Just wanted to ask about the concept of "rationalization" and the modern serif, as there's a few things unclear to me, and was wondering if you have any knowledge or resources on it.
To my understanding, "rationalization" refers to the evolution of type from being based on the written form, to becoming more "drawn"—designed as a shape that can have any form you damn well please, whether a broad-pen nib can produce it or not.
This concept is mostly referred to when talking about the journey of Roman type, but I think a similar thing happened from the first type of Gutenberg, which was cut to resemble the work coming out of local scriptoriums, to later styles of blackletter which clearly only used calligraphy as a reference, not a guide.
Anyway, I've heard this "rationalization" as an explanation for the slow transition of Jenson's type, through the Garaldes, Caslons and Baskervilles, to the modern serifs of Bodoni and Didot, slowly shedding unnecessary aspects along the way, until only a basic, stresless stem and bracketless hairline serif were left.
On the other hand, I've read about the latter typefaces being influenced by the likes of George Bickham and other calligraphers and engravers, and the introduction of the flexible pen nib. But while it's true that you could do a decent impression of a Didone with a flex nib, these nibs weren't invented until the 1820's, and took a few decades to get popular, whereas Bodoni and Didot were designing their fonts by the late 1700's. Bickham did his calligraphy with a very thin broad nib
paired with pen rotation to produce fine hairlines, so maybe writing and typography was already moving in a rationalist direction without the flex nib, and it was that cultural wave that inspired the making of flex nibs, not the other way around?
Whelp, these are the thoughts that have been going around in my head for a while without a satisfying answer. Every source I read either appoints the modern serif to rationalization, or to the flex nib/calligraphic trends, but never lays a connection between the two.
In his 1819 Imperial Foundry specimen, Richard Austin acknowledged the role of new technology (harder metal, smoother paper, blacker ink) in fostering modernity:
“The modern ... printing type at present in use was introduced by the French, about twenty years ago: the old shaped letters being capable of some improvement, it was judged expedient to re-model the alphabet to render them [the old shaped letters] more agreeable to the improved state of printing…”
And, Bodoni’s keenness on “exact regularity” (esatta regolarità) of letter forms may be extended to detail, in which he found such beauty in the virtuoso technical quality of the cultural movement that may be termed rationalization/modernity/neo-classicism.
The Bodoni reference taken from Zapf’s Manuale Typographicum, plate 46.
That said: it's hard to not see the Romain du Roi as the granddaddy of rationalization...
Interesting note on the quality of printing materials being imperative to modern serif faces, that's something I hadn't thought of.
I also hadn't made the connection between rationalization within typography, and rationalism as the cultural movement, although I've seen the former mentioned outside of the confines of the latter.
True, within the formal definition of rationalization, RdR is absolutely that. A hideous, awful, rationalization. The prettier examples have obviously come from slow transitions that stayed far away from math and grids.
But if you're going to consider the impact of pen nibs in the equation, I think you also have to consider engraving tools. I haven't compared Bickham's (and the others') pen-written samples to the engraved prints by which they circulated side-by-side, but I do know that the engraving burin really lends itself to the fine details, high contrast, and "expansion strokes" associated with the modern letter, so in their reproduction those features are at least captured well if not exaggerated. And there's so much attention paid to those Writing Masters, but while they were perfecting their fluid cursives, the work of the guys engraving captions on intaglio prints was surely more relevant since (1) they were making type-like block letters, and (2) their work found broader circulation.
Love that link you shared, Matthijs!
Robert Bringhurst’s system of categorization, detailed in his Style Guide, makes the connection, but with a few loose ends! In other words, type history follows its own course. The “rationalization” inherent in the invention of the sans serif, for instance, emerging in 1830s London, preceded similar reductiveness in the modern movement in the visual arts by most of the 19th century.
But an idea can be far more beautiful than its incarnation... In fact an idea has the potential of exceeding in beauty any possible incarnation of it. I like to bring up the example of the LA "river". Overdesigning it 30-fold made it ugly (unless –notably– you're into that sort of thing) but it remains breathtaking in its idea: sticking the middle finger to global warming.
Subtlety can tame an idea into something acceptable to enough people at a given moment. But pretty comes and goes, and you can't get there without the idea first.