Whilst reading The Craftsmen – Richard Sennett I stumbled across the word ‘anthropomorphic’, meaning to ascribe human form or characteristics to nonhuman things. Sennett tells the ‘brickmakers tale’ in order to attribute how we assign human qualities to inanimate objects, like the brick, possessing qualities such as honesty, friendliness or resembling mottled skin. If you are familiar with the history of writing and how it is inextricably bound up with the history of humankind I’m hoping you’ll agree with me when I argue that writing, lettering and typography are perhaps the most anthropomorphised systems in use today.
If we go back to the 3rd millennium B.C. we discover one of the earliest writing systems known to us – cuneiform. This system as well as other early writing systems was based on pictograms, simplified drawings stylised into symbols in order to represent a single object. Ideograms were also a vital component of these early writing systems, using combinations of symbols in order to represent an idea or concept. At this point there was no direct connection between symbol and sound, these symbols were therefore rather literal, for example: the pictogram of a human foot could be understood as ‘to walk’, ‘to stand’ or ’to move’. Are these early forms of writing (including some still in use today) using pictograms and ideograms perhaps too literal to be considered anthropomorphic? Maybe there’s a semantic argument in there somewhere.
A significant step in the progress of writing was when symbols came to represent the sounds of the spoken language – phonograms. This development can be attributed to the Sumerians using their ‘rebus’ system and also the Egyptians through their highly elaborate yet sophisticated system of hieroglyphs, not just pictograms but also phonograms and determinatives. From this point onwards written systems begin to move away from pictorial representation, in search of (unknown to them) an alphabet. It was the Phoenicians around 800 B.C. that can claim the oldest verified alphabet. The idea of using just twenty to thirty signs to represent the speech sounds of a language is groundbreaking. We are now moving into an era of writing where it would be correct to say, as Eric Gill once did, that ‘letters are things, not pictures of things’. Now having established letters are no longer pictures of things, rather ‘things’ representing sound, where does the alphabet and anthropomorphism take us next?
The alphabet we know today follows a lineage from the Phoenicians, through the Greeks, Etruscans and the Romans leaving us with the Latin alphabet. Classical Roman lettering reached its highest state of perfection around 100 A.D. during the time of Emperor Trajan. The inscription at the base of the Trajan Column is perhaps the finest example of this. At its most refined this lettering is referred to as capitalis monumentalis.
The Renaissance period became obsessed with this letterform, in search of the perfect letter. Practitioners were working towards a classical and humanistic lore for the Roman capital based on ‘proper’ proportion. Vitruvius Pollio, Leon Battista Alberti and Piero della Francesca were a large catalyst; through their thorough investigation of Euclid mathematics, geometry and algebra, they tediously documented a decree on ‘proper’ proportion, ‘perfect’ numbers and methods of drawing. This new rationalism of Renaissance humanism inspired a emergence of attempts to relate Roman capitals to a classical and humanistic lore. This began with a treatise by Felice Feliciano in 1460 and went on until the sixteenth century. You may be familiar (perhaps unknowingly) with the associated imagery from this period, pertaining classical Roman lettering derived from compass and rule, with meticulous annotation.
These alphabets began with the humanistic a priori we have discussed, the letterforms themselves are formed through anthropomorphism itself. Notable proponents following Feliciano would be, Damiano da Moyle, Luca Pacioli, Sigismondo Fanti, Francesco Torniello, Albrecht Dürer, Giovam Babtista Verini, Geoffroy Tory and Giovanbattista Palatino. All of these practitioners utilised common beliefs in regards to the elusive ‘proper’ proportion. Many of them followed the Vitruvius-Leonardo line of thought in relating the human figure to the square and inscribed circle. Geoffroy Tory took this humanism one step further, not only relating the human figure to the square and circle, of which a letter could be constructed, but directly to the skeleton of the letter itself. Often he would draw the human figure in various positions or the face alone, being careful to intersect or ‘cover’ various body parts or features. Here’s a snippet, in his own words describing the letter A:
‘The lower edge of the transverse stroke… is properly placed below the central horizontal line….Thus this cross-stroke covers the man’s organ of generation, to signify that Modesty of Chastity are required, before all else, in those who seek acquaintance with well-shaped letters, of which A is the gateway and the first of all in alphabetical order.’
Tory took this rationalism to its limits, I would credit him with the ability to embody, quite literally, the human form within the letter. This is not to say he produced beautiful lettering, some would argue, such as Giovan Francesco Cresci and much later Stanley Morrison that this was all ‘cabalistic abracadabra’. However you cannot deny the anthropomorphic delineation, inseparable from the very beginnings of this search for the perfect letter, utilising the classical and humanistic rationalism many sought to promote.
The final reference I would like to make, and perhaps most relevant, in regards to this discussion is the emergence, use, and growth of typefaces. I would briefly draw attention to typographic terminology, in particular type anatomy. There are many terms used to describe individual parts of letterforms, and a fair few that ascribe to human form, for example: arm, body, crotch, leg, shoulder, and spine. What excites me most about a typeface is the ability to evoke a feeling, personality or characteristic, perceived by the observer. Because this particular point stems directly from perception, it should be pointed out that observers may not perceive unanimously; however, I do think people would be on the same wavelength. An alphabet rendered in Bembo is different in form and sensibility than that of Bodoni, Helvetica, Futura, and equally between themselves. Typography has a responsibility to render specific characters representing speech sound and instruction, an ‘A’ will always be an ‘A’, but the subtle beauties and governing rules defining the design of each individual typeface are what influence perception. It is not uncommon for a typeface to be described as having warmth, feeling cold, looking angry, sharp or jolly and happy, sometimes friendly, perhaps honest, even possessing strength, weakness, or ‘life’ itself. These notions are not literal, when somebody describes a typeface as ‘warm’ they are not referring to temperature, as with all the examples I’ve provided and more, they are eluding to very real human feelings, emotions or characteristics - this is anthropomorphism at its best.
‘If letters are the clothes that words wear, then it surely follows that there must be as many typefaces as there are voices, languages, and emotions.’ – Erik Spiekermann