Dante was first created as font of metal type in the mid-1950s. Unlike later typesetting technologies, metal type made an actual impression into the paper during printing. In other words, Dante was originally a typeface that was intended to be impressed into paper – not onto it.
The first Dante fonts were the result of a collaboration between two exceptional men. One was Giovanni Mardersteig, a printer, book designer and typeface artist of remarkable skill and taste who was renowned for the work he produced at Officina Bodoni and Stamperia Valdònega, his two printing offices in Italy. The other was Charles Malin, one of the great punch-cutters of the twentieth century.
As a young man at the turn of the last century, Mardersteig developed a keen interest in the typefaces and printing of Giambattista Bodoni. He was fortunate enough to obtain permission to use Bodoni’s original types, for which punches and matrices were still preserved. Charles Malin cut replacements for some of these original punches, and later cut punches for nearly all the new typefaces Mardersteig created.
Dante was Mardersteig’s last and most successful design. By then he had gained a deep knowledge of what makes a typeface lively, legible, and handsome. Working closely with Malin had also taught him the nuances of letterform construction. For Dante, the two worked closely to develop a design that was easy to read. For example, special care was taken with the design of the serifs and top curves of the lowercase to create a subtle horizontal stress, which helps the eye move smoothly across the page. After six years of work, the fonts were first used in 1955 to publish Boccaccio’s Trattatello in Laude di Dante – hence the typeface name.
At about the same time, Monotype persuaded Mardersteig to allow the company to develop machine-set versions of Dante. Using the original punches of the hand-set type as a model, Monotype’s design office was able to produce an exceptionally accurate interpretation of the typeface. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that the original was created without any of the character width and spacing restrictions imposed by machine-set technology.
Monotype also wanted to enlarge the family from just the roman and italic of the original. This proved to be a difficult sell. Mardersteig had no use for the additional weights at his press and, more to the point, had little interest in drawing the additional weights Monotype wanted. Mardersteig was not easily swayed, but the gentle persistence of Monotype (and the help of then twenty-year old Matthew Carter) eventually changed his mind.
Dante met with immediate success, and when Monotype began making phototypesetting equipment the family was quickly released for these machines. Since then, digital fonts have freed type design from virtually all of the restrictions imposed by hot metal and phototype technologies. In the early 1990s, Monotype’s creative staff took the opportunity to rework their Dante designs to more closely represent Mardersteig’s originals.
Mardersteig designed his typefaces for letterpress printing. The ultimate triumph of Dante is that it now serves the needs of digital typography with poise and elegance: proof, once again, that when type is designed with a deep understanding of what it takes to make a typeface distinctive, legible, and attractive, the result is likely to serve a much wider range of applications than those for which it was first intended.