Academic journal article Printing History

Geofroy Tory's Champ Fleury in the Context of the Renaissance Reconstruction of the Roman Capital Alphabet

Academic journal article Printing History

Geofroy Tory's Champ Fleury in the Context of the Renaissance Reconstruction of the Roman Capital Alphabet

Article excerpt

THE designer of this woodcut [Fig. 1], the Parisian scholar and printer Geofroy Tory, was one in a series of intellectuals and artists who, in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, invented the capital letter as we know it today. He is a link between Italian antiquarians of the fifteenth century, who first revived the antique Roman letterforms based on inscriptions from tombstones and ruined buildings, and the adaptation of those designs as typefaces for letterpress printing, on which he had a substantial, if indirect, influence. (1)

Yet Tory's crowning achievement, an artfully worded and lovingly illustrated linguistic and artistic handbook entitled Champ f Bury, has suffered for scholarly attention. The book attempts to resolve what Tory sees as a lack of explanation behind the geometric alphabetic construction pioneered in Italy. The result, a fearsome web of esoteric content and questionable assertions, is easier to dismiss than to address; Stanley Morison used the term "cabalistic abracadabra," and Tory's twentieth century biographer called it a "paradox ... maintained by arguments so ingenious, that one lacks courage to condemn it. (2)


Tory's goal is stated clearly enough throughout the book: he asserts the divine perfection of the letterforms in the alphabet, and derives from them lessons in moral rectitude. But Champ fleury's strangeness, and our modern difficulty in coming to terms with it, is a result of Tory's use of the fundamentally medieval tool of biblical exegesis to make sense of a Renaissance invention, the geometric construction of letterforms. He uses techniques rooted in medieval biblical scholarship and antique literary criticism to treat the alphabet itself as a text to be analyzed and interpreted. But rather than setting him apart from his Renaissance contemporaries, his words illuminate some of the influence of medieval thought on Renaissance artistic innovators.

I start off this paper with a brief introduction to the early revival of the Roman capital letter by Renaissance antiquarians. I will then discuss Geofroy Tory's background, introduce Champ fleury, and step through its exegetical content layer by layer. I conclude with notes on the historical roots of Tory's thought and their relevance to the Renaissance reconstruction of the Roman capital alphabet.


Our modern serif capital letter is based on Roman inscriptions from the first century AD, revived by Renaissance antiquarians who believed it to be aesthetically superior to epigraphic scripts then in use--mainly gothic--and more regular than early medieval (pre-gothic) majuscules. The early decades of the fifteenth century saw the beginnings of the revival of the antique Roman letterforms in Florence and Padua, notably in Ghiberti's and Donatello's sepulchral inscriptions, (1) Masaccio's paintings, (2) and, mid-century, Mantegna's Eremitani frescoes. (3) Andrea Mantegna, in particular, brought a new level of scholarship to the reproduction of these letters. But the bellwether, if not pioneer, of the developing revival of the Roman capital was Mantegna's fellow scholar, travel partner, and friend, Felice Feliciano, who formalized the first known geometric alphabetical construction.

Feliciano's 1460 manuscript, Alphabetum Romanum, now resides in the Vatican Library in Rome. (4) It comes with no introductory material and is laid out with a large letter on each page, accompanied by brief drawing instructions directly underneath. The letters are circumscribed by a circle and square, divided into ten units. The instructions repeatedly refer to construction with a compass and straightedge, and almost exclusively use the proportion of one to ten as a basis for measurement.

Feliciano appears to be the first of his contemporaries to have associated the geometric scaffold and Platonic numbers with the construction of the letters, and the contradictions that emerge when such rational theory conflicts with archeological evidence are notably clear in his work. …

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