It's a common misconception that italic is simply regular text at, say, a 23° angle. That could be considered an oblique but not an italic.
To me, the italic is a more pure representation of the designer himself.
They represent the cursive, longhand script — showing what the face could be if it were a writing style.
Like fraternal twins, Italics exist separate from the Roman and are its equal.
Even so, of the two, I find this the more attractive.
(You may notice that the capitals are not sloped. More on that later.)
Italics vary from Romans in a number of different ways:
- Italics are generally cursive.
- Italics tend to slope at an angle which roughly approximates the natural angle for handwriting. Romans are typically perpendicular to the baseline.
- The serifs on an italic are usually placed at the exit and entry points of the letter, making them transitive versus the intransitive Romans which place serifs at the ends of the individual strokes composing the letter.
A comprehensive history of italics closely mirrors the history of serif faces. Instead, I'll present a short background of italics over time here and eventually create a full historical writeup under serif.
Italics are an invention of the Italian Renaissance. The first of their kind was created in 1499 by Francisco Griffo for publisher, Aldus Manutius who commissioned their creation. In memory of him, italics of this type and time period are called Aldine Italics. Early italics generally had a cursive appearance (since they represented handwriting) but lacked a sizeable slope (2 or 3° was common but there are examples of italics with no slope whatsoever). At most, the slope would be 10° while the overall letter shape was usually elliptical with a light, modulated stroke on a humanist axis, all representative of its strong relation to calligraphy and the broadnib pen. Usually the x-height (roughly the height of a lowercase letter in comparison to an uppercase one) was modest. Examples of italics from this time are Monotype Arrighi, based on the 1524 italics of Ludovico degli Arrighi, and Bembo Italic. In reality, while the lowercase are historically accurate, the uppercase and other figures are not because, at the time, the typographical family structure was very different. In the 15th and early 16th centuries, the majuscule (uppercase) and miniscule (lowercase) alphabets were not combined. Therefore, the italic alphabet was entirely lowercase and used the same, upright uppercase as the Roman lowercase. I know of only one type face that follows this tradition (ITC Novarese) and the combination of a Roman uppercase with an italic lowercase designed for it is interesting yet harmonious to look at.
During this early period, the separation of roman and italic lowercases was logical since the two were kept entirely separate; entire books would be set in roman or italic but never mixed both. This started to change in the 16th century and, as a result, italics did as well. Poetica by Robert Slimbach and Galliard (based on Robert Granjon) represent this modification, the Mannerist letter. Both contain sloped roman and the italic form is more exaggerated:
- Ascenders and descenders are large in comparison to the x-height.
- Swashes appear on letters.
- Slope angles increased to approximately 15° from the perpendicular.
In the 1800s, during the Baroque period (which can be seen in Janson Text and Adobe Caslon), roman and italic began to be freely mixed on the page and within lines causing italics to be used to stress particular words or phrases. In an attempt to make italics stand out more, they turned almost bizarre:
- Slope increased to up to 25° but typically varied widely from letter to letter within the face.
- Axis similarly varied by letter - sometimes humanist, sometimes left-handed, sometimes vertical.
- Meanwhile, contrast and x-height increased but aperatures were greatly reduced.
The end result is that italics became somewhat of an incongruous mess, causing a backlash to standardize the italics which reshaped them as little more than a sloped roman lowercase, leaving many of the more recent italics to be, in reality, an oblique
in the Neo-Classical
The result of this subjugation is that the obliques masquerading as italics are not suitable for lengthy passages while italics based on Renaissance forms are beautiful, flowing, and easily readable, just like actual writing. Only since the 1940s have italics made a partial comeback as Lyrical Modernist faces such as Palatino, Dante, and Poppl-Pontifex have reinterpreted the style of the Renaissance and duplicated the forms and techniques (cut in steel and designed with a broadnib pen). Some faces even have attempted to turn the "italic as a secondary roman" theme around. For example, (Hermann) Zapf Chancery has a very slightly sloping italic for the "roman" and a 14° italic with swash caps for the italic. ITC Cerigo is another face that takes this path (but with a fully upright italic for the roman).
Since some italics are simply not designed to be used as a regular typeface, don't use them that way! If you prefer the look of italics, make certain the italics look good as a body text (choose a Renaissance style) or you'll make the text harder to read. In this case, you should pick an appropriate set of caps; swash caps are appropriate so long as they aren't too flowery. Alternatively, a Renaissance roman uppercase with similar contrast might work.
It should almost go without saying, therefore, that you should ignore that I button in your word processor. Unless your word processor is smart enough to substitute fonts appropriately, you'll get a sheered roman which is even worse than an oblique - the axis will be incorrect as well as the width (and any number of other minor issues). Your kerning will be messed up and it just won't look right with letters squished together, running into each other.
Assuming you're using italics mixed with roman text, modern use of italics is fairly formal - italics are primarily a form of emphasis. Never use underlining. Underlining is what people used when they didn't have italics. Underlining told publishers to italicise the text. Underlining doesn't exist in typography. It doesn't matter what the APA or MLA handbook says, they are wrong in this case and generally are changing their position in recent versions.
The defined uses of italics are:
- Titles - Magazines, plays, musical pieces, movies, TV shows, art, speechs, poems. An exception is that religious texts (the Bible, the Koran, the Everything FAQ) are not italicised. They just aren't.
- Foreign words and phrases - Apparently they just have a je ne sais quoi that cries out for italics to increase their mystique.
- Names of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles - Brand names are not italicised but actual names like Minnow, USS Nimitz, HMS Vanguard, Spirit of St. Louis, etc. Note that USS & HMS were not italicised. They aren't technically part of the name but are the item's title.
- General emphasis
One important reminder: When using italics as above, do not place punctuation in italics unless it is part of the phrase. Therefore, "Did you read The Lord of the Rings?" is incorrect while "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? rocks!" is correct (even if completely false).
So you want to try...
As you may have inferred by this point, I like italics. Therefore, here are some attractive italic faces I suggest:
- Centaur - Incorporates Monotype Arrighi for the italic with the Centaur roman.
- Novarese - The only face I've seen that truely designs roman capitals with an italic lowerecase.
- Berkeley Oldstyle
- Fairfield - Modern typeface but the swash capitals give it a nice touch.
- Poetica - One of my favorites if only because it's so complete - 4 chancery versions, roman caps, small caps, 4 sets of swash caps, old style figures, a whole set of ampersands and ligatures, swash initial and ending letters. Amazing.
- Cochin - Playful, interesting italic. The w, h, s, and d stand out.
- Cerigo - Subversive, subjugates the roman to the italic. Finally, revenge.
Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst.