A head of lettuce. The shoulder of a road. Arms and legs of a chair. It is natural for humans to assign metaphors based on what is most familiar and comfortable to our knowledge. Language is no different.
“We read best what we read most.” —Zuzana Licko
Alphabets are the building blocks of language and are quintessential to human thought and fundamental communication. To see the construction of letterforms take the shape and qualities of the human body is appropriate.
Proportion, scale, contrast, and weight all inform descriptors of typefaces — as well as human anatomy. Balance and rhythm of the body can be likened to the cadence and flow of letters in a sentence. (The Bouma shape abstractly reinforces this idea. Hereis a more in-depth essay on the subject.)
I have a theory that there is a direct link between human anatomy and typographic construction; between anatomical nomenclature and typographic vernacular; that there is a transparent connection between how letterforms are addressed and the makeup of the human body. Ancient Egyptians even wrote the human form into their alphabet in the form of hieroglyphics. This essay explores that connection.
In 1529, engraver Geoffroy Tory — printer of The Book of Hours(1525) — published Champfleury. (“Champfleury” translates from French to something like “field of flowers”.) Tory subtitled his work, “The Art and Science of the Proportion of the Attic or Ancient Roman Letters, According to the Human Body and Face.”
In Thinking With Type, Ellen Lupton writes,
The painter and designer Geoffroy Tory believed that the proportions of the alphabet should reflect the ideal human form. He wrote, “the cross-stroke covers the man’s organ of generation, to signify that Modesty and Chastity are required, before all else, in those who seek acquaintance with well-shaped letters.”
This is a fascinating example of anthropomorphizing typography.
Anthropomorphism is the implication and application of human characteristics applied to a tangible object, theme, or ideal.
In Renaissance-era France, Tory wrote and illustrated from a humanistic lens, to showcase man as the supreme being of Creation and therefore the model for all created beings and thought thereafter. Tory used the human form and its proportions to establish a “perfect” letterform and create a harmonious alphabet.
Philippe Grandjean was influenced by the human-based, “scientific” grid to create his Romain du Roi (“King’s Roman”) typeface for King Louis XIV.
There are hundreds of other examples of medieval manuscripts and engravings from late 14th century through late 18th century that cover any imaginable and unruly form of human-letter mutation.
Artist unknown, 1464
Peter Flötner, 1534
I want to be clear not to highlight typography created exclusively from the anatomy of the human form but rather the nuances of how typographic anatomy and corporeal anatomy are parallel.