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Resurrecting Ancient Typography

During Summer Semester in Florence, Italy, Professor Tim Speaker and Anderson University students examined ancient typography. An exhibition December 1 celebrated this art form.

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While many scholars pore over ancient manuscripts in search of messages from long gone generations, an Anderson University professor and his students are studying typography and how it speaks to us.

Students in Professor Tim Speaker’s Digital Resurrections in Typography class held an exhibition that was open to the public December 1, 2023, in downtown Anderson at Chiquola Studio on the Courthouse Square.

Speaker, an art professor at the South Carolina School of the Arts at Anderson University, has a passion for ancient typography and is helping his students appreciate its beauty.

The students have traveled near and far, examining everything from basic hand-painted sign art on buildings in downtown Anderson to ancient lettering carved in stone in Italy. They have also examined the typefaces used with old-fashioned printing presses. Drawing inspiration from these experiences, they’ve been creating typography that evokes a feel of well-worn characters, but resurrected in digital form.

Professor Speaker said Digital Resurrections in Typography is the result of an experiment.

“It began with a simple premise,” Speaker said, “By diving deep into the past for vernacular typography, ghost type, lost signage, and ‘dead’ type specimens, could antiqued forms be renewed in a contemporary, digital context? And what kind of result would they yield?”

Speaker’s experiment was undertaken through a desire to connect to the unknown, nameless, and  deserted sign-painters, letterers, typographers and designers lost to history. Taking Type Walks through downtown Anderson, students have researched and re-created typefaces, preserving lettering that otherwise would be lost in a demolition project or removal of a sign.

“We sought to recover, to revive and to resurrect them,” Speaker said. “We sought to rescue these overlooked, wayward beauties of typographic form, forgotten for decades, left to dissipate and decay.”

“We’ve been working all semester on resurrecting typefaces… hand-painted signs, hand-carved stone—those kinds of things,” said Emily Miller, a Graphic Design major who is minoring in Art History. “We’ve had a lot of conversations about resurrecting an old typeface and old lettering and what it means in terms of history and stories being told.”

While the students are gaining an appreciation for the beauty behind how messages have been crafted through the ages, they are also learning about giving an art form new life—digitally.

“The results are at turns surprising and subtle, elegant and radical, playful and sublime. In short, they are alive,” Speaker said.

Graphic Design senior Knoxie le Roux began work on a typeface inspired by letters she found when wandering the streets of Sienna, Italy, during a study abroad trip last summer.

“Since I only had four letterforms, it is more of an inspired typeface than a resurrection because I didn’t have a whole lot to reference, while still staying true to the traditional letterforms from the Italian Renaissance,” le Roux said. When in Rome, le Roux saw where Eighteenth-Century typographer Giambattista Bodoni lived and worked. Bodoni’s typeface is widely used, and is a favorite of the fashion industry and can be found in Vogue magazine.

“He was in the streets of Rome and he was right outside Trajan’s Column—that’s where his apartment was,” le Roux said. “It was great for someone who is young and interested in typography to see how Bodoni, when he was a young, ambitious, creative individual, was doing at that time and what he was drawing inspiration from.”

In Italy, Miller was enthralled by the ancient lettering of a grave she found in a small church near Florence. She discovered that the modest little church was a favorite of legendary Italian artist Michelangelo.

From her inspiration came a typeface she titled “Villanella.”

Because the stone floor of the church had been walked on for centuries, the lettering in places had been subject to significant wear. Miller pondered whether she should resurrect the characters as they were originally created, or view the worn-down areas as a thing of beauty to incorporate into her design.

“It’s more of a unique take on that because I was preserving how I saw it in the wear of time on the letter forms,” Miller said.

“Just how far back those letters of history would go, back into Roman times, Medieval ages, was so fascinating to see,” said Graphic Design major Isabelle Rigsbee. “In a day you could see from Roman times to World War II typography in a day, even right next to each other. It was really fascinating.”

“From Renaissance Florence, Italy to Downtown Anderson, South Carolina, these lost voices speak again,” Speaker said.



The South Carolina School of the Arts

The South Carolina School of the Arts at Anderson University offers Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Fine Arts, Bachelor of Music, Bachelor of Music Education and Master of Music Education degrees with majors and concentrations in graphic design, painting and drawing, ceramics, art education, musical theatre, acting, theatrical design, theatre, acting and directing, dance, worship leadership, music education, and vocal, keyboard and instrumental performance. Visit them online here.


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