Last November, Yale University Printer John Gambell stood before a group of twenty-five employees, spreading the gospel of the Yale Typeface. He politely explained why the academic departments whose communications they designed were no longer allowed to have unique logos set in their favorite font. Instead, their publications had to use the eight-year-old typeface and the classic Yale Blue. Over the course of several years, Gambell oversaw the creation of the Yale Typeface and designed a new, consistent campus signage system in order to standardize the University’s brand. But it wasn’t the experience of years or even decades, but rather centuries, that produced the Yale Typeface.
In many ways, the Typeface fits right in amongst Yale’s icons. It aspires to resemble a centuries-old European artifact but is in fact relatively new—much like Yale’s neogothic architecture. The Typeface is based heavily on the font used in Pietro Bembo’s De Ætna, an esoteric Venetian manuscript printed in 1495. The text’s inventive typography makes it one of the most important works in the history of the printed word.
The story of the De Ætna type begins with Venetian publisher Aldus Manutius, who wanted to spread knowledge by printing portable and affordable versions of classical texts. To do this, he hired a master typographer named Francesco Griffo.
Griffo made a tremendous mark on the history of printing and punctuation. It was the De Ætna typeface that popularized the use of crisp and unornamented Roman characters in printing, replacing the archaic blackletter script introduced by Gutenberg. While Griffo was carving the De Ætna type, Manutius asked him to devise a way to separate interdependent clauses. Griffo solved the problem by inventing the first semicolon. A few years later, Griffo developed another innovation: a typeface fashioned after cursive handwriting. He called it Italic type, after the name of his homeland.
Despite Griffo’s ingenuity, it was Manutius whose star continued to rise. Dissatisfied with his relative anonymity, Griffo left Manutius in 1503 and crafted a set of Italic type for another Venetian publisher. Outraged, Manutius somehow convinced the Pope to decree that only the Manutius publishing house was permitted to use Italic type. Yet the Papal decree proved difficult to enforce, and the Italic style quickly spread throughout Europe.
Meanwhile, Griffo was ruined. He only appears in the historical records once more, in 1516, when he was executed for murdering his son-in-law with an iron bar (which he probably used for carving type).
The Yale Typeface is not the first to take inspiration from De Ætna. Typographer Stanley Morrison’s 1929 facsimile, named Bembo, quickly became one of the most admired typefaces of the twentieth century. However, when attempts were made to digitize Bembo decades later, something went terribly wrong. As the Yale Typeface website describes, “Unfortunately, the more recent photocomposition and digital versions of Bembo lack the vigor, weight, and formal integrity of either the De Ætna face or the original Monotype version of Bembo.” Designers around the world posted on bulletin boards lamenting the loss of a classic typeface. Rather than using a font lacking in formal integrity, Yale hired the world-famous typographer Matthew Carter, responsible for classics such as Georgia and Verdana, to design a private copy of the famed 1495 original.
To understand De Ætna’s charm, I went to view Yale’s copy of the text in the Beinecke. The book was tiny and beautiful. While the librarians weren’t looking, I brushed my finger against the world’s first semicolon; it was strangely satisfying. I compared the actual book to the printed specimens of the Yale Typface and Bembo that I had spread out on the desk. With both the legibility of Bembo and the gravity and crisp lines of the De Aetna face, the Yale Typeface was the cleanest and most attractive of the three.
Most students don’t know that they can use the Yale Typeface, but awareness of its charm is growing on campus. Gambell has his own theory about why administrators have received it so well: it is something private that the members of the Yale community can all share among themselves. “It’s not as silly as a secret handshake, but it has a little bit of that cachet.”
Gambell cheerfully reports that so far it doesn’t seem like anyone outside the university is attempting to use the font.
“Wait—they’re not allowed to?” I asked.
“No, they’re not allowed to. They’d probably just get a letter from General Counsel saying ‘puh-lease.’”
Like Manutius centuries ago, the University is willing to prosecute in order to protect its license, although a letter from Yale’s lawyers is probably less potent than a Papal mandate. I’m already preparing myself for the day when I’m no longer allowed to use the Typeface, only several months ahead.