A 500-year-young typeface: Optima

Immortal Santa Croce

Giuseppe De Micheli
December 4, 2014

Humanism encompassed that particular time in history, in the fifteenth century, which placed people at the centre of the world. Even the art of writing boasts humanist characters: letters that were invented with the idea of recovering a style from the past to breathe new life into it in the present.


This is precisely what happened in 1950 when Hermann Zapf visited the church of Santa Croce and saw the inscriptions on the basilica’s sixteenth-century tombstones. Those shapes carved into the marble inspired Zapf’s creation of the Optima font.




On a 1000-lire banknote Zapf reproduced what he saw beneath his feet, taking a design that was almost 500 years old and rendering it modern for use in the here and now.


The curious resurrection of this typeface is nothing new in a place like Santa Croce, however; the 720-year-old basilica is a tome of communicative techniques: from 14th-century ‘PowerPoint presentations,’ vast frescoed slides permanently projected onto the walls, to 16th-century ‘Facebook,’ a photo album of friends and family, which artists of the time used to conjure up monumental paintings for the church’s altar—the only function that Santa Croce is lacking in its bricks and mortar is a ‘share’ or ‘like’ button. 


Opera di Santa Croce has a Facebook page at facebook.com/santacroceopera and a Twitter account at @santacroceopera



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