Posted by: mattcolvin | February 24, 2011

Brief History of Greek Printing and Scripts

This website looks absolutely fascinating. It is a catalog from an exhibition called “Formatting the Word of God”, specifically from a chapter called “The First Fifty-Two Years of Greek Printing.” As a calligrapher and a student of Greek literature, I have long appreciated the elegant typography of our modern editions from Teubner and Oxford. So it was fascinating to browse the web for more information about the origins of Greek typography.

Our ancient papyri are usually not terribly calligraphic. Here’s an example from Oxyrhynchus, P.Oxy. LXIX 4708, a scrap of Archilochus that was discovered in 1897:


Maiuscule Greek doesn’t lend itself to calligraphy for long texts, but we do have some prettier Uncials, like this one of the Gospels and Acts from the 10th century:


For my money, however, minuscule manuscripts offer more elegant letterforms, though usually not with a calligraphic pen. A good example is this minuscule Gospel of John from a 13th century manuscript (Gregory-Aland 2813):


But things get really interesting as we reach the age of the printing press. I’ll start with the end and work backward:

The great Cambridge classicist Richard Porson (1759-1808) “excelled … in writing with neatness and beauty” and “wrote notes on the margins of books with such studied accuracy that they rivalled print”. Here’s his copy of Euripides’ Phoenissae:


Porson’s clean, easy to read letering became the basis for the Porson typeface, cut by Richard Austin and cast by the famous Caslon type foundry. It is used in most of the Oxford Classical Texts series to this day:


(For more on the Porson typeface, see this webpage.)

The major series of classical texts other than Oxford is the Bibliotheca Scriptorum Graecorum et Romanorum Teubneriana. The Teubner series is more comprehensive than the Oxfords, but its presentation is perhaps not as elegant. Here is an excerpt from Aeschines’ Against Ktesiphon, set in Teubner’s typical Vusillus font:


But Porson and Vusillus are relatively tame compared to the elegant fonts designed by celebrated typographer Claude Garamond in 1541. Commissioned by the French king Francis I, the so-called Grecs du Roi were modeled on the handwriting of the great Cretan calligrapher Ange Vergèce. Some samples of Vergèce’s hand:

(A copy of Basil’s Hexameron.)

Vergèce had an artistic daughter, apparently named Euterpe, who illustrated some of his manuscripts, as for instance these pages from Manuel Philè’s De natura animalium (London, British Library, Ms. Burney 97):




(Click here for more from the De Natura Animalium. How I would love to have a facsimile copy of it to go with my Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta…)

The Grecs du Roi were also used by Robert Stephanus to print his Greek New Testament. Stephanus was the first to divide the Bible into the verses that we still use today. Some pages:

The opening of Mark:



A closeup of Grecs du Roi (not sure what it’s from):


Particularly impressive are the punches, which are still preserved:



I wish I could get a font like that for my Mac. It would be stupendous! (Update: I found one!)

Vergece’s Greek handwriting was the epitome of late-medieval and Renaissance Scribal art. It did not, however, lend itself easily to the printing press. In contrast to Roman type, with its generally square letterforms and convenient isolation of each letter to its own block, late medieval Greek handwriting had a tendency, in the words of Robert Proctor, “to replace simple ligatures with complex abbreviations, and to reduce whole words to a labyrinthine tangle of flourishes.” Proctor was speaking out of a modern printer’s perspective in 1900, at a time when the legibility of Porson and Vusillus had won out over the Grecs du Roi. Nicholas Barker offers a more favorable view of Garamond’s triumphant font in his book Aldus Manutius and the Development of Greek Type and Script in the Fifteenth Century.


  1. […] can observe some similarities between his Greek script and the hand of Ange Vergecius in my recent post on the history of Greek typography. But in Vergecius, the ligatures and flourishes generally […]

  2. The close up of the Grecs du Roi is from Thucydides II, 36-37, Pericles’ funeral speech.
    Stephen Spowart

    • Thanks, Stephen!

  3. Reblogueó esto en De Philologia et Aliis.

  4. Exairetikon!!!

  5. In a book about the Knoss Palace it is mentioned, that there was ´ενα τυπογραφε´ιο in the Palace. Can anyone please tell me what kind of typography is meant in this case?
    Thank you.

  6. Your attribution and chronology concerning the editions of Aldus Manutius are dead wrong: they came some half a century (!) before Garamond’s Grecs du Roi, and the Greek typefaces used were cut by the great Francesco Griffo, the one who we, by the way, owe modern typography and on whose Latin typefaces Garamond based his own (Didot bluntly says “copied them”!). Cheers.

    • Thanks for the correction. I will make the change.

      • You’re welcome.

  7. By the way, the scribe’s name on whose hand Griffo based the typeface was Immanuel Rhusotas. Cheers

  8. Any reading recommendations? I’d love to find out more.

    • A good shortcut is a PhD thesis by one Kostas Bartsokas, titled “Early Greek Printing Types”, easy to find on the web using a search-engine. It is well done, well illustrated, and – should you want more – it contains a list of literature sufficient enough to make you an expert. Cheers.

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