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Through handwriting the natural flow of the hand lets the letters appear with a »swing«, a slant created through the right to left (or left to right) movement of the writing process. This »swing« manifests itself also in the modulation of the line width, depending on the tool used to write. In type history the first visual appearance of such a style is set in around 1500. The Venetian printer Aldus Manutius and his punchcutter Francesco Griffo replicated the visuality of handwritten letters typographically, printing whole books set with these so called »italic« typefaces. These typeface, i.e. used in Manutius’ Vergil in 1501 (Fig. 1), tend to imitate cursive scripts which were developed for the efficient and speedy copying of letters or books in the 13th century. Due to the above described natural flow of handwriting and its slantedness the letters shape of a regular, upright typeface has to change into a rather fluid shape when transferred into an italic one. This transition appears naturally, as also the general upright antiqua and their ductures are at least based on handwriting principals.
Over time other letterforms came up – first the blackletter shapes and later on the linear-grotesks. In those new letter shapes all traces of a writing hand have vanished; a fact which makes an italic version of those letter shapes at least difficult. In their origin, italic blackletters simply did not exist. The situation of italic sans serif typefaces is more complicated – at the time italic versions of sans serif typefaces were needed, they just got slanted (mostly to the right), to be called »oblique« (Fig. 2). These prototypical linear-grotesque italics do not contain humanistic elements anymore, whilst the appearance of speed becomes visible and actually becomes the prevailing character.
Dr. Peter Walker, psychologist at Lancaster University, investigated the brain’s reception of visual motion. He analysed thousands of images of people and objects in motion, animate and inanimate, and found out, that greater leaning forward into their movement conveys greater speed, as well as depicting items move from left to right. This phenomenon could also be observed in the larger availability of left-to-right italic typefaces in right-to-left writing systems as Hebrew (Fig.3).
It was a definite yet unconscious choice to slant the letters instead of creating other new letter shapes such as upright italics – as to be seen in »Computer Modern«, mostly used in mathematical contexts (Fig.4) – or anything else. So why did italic versions of grotesque typefaces evolve, if it was not for imitational purpose? Besides the functional typographic use of emphasis (a rather subtle one as the distinction between regular and italic is not as obvious as in serif typefaces), the emergence of grotesque italics in the end of 19th century happened as an apace follow-up to the visual needs within a society of industrialisation: More advertising, more products, more description, more accentuation, more competetive advantage. The speed that was brought into daily life of society had to find its visual equivalent.
Does the italization of grotesques evolve as follow-up to the imperative of industrialisation? Or is it, in itself, an imperative of industrialisation, which we silently obey without even being aware of?
The italization of grotesques seamlessly followed the displacement of humanistic characteristics. It brings the speed of the engines into the letters – a subtle but powerful indicator of an accelerated age. MGD Virilio is an outcome of the question, if it is possible to transfer the speedy and dynamic characteristics of an italic typeface (which MGD Virilio started as (Fig.5)) into an upright regular typeface. One could say it has lost its speed, but the process certainly left its mark on MGD Virilios aesthetics – it can be read as a homage to the idea of Virilio’s frantic stagnation.