrong with LL Bradford, although I didn't see much reason to use it instead of, say, Times Roman, unless you wanted to say that you weren't using Times Roman. I think I've seen some other typefaces which it more closely resmembles, but I can't remember any names offhand.
    Then I saw the lowercase "a". That was a mistake.
    None of the ones Identifont suggested as similar to LL Bradford actually were similar to it, but I poked around further, and I found Robert Slimbach's Arno as something I could recommend if you didn't want to use Times Roman, although it doesn't necessarily resemble LL Bradford that much: what struck me about LL Bradford is that it seemed to resemble Clarendon in certain ways.
  • It's heavily advertised as an alternative to TNR, but that's just hype. I've tried it for years, fooled by their pitch, and it's not even in the top 10 for legibility. Somehow, it's spawned a mini-fever pitch of digging into early 20th-c American wonky serifs, and reviving them for no reason. See also: GT Alpina (Grilli Type); McGill Serif (Coppers and Brasses); Daily Short (Production Type). 

    To restate my point, I can't see how a good digitization of the French face we've discussed above could possibly do any worse than these ones. 
  • John SavardJohn Savard Posts: 1,086
    Ah, yes. GT Alpina... while mostly not too bad, also has a horrible lower-case "a". And, for some reason, it reminds me a little of the hideous Roman type included with some early Chinese-language fonts.
    McGill Serif is noted on Luc Devroye's site as a custom design for McGill University, and I don't get any other search results, so I will have to presume it is not generally available for sale and use. Although it's mentioned in the McGill visual identity guide, so perhaps there is a way for external individuals to get their hands on it. Apparently it's based on Garamond. I'll have to look some more; I would have thought it would be difficult to get this badly wrong.
    Big Daily Short - is that the one you referred to, or a modified version? Someone has actually beaten Antique Olive. I don't blame you for not recommending it for general typography. Or display use. Or anything else.
  • My long-winded way of discovering what an outstanding piece of engineering Times Roman is: I've been for over a decade to find a replacement for it, and none of them has lasted for more than a few months. Give'em enough time, and they'll start getting on your nerves with their unneeded tweaks and quirks; or they'll make immersive reading feel like wading through sludge. Times never does that.

    We put Henry Moore and Brancusi in museums, and we all genuflect to Frank Gehry and Renzo Piano -- it's high time we put Stanley Morison on that pedestal, too. He's more than earned his right to it. 
  • This is McGill Serif regular:

    And, italic: 

  • edited December 2020
    digging into early 20th-c American wonky serifs, and reviving them for no reason.
    Nostalgia and acting dumb sell, and that's all the reason those with no culture between their ears need.

    McGill Serif: Shame nobody noticed the caps are honkingly too large (killing readability whenever there's an acronym).
  • it's high time we put Stanley Morison on that pedestal, too. He's more than earned his right to it. 
    I don't think of Morison as one of the overlooked figures in type history...
  • Somehow, it's spawned a mini-fever pitch of digging into early 20th-c American wonky serifs, and reviving them for no reason.
    The reason is fashion. Wonkiness is in style, perhaps in response to the now fading trend of high-tech geometry. It’s interesting to see this play against the general truth that text serifs are generally long-term, gradual sellers as opposed to display faces that quickly respond to short-term trends.
  • konrad ritterkonrad ritter Posts: 200
    edited December 2020
    Mr Eliason, I think we actually agree. He's rightfully regarded as a towering figure in the history of typography. My complaint was that he deserves a place in the broader canon of art history. Or, even more generally, in the history of that part of civilization where art, engineering, and design meet. He's earned it more than Mark Rothko or Oscar Niemeyer. 
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