The Typehead Chronicles: Bembo
      Of Thomas Christensen, ABCedminded Typesetter  

homeward bound



Identifying Characteristics

  • F has a pretty long midbar
  • W has crossed misstrokes with meeting serifs
  • y has a rather short descender
  • a and e have small counters
  • italic y has a calligraphic quality but an abrupt bottom serif
  • Italic A leans to the right
  • italic k has a loop
  • italic g has a punched-in bowl
  • italic z has a curvy, "off-kilter" quality
  • italic r divides rather close to the base


Monotype Corporation, under the direction of Stanley Morison, 1929

Based on type cut by Francesco Griffo (sometimes styled "da Bologna"), Venice 1495, for use in De Aetna, an account of a visit to Mount Etna by Pietro Bembo; the italic is based on Giovanni Tagliente, Venice, 1520s.

A first (1928) effort at an italic produced what is now called Fairbank Italic (sometimes Bembo Condensed Italic, a chancery italic cut by Alfred Fairbank; Monotype considered it inadequately related to the roman. (Morison: "It had the great virtue of all the chancery cursives: it was legible in mass and can easily be read by the page. So much so that, in fact, it looked happier alone than in association with the Bembo roman.")

"Pietro Bembo (1470-1547), prominent humanist, poet, and churchman, was closely involved with the Aldine Press from its very inception. The first book issued by Aldus, Lascaris's Greek grammar (see no. 2), was printed from a copy provided to Aldus by Bembo, who had studied with Lascaris. Bembo's own first work, De Aetna (1496), and his editions of Petrarch's Rime sparse and Dante's Commedia were printed by Aldus.

"Gli Asolani describes a wedding feast at Asola, during which a discussion ensues concerning love. Its subject, whether love is a good or a bad thing, may well have established Bembo as the preeminent philosopher of his generation.

"The first edition of Gli Asolani has attracted attention in no small part because certain copies of it contain a dedication to the famous and notorious Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI, sister of Cesare Borgia, and duchess of Ferrara."


Griffo designed the type for Aldus Manutius, whose type was, at the beginnings of the modern revival of typography, considered by many to be less good than that of Nicolas Jenson, of twenty-five years earlier. (William Morris: "The famous family of Aldus" were "artistically on a much lower level than Jenson's, and in fact they must be considered to have ended the age of fine printing in Italy.")

Morison himself prefered type cut by Griffo for Hypnerotomachia Poliphili by Francesco Colonna, printed by Aldus in 1499. Monotype called its revival (1923) "Poliphilus." Subsequent taste has, however, favored Bembo.

Digital Versions

Bembo is one of my favorite text faces. Adobe Bembo, however, has received a lot of criticism in the typophilic community for not living up to the quality of the metal version. It is said to be light and spindly and to produce a palid gray page. (Some of this criticism may be overdone.) Some recommend Minion as an alternative, but I am not a fan of Minion. Another proposed alternative is Dante, but I think it has an entirely different feel. There are a couple of new versions of Bembo-like digital fonts that might be worth looking into. One is JY Aetna by Jack Yan. Another is the new Yale typeface by Matthew Carter, but it is only "available to Yale employees, students, and authorized contractors for use in Yale publications and communications," a restriction that is a giant step backward.

Now, in 2005, Monotype has released a new digital version of Bembo, called Bembo Book. It is said that this version restored many of the admirable qualities of the letterpress Bembo; I haven't tested this assertion.

For more discussion of digital Bembo, see these links:

Character and Use

The type has (as Bringhurst observes) a serene quality. It calls attention to itself by refusing to call attention to itself, and yet it is elegant (without being as fancy as Centaur). It is an excellent book face.

I have used Bembo as the text face in many books. In Dale Pendell's Pharmako/Poeia, for example, where I paired it with Adobe Garamond Titling.

Say What?

  • "Bembo roman and italic are somewhat quieter and less faithful to their sources than Centaur and Arrighi. They are nevertheless serene and versatile faces of genuine Ranaissance structure."
    --Robert Bringhurst
  • "On the whole it has to be said that while the first italic [Fairbank] has too much personality the second has too little. While not disagreeable, it is insipid."
    --Stanley Morison
  • "Tolerable but uninspiring."
    --John Miles (RN)




Bembo's Zoo




digital versions

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