This beautifully illustrated treatise, subtitled “The Art and Science of the Proportion
of the Attic or Ancient Roman Letters, According to the Human Body and Face”
is the most famous example of the Renaissance pursuit of an ideal proportion between humanity and the letters in
which its achievements were recorded. Perspective, the Golden Section, classical
mythology: all were called in aid by its author, Geofroy Tory (ca. 1480-1533),
to show how letters should be made. He used a square grid that foreshadows the
pixels of today’s digital letterforms, a grid on which the perfect shape
of a human face or body could also be set out. The ancient origins of the letters
now came to fruition in a newly classical French language. Tory was the prototypical
Renaissance man, at once a scholar, editor, scribe, illuminator, and bookseller,
and Champ fleury reflected his everyday experiences. His idea of “letters,”
for instance, included language and literature as well as the construction of
letterforms and their visual presentation. The poetic title of his book translates literally
as “flowery fields”; written as a single word, champfleury is
an old French idiom for “paradise,” as in Elysian Fields. This Octavo
Edition features an extraordinary copy of Tory’s 1529 work complemented
by the 1927 English translation by George B. Ives designed by the inimitable
Bruce Rogers and published by the Grolier Club; both books are from the Lessing
J. Rosenwald Collection at the Library of Congress.
The original book imaged for this digital edition:
10 3/16 x 7 1/8 inches (259 x 181 mm)
Geofroy Tory’s response in 1522 to the death of his daughter Agnes, then nearly ten, has both familiar and surprising dimensions. Deeply affected, Tory wrote a poetic epitaph and dialogues involving Agnes in an effort to cope with his loss. He later took them to the printer Simon de Colines to set in type, ultimately publishing the work in a public resolution of his grief. The pot cassé, or broken pot, that was to become Tory’s personal emblem and the sign of his workshop first appeared in this book and was later shown on the title page of Champ feury. In the emblem, a broken vase, symbol of the fragility of the body, stands atop a book to which it is chained and thrice padlocked. A toret, then French for “drill,” is thrust through the vase. The word is a rebus for the name Tory, and the form of the drill resembles that of its first letter. From one corner, rays of sunlight flicker into the scene and provide illumination; from another, an angel, presumably the spirit of Agnes, flies toward heaven.
Most of the earlier printed treatises on letterforms (they number ten or so) were produced in the two decades immediately preceding Tory’s, and almost all were Italian. An exception to this was Albrecht Dürer’s Underweysung der Messung, published in German in Nuremberg in 1525. Refined and systematic in its method, Dürer’s book was primarily addressed to artists who might need, for instance, to incorporate classical capitals into paintings or frescos. Dürer’s treatise on the construction of roman capitals was part of a series of works on proportion and perspective, and it put inquiry into the construction of letterforms on a different footing, linking it not just to geometry and the study of proportion, but also to the new science of perspective. Tory certainly admired Dürer’s mastery as an artist, but Tory was battling what he understood as one of the tendencies of his times, the desire to conceal knowledge; this concern reveals a new social understanding of knowledge as power.
The celebrated American designer Bruce Rogers found an opportunity to bring Tory’s book back to life: he persuaded the Grolier Club, a society of bibliophiles based in New York City, to issue the treatise in a translation made by George B. Ives. Meticulously hand-set in Rogers’ own Centaur type, it featured engravings freshly sharpened by Rogers, a layout that paralleled that of the original, and immaculate printing by William Edwin Rudge. The Library of Congress’ copy of the book from the Rosenwald Collection, presented here as the translation of Tory’s treatise, is one of seven copies printed on larger handmade paper. As was his habit, Bruce Rogers later wrote off the extraordinary effort required to design and produce such a book in a lighthearted send-up he titled Champ Rosé. Published in 1933 at the height of the Depression, its sole illustration was a version of Geofroy Tory’s three-dimensional letter cube. It incorporated Tory’s elemental letters, the capitals I and O, and a third Bruce Rogers thought suited to the times, a U.