All travellers to Rome experience the convergence of history; iconic monuments, fascinating architecture, cobbled streets. A maze of narrow roads and lanes to wander, struck by the placement of fragments, fountains, pillars and parks. Not to mention traffic, tourists and tiramisu.

For a graphic designer, the first glimpse of Trajan’s Column is peering into the evolution of serif typefaces. The serif origin begins in Roman antiquity, then moves to the Renaissance when interest in the classical world combines with the advent of the printing press. In particular, the font Trajan takes its direct inspiration from the ancient hand-carved inscription at base of the column. Designed by Carol Twombly for Adobe in 1989, most will know Trajan as a font used on movie posters and book covers.

Walking the Roman Forum is to see up-close carving remnants lying on the ground. In the four arches one cannot but admire the skill of people long-past; the elegance of the letter forms surviving through time. Of course, beyond the artistry, the inscriptions provide direct evidence for events and people of the Ancient World.

For a designer, apart from the historical chronicle, the typography has a beauty all of its own. There is a tangible sense to our collective professional past. Long before desktop publishing, offset presses, hot metal type, illuminated manuscripts and Gutenberg; masons elegantly carved roman letters into slabs of stone. Throughout the former Roman Empire, there are hundreds of museums and sites to view artfully carved inscriptions. Two particular favourites of mine are: Lugdunum Museum, Lyon and Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Colonge.

Above: Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Colonge, Germany.

Above: Musée archéologique – Eglise Saint-Pierre, Vienne, France.

For those wishing to explore further, The Origin of Serif, 1968 by Edward Catich is recommended reading. Whether we can truly say at this point in time serifs originate from brush strokes or if they were used to neaten the chisel end, is perhaps, to miss the point of the underlying typographic elegance.

The serif is one of many fonts used in Ancient Rome. Technically, these are known as: Republican and Imperial capitals, rustic capitals, square capitals (Imperial Roman capitals written with a brush), uncials, and half-uncials, and a cursive script. The Vindolanda Tablets feature mesmerising examples this handwriting.

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