Labore et constantia

The starting point of the typeface Portonovo is the book Martyrologium Romanum printed by the Plantin Press from 1690.

Photo of Martyrologium Romanum from 1690…

…and its cover

I encountered a copy of this book in an exhibition in the Cathedral of Cefalù in Sicily. Intrigued by the quality of the used typeface and the beautiful typesetting, I was moved by the idea to translate these letters in to the digital age.

The print workshop Officina Plantiniana was in the 16th century one of the leading publishers. Christophe Plantin founded this institution in Antwerp, his work influenced many type designers. Typefaces like Times New Roman or Plantin are built on the work of the Officina Plantiniana.

Labore et constantia (Labor and Constancy) was the motto of Christophe Plantin (1514–89), printer and major publisher

High definition scan of a page from Martyrologium Romanum

The Beginning

I started with a close analysis of the typeface; scanning the letters, comparing shapes and finding common characteristics. I was particularly interested in the streamlined rhythm of the typeface. The letters resemble early cuts of Caslon and Garamond. The style is elegant and very orderly.

But how to digitise such forms? The used letterpress printing technique in combination with cotton paper makes details blurry. I indexed my favourite scanned version of each letter. My focus was showing the structure of the source font, showcasing details from the printing process was not my intent.

A close up of the sources typeface reveals ambiguity

A sketch made with tracing paper captures the essence of the structure

I enjoyed this scope of possibilities, for example with the serifs. They are squared and fit well to the rhythm of the source material. In other aspects, I tried to be more close to the source.

The work loop was an extensive back and forth. Some conventions had to adjust to fit the common standards today. An example of this is the lowercase-p which has no continuous crossbar.

…or a lowercase-p with no serif at the bottom

…lowercase-q has the same characteristic

The refinement process was quite tedious and long. To find the perfect rhythm in the text was challenging. Once I had the basics right, I started testing the fonts.

An early quirky version showed the direction…

…of the final version of Portonovo.

After a lot of laser printing, I got the sensation that Portonovo needed a second version for smaller sizes. I designed the two versions as close as possible; the main difference is the increased x-height and the looser tracking.


A variable font animation shows the two versions

Out of sight, out of mind.

I am delighted to see the essence of the source typeface in Portonovo. To work with such inspiring historic books printed by one of the most important press was a delight.

Portonovo occupies a gap in the typographic landscape. She has a sophisticated appearance with a modern and minimalistic approach. The two versions make the font very flexible and give designers a lot of possibilities.

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