The design and spread of Froben’s early Italics

Ueli Kaufmann


This essay examines the background, design and spread of famed Basel Renaissance printer Johann Froben’s first and especially his second Italic type and thereby makes a small step into a systematic delineation of production, use and trade in type in the early 16th century Basel.
For a better understanding and an integral view, it first recaps the development of the humanist movement, and the processes that led to the subsequent adaption of cursive humanist writing into Italic metal type. A summary of the rise of Basel as a Renaissance printing centre and an evaluation of various thoughts on trade in type at the time round up the context. After a formal analysis of Froben’s first Italic, the focus shifts to the highly successful and long-living second. For a better understanding of its role and to assess its contribution to the typographic field, the type is compared to the archetypal Venetian Italics.
Extensive examination of original resources and recurring contradictions in secondary literature, led to uncertainty regarding the origin and first use of the type; however, this research eventually provided new arguments for the prominent assumption that the type was cut by Peter Schöffer the younger and traded by the Froben firm. A mapping of the use of Froben’s second Italic by Swiss printers between 1520 and 1550 visualizes the spread and suggests an extensive trade. The detection of various lines of succession through use of biographical information is then used to relativate the results and offers starting points for further research about the actual acquisations of the type. A description of the changing use of Froben’s Italic from its introduction in 1520 until 1550 then evaluates the shifting role of the type itself and hints at fundamental changes that the media of the book and the printing industry went through.

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