Books from Finland 4/2000.
True to type
Suomen typografinen atlas 16421827, III
[An atlas of Finnish typography 16421827]
Toim. [Ed. by] Anna Perälä
Helsinki: Helsingin yliopiston kirjasto, 2000.
702p., 598p., ill. ISBN 951-45-9062-7
FIM 1 500 (US$ 214), hardback
The massive, two-volume Suomen typografinen atlas 16421827
('An atlas of Finnish typography 16421827'), which forms part
of the Finnish national biography 14881800 project, is a handsome
survey and documentary of the type decorations and fonts used by the
printing presses which were founded in Finland in the 17th and 18th
centuries. The Atlas provides a tangibly informative supplement to the
history of the art of printing in Finland and the difficult conditions
in which it was stubbornly sustained and developed.
During the first centuries of printing,
Finland was a province of the Swedish crown. Gutenberg's mid 15th-century
invention met a clear social need and spread through central and southern
Europe with astonishing speed. The first operating printing press in
Sweden opened as early as 1483, although only temporarily. In Finland
too, particularly within the church, the importance of the new invention
was rapidly appreciated. In 1488 a missal, the Missale Aboense,
was printed in Lübeck to a commission from the diocese of Turku.
The first books in Finnish were published in the 16th century, but printed
in Sweden. It not until a good 150 years after the printing of the Missale
Aboense that Finland finally got a printing press of its own. After
many setbacks, the project was finally realised by Peder Eriksson Wald,
who had already been working as a printer in Sweden, with a press set
up under the protection of the Turku Academy. The press was modest,
and at first it could not print more than half a sheet of paper at a
time. Wald was, however, a good craftsman, and even his early Turku
works are, despite the shortcomings of the press, polished and stylish.
Finland-Sweden had adopted the German school of typography, with heavy,
blackletter characters, but lighter Roman type was also used, mainly
in the Academy's doctoral theses.
The fonts and printing blocks of Wald
and his followers gradually crumbled, as the Academy apparently did
not have enough funds to improve the press. To remedy the situation,
Bishop Johan Gezelius the Elder founded another printing press in Turku
in 1669. Viipuri had to wait until 1689 for its press, and Vaasa until
1776. The Finnish printing presses found themselves constantly struggling
financially. The presses of Sweden competed mercilessly for any larger
commissions, and often without regard to the monopolies granted to their
Finnish counterparts. The wars against Russia also caused problems.
In the 18th century, it proved necessary more than once to move the
Turku presses to Stockholm for safety.
Anna Perälä delineates Suomen typografinen atlas clearly as
fundamental scholarship whose 'immediate aim is to offer tools for research
into the origin of publications and above all for the identification
and periodisation of Fennica'. With the help of the material contained
in the book, then, it is possible to ascertain whether a book was printed
by one of Finland's first presses before the year 1827. With the help
of the Atlas, one also has a good chance of dating a book printed during
this period to within a couple of years. In some cases an accurate year
can be deduced.
The period covered by the Atlas is well
defined. A great fire destroyed Turku in 1827 and put a stop to the
activity of the city's presses. The fire also destroyed a large proportion
of the literature published in Finland up to that date. The printing
activity that resumed after the fire, in a Finland which had meanwhile,
in 1809, become an autonomous grand duchy of Russia, had clearly entered
a new period. In 1812 Helsinki had become the capital of Finland, and
the Academy, too, moved in 1828 from fire-ravaged Turku to Helsinki.
Much of the carefully reproduced material
from the Atlas consists of decorations and decorative characters, presented
at their original size. For those interested in the stylistic history
of typography, this may be something of a surprise. We have, after all,
become accustomed to thinking of letter-forms, above all, as the basis
of typography. The Atlas, however, shows comparatively few examples
of straightforward setting of text. In the description of character
fonts, stylistic features have been paid scant attention; letter-forms
are merely roughly divided into roman, italic, script, fraktur and schwabacher.
Non-latin character-sets are grouped separately.
Because the Atlas is primarily a tool
for determining the place and date of printing of old books, this decision
is understandable. Various ornaments were used by printing presses for
decades, and often re-used. Many of the ornaments were carved in woods.
Wear and cracking of the plates is clearly visible in the printed products.
The fine printing of the Atlas is in many cases able to chart these
changes step by step in its illustrations. The illustrations are accompanied
by information about the background to the ornaments and their period
of use. In an analysis of this kind, letter-forms themselves are not
of such exact use. It is to be hoped, however, that research into the
history of typefaces will be stimulated by the extensive and thoroughgoing
material presented in the Atlas.
The persistence with which the Finnish intelligentsia supported printing
in Finland and supervised its quality demonstrates their understanding
of the importance of printing in the dissemination of information and
enlightenment. This role lasted, for printing presses, for hundreds
of years. As late as 1940, the English editor and typographer Beatrice
Warde stated the importance of the printing press with solemn beauty:*
A PRINTING OFFICE
CROSSROADS OF CIVILIZATION
REFUGE OF ALL THE ARTS
AGAINST THE RAVAGES OF TIME
ARMOURY OF FEARLESS TRUTH
AGAINST WHISPERING RUMOUR
INCESSANT TRUMPET OF TRADE
FROM THIS PLACE WORDS MAY FLY ABROAD
NOT TO PERISH ON WAVES OF SOUND
NOT TO VARY WITH THE WRITER'S HAND
BUT FIXED IN TIME HAVING BEEN VERIFIED IN PROOF
FRIEND YOU STAND ON SACRED GROUND
THIS IS A PRINTING OFFICE
There is little of this sanctity left in today's
printing presses. The Gutenbergian art of printing, whose early history
the Atlas material represents, reached the end of its road at the end
of the 20th century. The traditional job of the compositor vanished.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Finnish presses were run by a few craftsmen
by the grace of the crown and under strict supervision. Today, anyone
who owns a computer can also be their own 'compositor' and 'printer'.
Typography can be produced by anyone, without any kind of training.
Printing presses have become, essentially, efficient production lines,
with no need for typographical knowledge or skill. Responsibility has
shifted to the producers of text and layout files: writers, editors,
information officers, graphic designers.... It is now time for entirely
new professional groups to adopt the typographical culture that has
been hundreds of years in the making.
The early printed material that is gathered
together in Suomen typografinen atlas is a reminder of the thinness
of Finnish typographic culture. Perhaps the variability and quality
problems of contemporary Finnish typography derive to some extent from
the difficult and comparatively late birth of Finnish book culture.
Suomen typografinen atlas itself, however, is an excellent demonstration
of the fact that it is still possible, with today's printing techniques,
to produce works that are both refined in their typography and illustration
and stylish in their binding.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
* From Typographers on Type,
Lund Humphries Publishers, London 1995