October 15, 2023: Some thoughts on setting a page in the Classical Style​.

Every once in a great while, something comes along that I find I just have to print. Such was the case with watching the 2021 Presidential Inauguration ceremony. When Amanda Gorman read her historic poem, I found myself moved by both the words and her delivery. Several days later, a friend asked me if I had plans to set it in type and print it because he wanted a copy. Immediately, “if” became “when,” and I set to work on a much more complicated project than I had expected. 

I will briefly walk you through my thoughts on producing the broadsheet I privately printed* in 2022 as an example. Given the gravity of the setting and delivery, I felt I had to reach back to classical works to express my feelings for the work. Ultimately, I chose a European Renaissance style, and nothing says “Renaissance typesetting” to me more than ‘Hypnerotomachia Poliphili’ (The Dream of Poliphilus), printed by Aldus Manutius in 1499 using type made by Francesco Griffo. 

*with permission, of course
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili
The image above is in the Public Domain and taken from the Met Museum website:

The design convention of the day allowed odd word breaks and hyphenations, but my admittedly modern preference is a justified text block with no hyphenation, and so the first challenge:. 

When setting a justified text block, you need to consider character count and line endings. The first is mostly so you don’t run out of type, and the second is so you can minimize hyphenated words at line endings. In the past, knowing the character count also allowed you to estimate a text block size by referring to a setting table. These were reference tables of popular faces printed in textbooks as late as the late 1960s. Commercial typesetting houses would often offer sample text blocks set in different text widths and sizes & leading to help estimate the number of characters you should expect to use. Type specification was still easier than rendering type – you actually had to be able to draw. 

This text was hand-set in a non-standard face, so were are no tables to consult. Luckily, I could rely on a page layout program to do all that work, and  it only required a matching digital font. Also, it’s relatively easy to justify type if you have a wide enough set width; narrower widths require careful word spacing and judicious use of spacing materials. Using a Roman face, you can also employ letter spacing, which does not work well with either Italic or Blackletter faces. The text above* is 16D/18 Monotype Poliphilus set to a 46 pica width. 

Then there is introductory emphasis.

 A header with classical ornament is rarely out of place. The names of the poem and author are presented dramatically, couched in this particular pattern of Granjon ornaments which can be traced to 1569.

I tried to make the setting more interesting by employing a rubricated Versal and emphasizing the first three words for a more classical feel. 

The words are kerned by carefully undercutting the type on a printer’s saw, and the baseline shifted slightly downwards for a more pleasing balance. In this case, the Versal also references Ms. Gorman, who wore red and yellow when she delivered this poem at the Inauguration. 

Interestingly, the poem easily lent itself to this style, even to the very last word.  

The trick to setting a ”tail” like this (in either digital or type metal) is to start setting from the bottom and work your way up until you have achieved the full width of the text block. Spacing materials are equal on both sides, and the individual line lengths can be informed by a computer-derived layout.


Printed with permission: “The Hill We Climb” ©2021, Amanda Gorman.