Blackletter and calligraphy today
“It was my first love,” Luca Barcellona says. Hailing from Milan, Barcellona embraces a variety of writing styles in his calligraphic practice, but the “love” he is talking about is not roman or italic letterforms, but blackletter. “The first time I understood the potential of blackletter was when I was a graffiti writer,” he says. “I was attracted by the strength of gothic letterforms because of their expressive contrast.”
Since blackletter predates the invention of European printing, it is not surprising that blackletter is still popular with calligraphers and letterers. This is true both for experienced practitioners, like John Stevens and Julian Waters, as well for their younger colleagues, like Giuseppe Salerno and Barcellona, who is probably the calligrapher to have made the most expressive uses of blackletter in the past decade. But blackletter today is an area of experimentation and expression for more than just calligraphers.
What is blackletter’s appeal? According to Barcellona, “roman capitals written with a flat brush are the most difficult letters to do. Textura and Fraktur – two widespread styles of blackletter – give me a good base to experiment with personal styles.” Blackletter capitals have a wider range than roman capitals in terms of the diversity of forms they can take. They can be ornate and almost abstract when used alone. Or, when combined with lowercase letters in passages of text intended to be read, rather than merely gazed at, they can be subdued. Blackletter is instantly different from more-common typeface styles; it brings an ornamental quality to work it is used in. While blackletter is not the appropriate choice for every design application, it has so much more potential to offer graphic designers than the advertising campaign headlines and posters it is normally used for today.
A brief blackletter history
The history of blackletter stretches back about a thousand years, having originated as handwriting styles in manuscript production. The first books printed in Europe by Johannes Gutenberg and his mid-fifteenth-century contemporaries mimicked the appearance of manuscripts, using blackletters. For its 42-line Bible, the typeface Gutenberg’s workshop developed was a Textura, the style of blackletter then used for handwritten liturgical books. Many of the different varieties of blackletter that have since become common were codified during the first century of European printing. In addition to Textura, the most common blackletter styles to be developed eventually became known as Fraktur, Rotunda and Bastarda. While printing was still relatively new in Europe, German printers developed a variety of Bastarda called Schwabacher. The style proved so popular that it has likely overshadowed all other Bastardas ever since.
For hundreds of years, blackletter was used alongside roman and italic fonts in book printing. After the Protestant Reformation, blackletter became more common in Protestant-dominant northern Europe, while roman was more popular in countries with large Catholic populations, like France and Italy. By the twentieth century, typographers and printers in most Western countries had settled on roman type styles for almost every kind of text—many authors and printers preferred roman letters for the printing of Latin and most other non-German vernacular languages. Roman type was also embraced by the Italian humanists, and later in scientific and Enlightenment-era printing. The German-speaking parts of Europe were an exception; even during the early twentieth century, more than half of all books printed in these countries were composed in blackletter. Almost every newspaper too.
Yet, starting after World War II, these countries followed the others in relegating blackletter to decorative purposes in traditional areas of design, like beer labels and newspaper nameplates. In Austria, Germany and Switzerland today, you’ll see almost no German-language books or newspapers composed in blackletter type, and only a handful of websites set their body copy in blackletter. In light of this, one might expect blackletter to have become a purely historical footnote in typographic history by now. But this is not the case.
Already in the 1990s, during the early years of digital graphic design, font makers were creating new blackletter fonts and digitizing historical designs. Those manufacturers included both larger companies, like FontFont and Linotype, as well as smaller foundries, like Emigre. Since the 2000s, though, almost all of the new blackletter typefaces have been published by small type foundries and independent type designers.
The German system for typeface classification, DIN 16 518, has eleven different groups. Group #10 is for blackletter typefaces, and that is divided up into five categories list four blackletter varieties: Gotisch, Rundgotisch, Schwabacher, Fraktur, and Fraktur-Varianten. In the graphic below, I use slightly different names for those varieties: Textura, Rotunda, Schwabacher, Fraktur, and Experiment. The last class, whether you call it Experiment or Fraktur-Varianten, is really something a catch-all place to put everything that does not fit anywhere else.
While many contemporary blackletter type designs fall into that last group, they continue to revive styles across the whole of the spectrum as well.
Understanding blackletter classification helps you choose the right typeface. For example, a German Fraktur would be a poor choice for an English pub’s sign. On the other hand, almost any of the styles could look right on a certificate, depending on its overall design.
Old English and Gotisch designs are further evolutions of the Textura idea. Gotisch (meaning “gothic”) alone has several sub-styles, from the nineteenth century romanticist fette Gotisch typefaces – pictured above in the third slot down in the first column on the left – to schlichte Gotisch styles, the so-called Schaftstiefelgrotesk, or “jackboot grotesks” of the 1930s.
Rotunda — the second oldest blackletter style — never really caught on as a letterform style for books in German-speaking Europe, although twentieth century calligraphers – as well as arts and crafts designers – have used it quite well for display purposes. Nevertheless, this rounder style were popular during the Renaissance in Italy, Southern France, and Spain.
Schwabacher is the style of Bastarda that has traditionally been used in Germany the most often. Fraktur itself could even be classified as another Bastarda – but I have given it its own group above, as it was the most-widely used blackletter text style in German typography between the early 1500s and the early 1940s. Evolving out of late medieval and early renaissance handwriting, the various blackletter styles also influenced each other over time. Another Bastarda genre, Civilité, was common in late sixteenth century printing in France and the Low Countries.
Since at least the late eighteenth century, there have also been “experimental” blackletter varieties, which are difficult to sort using twentieth-century group definitions. One of them, pictured above in the right-most column, is the class of hybrid blackletter/roman typefaces. You can read more about those typefaces here.
Schlichte Gotisch or Schaftstiefelgrotek?
There is some dispute about where the term Schaftstiefelgrotesk comes from. The typographer and author Hans Peter Willberg believed that the term was used by type setters during the 1930s to denigrate typefaces in that style, which they associated with the National Socialists who had taken control of the country. More recently, Günter Karl Bose has suggested that Jan Tschichold coined the term in 1960. I have not yet been able to find any text where Tschichold wrote the term »Schaftstiefelgrotesk«, even following Bose’s footnotes. Nevertheless, did use the phrase »in Schaftstiefeln marschierende Kochschriften« (Koch typefaces marching in jackboots) to describe train station signage:
Wie herausfordernd häßlich sind dagegen die Ortsschilder auf fast jedem einzelnen deutschen Bahnhof! Nur die seltenen antiken Beschriftungen aus der Zeit vor 1880 sind in ihrer Art schön. Selbst wo die dort verfehlte und ohnehin nicht gerade anmutige, in Schaftstiefeln marschierende Kochschrift und die pseudogotischen Ortsschilder aus der trübsten Zeit der neueren Geschichte verschwunden sind, läßt die Form dieser wichtigen Tafeln, die doch Visitenkarten des ganzen Landes sind, alle zu wünschen übrig.
From Jan Tschichold’s Erfreuliche Drucksachen durch gute Typographie. Maroverlag, Augsburg 2001, p. 20. Originally published by the Ravensburger Buchverlag in 1960. My translation: How challengingly ugly are the location signs on almost every single German train station! Only the rare antique signs from before 1880 are beautiful, in their own way. Even where the misshapen Koch typefaces marching in jackboots and the pseudo-gothic signs from the dullest period of modern history have disappeared, the forms of these important panels, which are business cards for the whole country, leave much to be desired.
František Štorm’s digital blackletter fonts
One individual who has made a great contribution to digital blackletter type is Czech designer František Štorm, founder of Storm Type Foundry in Prague. Although most of his foundry’s releases have been workhorse serif and sans serif families, it has also published six blackletters: Coroner, Dracula, Monarchia, Moyenage, Plagwitz, and Wittingau.
Štorm’s Monarchia is designed in a letter style that was quite familiar to German readers a century ago, but is not common today – Fraktur. Monarchia is Štorm’s 2005 revival of Frühling, a typeface completed by influential German type designer and calligrapher Rudolf Koch (1876–1934) in 1914. In his designs, Koch often combined elements of Fraktur and Schwabacher, distilling them through his broad-nib writing into something new. Frühling, on the other hand – named after the German word for the spring season – is decidedly a Fraktur. As Paul Shaw writes in Revival Type: Digital Typefaces Inspired by the Past, “it proves that blackletter can be light and delicate.” With Monarchia, Štorm has captured the vitality and beauty of Koch’s original typeface. Štorm’s largest change was to the form of the lowercase a, which he made double story instead of single story, bringing it more in line with the shapes used in most serif and sans serif typefaces.
Coroner is Štorm’s most recent blackletter release, having been published in 2018, although it is actually based on an older design he created for phototypesetting in the 1980s. Coroner is part Fraktur, part unique creation. Its capitals are authentic Fraktur-style letters, while some of its lowercases are hybrid designs, featuring Fraktur forms on the tops and roman serif forms on the bottoms. This is most visible in the lowercase h, i, l, m and n. A comparison of Coroner’s lowercase b, h, k and l with those of Monarchia is apt; the ascenders of these letters in each of the fonts are forked, a hallmark of the Fraktur style.
Moyenage is named after the French term for the Middle Ages—appropriately, since Moyenage is a new interpretation of the Textura style, and Texturas themselves originated in medieval France, alongside gothic architecture and gothic styles in the decorative arts. The lowercase letters in Moyenage are more within the bounds of the classic Textura canon than its capitals, some of which are completely new creations. For example, unlike the capital H, the capital K doesn’t have a roof stroke. The capital P looks like a capital R without its diagonal stroke, instead of having a much larger bowl and descending stem, as a traditional Textura face would. Meanwhile, the lowercase x is more abstract than it would be in roman type, and the z is double story. Of the capital letters’ design, Štorm explains that their “Latin script elements keep the modern reader in mind and strive for better legibility.”
Underware’s Fakir family
Štorm published Moyenage in 2008, about two years after the Netherlands-based type designer trio Underware released its Fakir family. Like Moyenage, Fakir is not a strict reinterpretation of any specific blackletter style. Instead, its design draws from typographic history as well as its designers’ ideas about how blackletter should look today. Even more than Moyenage, Fakir includes modernized forms for many letters of the alphabet.
In German, one of the terms for blackletter is gebrochene Schrift, which literally means “broken type.” Fakir takes that description to heart. Parts of letters that would be curved in roman type are broken in Fakir. Instead of being circular or ovular in shape, the letter o, for instance, is built out of six different line segments in Fakir’s five body-text-sized fonts and eight different line segments in Fakir’s five display fonts, which results in letterforms that appear to undulate. As the o shows, Fakir’s text fonts are stricter Texturas than its display fonts, which are more creative interpretations of what contemporary “broken scripts” might look like.
That the Fakir family’s newly created letterforms are neither medieval nor traditional in appearance, but still manage to feel like they belong inside the broad tent of Textura forms designed over the past thousand years, is quite an achievement. Not only are Fakir’s letters at home within the Textura style, but they are also very legible in running text. To prove this, in 2010, Underware published a book that was completely set in the typeface—Ruud Linssen’s Book of war, mortification and love.
The 96-page book is quite different from the manuscripts and historical tomes that come to mind when one thinks of blackletter. Its eight-and-a-half-inch-tall pages are smaller than the pages of most medieval books, and the letters of the body copy, set in Fakir Text Regular, are much lighter than the pen-written forms of blackletter used in the Middle Ages. The term blackletter, after all, may have originated because its letterforms were so dark. But just like Monarchia’s and Moyenage’s lighter weights, the pages of Linssen’s book prove that blackletter needn’t be heavy or stuffy.
Recommended printed texts
- Several books were published alongside an exhibition organiyed at Cooper Union in New York in 1998. First off was a color piece, entitled Blackletter – Type and National Identity, which was written by Peter Bain and Paul Shaw. Bain and Shaw organized the show, and they also produced an exhibition catalogue. It has a similar name: Blackletter – Type & National Identity. Catalogue of the Exhibition. Finally, the Calligraphers Guild published a double-issue on the exhibition entitled The Calligraphic Tradition in Blackletter Type. This was was SCRIPSIT, vol. 22, no. 1–2 (Summer 1999), and was written by Paul Shaw.
- See Günter Karl Bose’s »Normalschrift. Zur Geschichte des Streits um Fraktur und Antiqua«. In: Kühnel, Anita (ed.): Welt aus Schrift – das 20. Jahrhundert in Europa und den USA. Verlag der Buchhandlung Walter König, Köln 2010, p. 89–102
- See Albert Giesecke’s »Schriftschaffen im neuen Deutschland«. In: Raederscheidt, G. und Fritz Helmuth Ehmcke (ed.): Schrift und Schreiben. Zeitschrift für alle praktischen und wissenschaftlichen Fragen der Schrift und des Schreibunterrichts. Vol 6, no 5 (June 1935). Verlag F. Soennecken, Bonn and Leipzig 1935, p. 125–141
- Albert Kapr’s Fraktur – Form und Geschichte der gebrochenen Schriften was publihsed by the Verlag Hermann Schmidt Mainz in 1993. In my opinion, this is still the best resource in any language for learning about the history and breadth of blackletter typefaces. The book’s text is in German, with black and white illustrations.
- Some alternate views on the development of blackletter in general, and of Fraktur in particular, may be found in the books of Gerrit Noordzij: The Stroke: Theory of Writing and LetterLetter.
- Christina Paoli’s excellent Mexican Blackletter was initially designed as her graduate student project. The book, documenting the vernacular use of blackletter on signage in Mexico, was published by Mark Batty in New York in 2007.
- Henning Rader and Thomas Weidner’s book Typographie des Terrors – Plakate in München von 1933 bis 1945 includes reproductions of a number of advertisements from the 1930s from various German typefoundries for their blackletter typefaces. The book was published by the Kehrer Verlag in Heidelberg in 2012.
- Also from the Verlag Hermann Schmidt is Judith Schalansky’s 2006 Fraktur mon Amour, a prayerbook-style catalogue of blackletter types old and new. Personally, I would find this book a much better resource if it discussed the quality levels of some of the fonts displayed. Free fonts – some of rather poor technical quality – are displayed side by side with professionally-produced fonts. Readers are not able to get a good sense for which fonts will actually work in their design processes and environments. Princeton Architectural Press published an English-language edition in 2008.
- A number of twentieth-century type specimens printed in Germany, including blackletter designs, were scaned in by Hans Reichardt and published on CD-ROM by spatium – Magazin für Typografie in 2008. See Bleisatzschriften des 20. Jahrhunderts aus Deutschland. Eine PDF-Dokumentation von Schriftmustern zusammengestellt von Hans Reichardt. CD-ROM. spatium – Magazin für Typografie, Offenbach am Main 2008
- See Hans Peter Willberg’s »Schrift und Typografie im Dritten Reich«. In: Forum Typografie, Arbeitskreis Berlin (ed.): Umbruch – 8. Bundestreffen des Forum Typografie, 31. Mai bis 2. Juni 1991 in Berlin, Kunsthochschule Berlin-Weißensee. Verlag Hermann Schmidt Mainz 1994, p. 28–41
Links to other pages on this site
- Stone-carved blackletters at Strasbourg
- New P22 Blackletter fonts
- Inside the library at the Gutenberg Museum, from the Linotype Matrix, vol. 4 no. 2
- Rudolf Koch’s Das Schreiben als Kunstfertigkeit
- Rudolf Koch’s Deutsche Schriftfamilie
- The Gebr. Klingspor foundry’s Wallau type specimen brochure
- Berthold Wolpe Exhibit in Mainz
- Blackletter signage in the Berlin S-Bahn
- Grace Dobush’s “Fraktur and the psychology of type.” In: Powel, Justine and Andreas Kluth (ed.): Handelsblatt Global. Website, published on 28 September 2018, last visited on 5 October 2018
- My own “The Library of the Gutenberg Museum.” In: Boardley, John (ed.): I Love Typography. Website, published on 1 March 2010, last visited on 5 October 2018
- ––– “Blackletter Today.” In: Communication Arts. Website, no date of publication, last visited on 5 October 2018
- Hans Peter Willberg’s »Typographie – Die Fraktur und der Nationalismus«. In: Kastner, Eduard and Dennis Kastner (ed.): Die Gazette. Das politische Kulturmagazin. Webseite, published on 27 May 2001, last visited on 5 October 2018