A couple of years ago, I ran into a free version of Cloister Old Style. I was delighted to see the high quality of the font. It was very well rendered. Plus, I was able to download the italic version of the font.
A few months later I was conducting a graduate typography seminar class and one of my students had chosen William Morris and the Kelmscott Press for her thesis project. She wanted an appropriate text font to use for her paper. I recommended Cloister Old Style, rather than Morris’s Golden Type, the typeface he designed for his own bookwork. Cloister was more appropriate for continuous reading. She was able to download it for free, but there seemed to be no free italic version. The going rate was $26.95—certainly not an unusual or unreasonable price, unless you happen to be a graduate student.
If nothing else, this was an ideal teachable moment. Cloister Old Style was a “modernized” version of the Golden type. It, in turn, was Morris’s interpretation of the original Venetian type designed by engraver and printer Nicolas Jenson in Venice around 1470. It wasn’t a slavish copy, for Morris had an ideal he was striving for in his new typographic work. The other fact many designers don’t know is that italic fonts were not designed to compliment Roman counterparts. At that time there was no concept of type families. In fact, originally, there were no Roman counterparts. All those classical books we now venerate were originally set using one font, at one size, even for titles and headings. There was no such thing as bold or even small caps for at least another century and a half.
The first italics were not even developed for 25 years after Jenson’s first Roman type. The first italic used in a book was designed by Francesco Griffo around 1501. Italics were later popularized by Ludovico Arrighi. Neither designer intended to use these italic letters in conjunction with Roman fonts. They were actually used to conserve space on the printed page. The italic style was based upon the chancery handwriting of the day, and was actually more condensed than a standard Roman font. Those first italics didn’t even contain a cap alphabet. So in that sense, they had to have some design compatibility with the companion capital letters used on the same page.
My grad student never got to use an italic with her project, which, of course, is in keeping with the historical tradition. As for me, the first time I used Cloister, it was for something more contemporary that could aesthetically use an italic. Unfortunately, by that time my laptop had been impounded by our IT Department for required upgrades and—the italic had vanished. I was never able to find a site which offered a free download and the project was not worth investing $26.95, so it was time for a Plan B.
[Please Note: For some reason, downloads are fragile. Always back them up—especially if they are fonts.]
In this case, my Plan B was an Italic from a font that I did own. I chose Bembo, a Venetian-style type face that shared some historical characteristics with Cloister.
[Another Note that indicates how we think of font families “today.” I was at my first type conference in the late ’70s when a printer approached me demanding to know why my company didn’t offer ITC Pioneer “Italic.” If you are familiar with this font, you know it’s a blocky, 3-dimensional font, with no curves whatsoever, it’s strictly for display purposes. Had this been a few years later, when digital typesetting was introduced, The user could simply slant the letters. Instead of telling our customer that would be in bad taste, I simply said we licensed designs from ITC (International Typeface Corporation) and only produced fonts from the artwork they provided for us. This only goes to show that people expect a full range of letters with their typefaces now.]
Back to Bembo, as you can see, it bears some similarity Cloister Oldstyle.
This was an educated guess on my part. And it should be noted that Morris Benton, the original designer for Cloister had no model to follow, so he followed the scribal writing of that period as a guide, matching it as well as he could to the roman letterforms.
There’s a “post script” (you’ll excuse the expression) to this story. I recently came across another version of the Cloister family done by the Font Bureau, also a highly reputable foundry.
You’ll notice that the lower case letters are squatter and not as light as the LTC version I began with. Here’s my theory:
Type revivals that come from existing metal type are based upon specific sizes at which the letters were used. The example here was likely from a 10 or 12 point “cutting,” which means the letters were originally designed to be printed at 10 or 12 point sizes. We can tell this by two clues. First, look how far the descending letters (g and j) drop below the baseline of the other letters. This allows the lines of paragraphs to be set closer together without crashing into each other (or touching). Second, I looked in my old Linotype specimen catalog and compared the sample here with the 10 point printed sample. And guess what? The designs are the same. The LTC sample above is really closer in design to the 30 point printed sample. It’s generally lighter in weight and has proportionately longer descenders. So my second test just confirmed what I already suspected.
Next time, I’ll list my top 10 typography books. Um, don’t get your hopes up too much. There’s no particular ranking here. I just grabbed the first ten books from the shelves next to my desk. They’re the ones I use most frequently in my research. There are some that are out of print and others available electronically.