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2. The True source of the Sans

posted on 2021-03-05, 07:16 authored by Jon MeltonJon Melton

ATypI 18 Antwerp Type Legacies Conference

The True source of the Sans

Published online January 2019

[Play, and Listen online to the Presentation while studying the Slides on Figshare. Or download the low-res Presentation with presenter notes .pdf]


The search for the origin of today’s commercial sans serif typography has become something of a ‘holy grail’ for type historians. The earliest known example of a deliberately geometrical ‘serif-less’ letterform was confirmed back in the late 1990s, on a plan-drawing title block for a new parliamentary building. It was produced whilst on the grand tour by the architect John Soane. Duly exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1779, it marked the start of Soane’s utilising this then-radical letterform on his design drawings and for inscriptions on buildings. Prior to Soane’s exhibited ‘Design for a British Senate House’, there is a void. Scholars are aware that the sans serif originates within the letterforms of Greece and the informal inscriptions of the Roman Empire. But what inspired Sir John Soane to use it, for what appears to be the very first time? Type designer and academic Jon Melton reveals his extensive research and evidence of ‘The True Source of the Sans’ within a condensed paper that generates a new chapter in type-design history and launches Fount Sans1756 (now renamed ETRVSCA Sans), a revival typeface of the 18th century, the legacy for all the countless sans serif fonts today. 

[Contextual Narative]:

“Francesco Piranesi led Soane down the hall towards his father’s studios and busy workshops at the back of the Palazzo Tomati, a large house just up from The Spanish Steps on Strada Felice (late known as Via Sestina). Passing a partially open door, our English architect caught sight of a woman in her early twenties engaged in engraving who appeared distraught. “Laura” Francesco exclaimed abruptly, “soon to be married”. Piranesi’s family were very much part of the business. Senior Piranesi had greeted Soane upon his arrival in Rome earlier in the Summer of 1778 but the great man was not in good health and had not been able to meet with him on this occasion. But Francesco his son, had been charged with accommodating Soane’s request for his design of a British Senate House to be drawn up for presentation and submission to the Royal Academy in London. As the gold medal winning scholar on tour, Soane was looking to impress and demonstrate his progressive knowledge of the neoclassical and that he was developing as a worthy architect. He was led to Piranesi’s library and print room where they would conduct business and discuss the fee. Soane had every confidence in the ability of Francesco to render the elevation drawing to the desired high standards of the Academicians but hesitated about what to do about the design for the Plan with a 'C' shaped colonnade that referenced that of St Peter’s Square. It required fresh inspiration. Obligingly, Francesco directed Soane towards a drawer of prints that were first published in 1756, some 20 years earlier – the Antichità Romane. These were from a book that Soane had been familiar with whilst working with the architect George Dance and during his studies at the RA. Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s genius at capturing both the structural magnificence and contextual romanticism of the antiquities of Rome was second to none. Having spread a number of prints on the large library table, Soane's eye was drawn to the plan design for a Nymphaeum built for Emperor Nero — and what appeared to be two title blocks in the form of inscriptional Roman stone fragments. But the lettering was in a manner Soane had never seen before; deliberately geometric, constructional, and highly rational. Perhaps the perfect proportions for the modern Neo-classical."

Research Questions: What is the source that inspired Soane, and an eighteenth century serif-less letterform? What influenced a young John Soan[e] on the Grand Tour to include two tabula ansata title blocks with the then, radical serif-less near mono-line and geometric lettering on his drawing for submission to the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition of 1779? And who likely executed the plan drawing titled ‘Design for a British Senate House’ to Soane’s sketches whilst he was travelling in Italy? Was this ‘modern’ sans serif lettering informed by Graeco-Roman inscriptions, or earlier archaic serif-less Roman scripts?


Published in January 2019 online at: and submitted to the REF21.

 ATypI18 Antwerp, Type Legacies: 


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