As I wrap up my journey through Italy, I had a chance to visit my friend, Sandro Berra, the Head Coordinator at Tipoteca Italiana, a museum that chronicles the history of typography and book making.
Here visitors are offered a sense of what it was like to publish written works in the early days of mechanized print. On display are archaic machines that required publishers to assemble little metal letters, one-by-one, in a reverse image of the page they wanted to print. The process was tedious, painstaking, and God help you if you discovered a typo.
In the next room are more evolved machines that allowed printers to use a rudimentary keyboard to funnel the same type of metal characters through a series of channels and into the same type of character grid. Each machine gets more sophisticated, until you arrive in a room of Twentieth Century printing presses that once rapidly spewed out pages in the days before computers and laser printers.
Then there is typography. In the digital age in which we live, we take fonts for granted. At Tipoteca, I got a sense of how they were designed. It gave me a new appreciation for their symmetry and geometry, how the loops and lines of different characters functioned within the harmony of a given typeface.
Perhaps most interesting was the evolution of the written word itself. It began with the earliest writing carved into wood or stone. The museum had an ancient piece of wood with tiny ruins that resembled something Tolkienesque.
As humans evolved, people began making marks in wet clay that, after it hardened, provided a portable means to deliver messages. In the display case, a clay piece the size of a billfold shows intricate triangular markings. The placard explains that this is a receipt for purchased goods.
Next came papyrus, a paper-like substance made from plant material. It was thin, so could only be written on one side and, while it worked fine in dry climates, in humid areas it was susceptible to rot.
Around 200 A.D. came parchment. I was surprised to learn that parchment was made from animal skins. It had the advantage that you could write on both sides of it, but it also had problems in climates with big changes in humidity.
Finally came paper and the various forms of quills and pens that went with it. It made me think of the old masters: William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Henry James. These writers didn’t even have typewriters! Imagine having to tip your writing implement in ink every few words. What a pain in the butt.
It made me truly appreciate how easy it is to write today, with spelling and grammar checkers and all the easy tools for editing and correcting one’s work. We are limited now only by our imaginations, time and effort. All things under our control.
Brian Mercer is the author of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body Experience (Llewellyn, 2004) and the Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, he is the webmaster of and occasional contributor to Author Magazine. When he’s not working as a programmer analyst or exploring alternate dimensions out of body, he can be found writing novels. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara.