The Complutensian Polyglot, ahead of the times

By: | Post date: November 8, 2006 | Comments: 1 Comment
Posted in categories: Language

In re:

As I had added into the Wikipedia entry, the Complutensian Polyglot edition of the Bible in the 1520s marked the highpoint of the initial trend in Greek typography to come up with an unconnected Greek typeface. By the time of the Complutensian, 40 years in from the first attempts of the 1470s, the results were beautiful. Around that time, Aldus Manutius decided to go with the contemporary cursive as the model for both his Roman and Greek typeface; and everyone followed suit for the next couple of centuries of Greek. Now (as I’ve seen in a typographer’s blog someplace), this made commercial sense — Aldus used the bookhand his scholarly audience was familiar with from their manuscripts; and the results for Roman script were the beauty of italics. The results for Greek was squiggle, and by the 19th people was considered ugly. (That’s because it *is* ugly.)

So as typographers tried to distance themselves from Aldus’ typeface, there was a trend to try to go back to a lost ideal of Greek typography, nicely commented on in John Bowman’s paper (in Greek) on British typography of Greek. The Complutensian begat Robert Proctor’s Otter Greek font (see p. 158 of Bowman); Otter Greek begat Scholderer’s Neohellenic (cf. GFS Neohellenic); Neohellenic begat Athenian font; and the Complutensian again begat the Greek Font Society’s GFS Complutensian Greek, which I’m informed is planned for release by the Greek Font Society next year. [EDIT: since released as GFS Complutum] (See also the enlightening thread on the Typophile blog.)

The point is, the Complutensian has long been fetishised as a lost ideal of Greek typography, and I wanted to get me some. I’ve just received a 500 MB pdf of the PDF, and it contains a surprise I hadn’t noticed. But first, a brief comment on what it looks like.

The Complutensian is pretty well described in a blog entry by Rick Brannan (ricoblog), and I suggest you pop out to it before continuing.

OK, you’re back. 🙂 It’s apparent from the gifs Brannan provides, but it truly hits you when you see the pages; the Old and the New Testament look totally different. The Old Testament looks impressive, and is quite a technical feat; but it does not look pretty. It’s very busy, for one:

Septuagint Greek (with interlinear Latin) Vulgate Latin Hebrew
Targum Onkelos Aramaic paraphrase Latin translation of Targum Onkelos

Some malicious bishop commented that the Vulgate text looks like Jesus with the two thieves crucified either side of him, and I can see why now. The Hebrew is Hebrew; it does look out of place next to the Latin, which is inevitable, although I’m not familiar enough with Hebrew script to tell if it’s a good looking Dysmas. The Septuagint gets to be Gestas, the Bad Thief. The Septuagint column is not evil per se, and it’s very utilitarian, but it’s also quite messy: the Greek’s in squiggle, the interlinear Latin’s in a Bastarda that crowds out the spindly Greek it’s meant to be a crutch for; ick. In the middle, the Latin’s in a gorgeous, self-assured Antiqua. The Vulgate wins.

Zooming forwards to the New Testament is a shock to the eyes; it’s sort of a Darien moment. Just two simple columns: no prima donna in the centre. The Latin’s back in Bastarda, but it’s a Bastarda that’s been given room to breathe, instead of tripping over interlinear squiggle; and at full size, it’s quite elegant. The shock of course is the Greek. It is simply gorgeous.

But the real shock is when you zoom in. (You can see it in the first gif on Ricoblog, but you have to click to enlarge and concentrate). The Complutensian typeface, the pinnacle of early Greek typography, the Eden from which Aldus’ serpentine Greek expelled us and which has haunted several 20th century typographers, the bestest Greek font ever…

… is monotonic.

Seriously. No circumflexes or graves; no accents on monosyllables; no iota subscripts; no smooth breathings. There are rough breathings, but they’re actually displaced to the left of the vowel, as they are normally on capitals; the Complutensian’s pretty much treating them as letters not diacritics. (You can see it in the Ricoblog gif, ῾υπέρ, second line from the end.)

That’s a shock alright. And it’s a deliberate aesthetic choice: Jimenez’ Spaniards certainly knew about accents, and their squiggle font in the Septuagint is drenched in them. The forerunners of their typeface — da Spira and Jenson in 1470 — used accents (see Zapf’s paper on the history of Greek typefaces, p. 6). It’s like the Complutensians said, we’re designing the most beautiful Greek leters ever — and we say we have no room on top of those letters for distracting squiggles. It’s a deliciously bold decision.

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