Written by Teresita Schultz de Carabobo  |  February 02, 2021

With hollow feet and harlequin hats: Tuscan letters, a prank of lapidary origin? (Second part)

Second and final installment of Tere Schultz’s text on Tuscan letters. Those decorative objects, delicate or extravagant, that inhabit the streets and typographic catalogues of all times, without losing an iota of expressive force. The product of ornamental ingenuity, Tuscan vernaculars dress the street signs of Mexico as much as the stained glass windows of Paris, the ‘fileteados porteños’ of Buenos Aires or the hulls of fishing boats in the Amazon waters. Against this notorious and implausible decorative ubiquity, which alarms many, in the first part of this article Schultz unfolded, like a healing balm, his hypothesis of how the Tuscan style would have been born of a mischievous interpretation of the inscriptions on stone. In this second chapter, it only remains to delight us with some examples of Tuscan vernaculars from some corners of the world.

Table of Contents

Read the first part of this article.

[ Note: best read on a computer screen. ]

Ubiquity and variety

After the theoretical and historical considerations of the first part, I would like to take a brief look at the vernacular aspect of this ubiquitous typographic genre.
The world is full of beautiful examples of Tuscans, almost always with local nuances. So let us continue with a brief tour of some of the corners of the world that offer very special Tuscan letterforms, I think, to let us be carried away by their spontaneous frankness.

Paris: casual elegance

In general, street signs can be of two types, hand-drawn or typographic, almost always based on catalogue fonts. In Paris, there is a proliferation of hand-drawn Tuscans, sometimes executed in a haphazard manner.

Even in a casual tone, Tuscans always create a sense of distinction. Even more so if painted in gold.
The excessive informality of the drawing may bring the Tuscan style closer to other genres, such as Art Nouveau. But the form of serifs and terminals makes the ornamental intent unmistakable.
Tiles. Bath and hydrotherapy houses of the early 20th century used simplified Tuscans. Gray calls them ‘semi-Tuscan’ 1 as their terminals are more of an attachment than a structural part of the sign.
Sign above the entrance to the Moulin Rouge, a modern evocation of a Tuscan. Always better at night.
Among the recurring types for shop window signs are the inverted contrast Tuscans, particularly in bakeries.
Curious example: instead of using a decorative type, the sign maker decided to intervene a conventional style by adding diamond points to the vertical half of the letters, thus evoking an ornamental style.
For modern Parisian graphic design and signage, the Tuscan serif form is already more than assimilated into the expressive possibilities of decorative styles. Even if it is combined within a more conventional anatomy.

Mexico’s magic towns and letters

Latin America as a whole and Mexico in particular are always an infinite source of vernacular letterforms, both local interpretations of European traditions as well as local vintages. Here are some examples of interesting Toscanas.

Teatro Alameda, San Luis Potosí city.
Restaurant on the outskirts of San Luis Potosí.
Teatro Ocampo, Morelia, Michoacán.
Wood panel from San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas. Note the thin-thick stroke modulation of the bifurcated serifs in T E L.
Here the Tuscan is suggested by those Texan boots. Effective coincidence of being a shoemaker and being called “Joel”. Cholula, Puebla.
Business in Catemaco, State of Veracruz.
Many taxis in the port of Veracruz have adopted this common Tuscan.
Signs in the unforgettable neighbourhood of Coyoacán, in the south of Mexico City. By municipal regulation, business signs must adopt a Tuscan style. However, each sign-maker makes his own version.
More Coyoacán signs, the variety is endless: from more or less formal Tuscans to local recreations. Photos of Coyoacán courtesy of Loche.
The mortuary section can also be highly unique. Here are examples of 19th century gravestones from Cholula, Puebla. I noted the variety of Tuscan styles, with their highly figured terminals and, as was customary in the 19th century, each line of text in a different style.
The initials were always very elaborate, and the genre hardly refers to other uses, editorial or bookish, they are quite unique.
Close-up detail of previous image. The letters appear to have feathers, and to fly.
It was also the custom of the time to compose all or part of the text in curves. This gives the composition a vivid, empathetic and even joyful character. Mexico’s funerary culture is a celebration of joy, and in that respect it is perhaps unique in the world. See also the gravestones at the beginning of the article.

‘Fileteado’ in La Boca, Buenos Aires

Caminito, the famous tourist promenade in the La Boca neighborhood, south of the city of Buenos Aires, adopted what is called “fileteado porteño”, a technique that exists in other popular cultures but here with very own characteristics. There is also a series of historical signs in the mosaic technique, of great subtlety, to recall significant figures of the culture.

Some ‘Boquense’ [from La Boca] mosaiquisms recalling great characters such as Carlos Gardel or the painter Quinquela Martín.
Typical signs in fileteado porteño, above and further up to the left.
Fileteado is supposed to have started in the ornamental painting of buses, lorries and cars, and mostly makes use of Tuscan letters, bifurcated serifs, three-dimensional, hyper-realistic, colourful, strident. Football and tango are passion, as we know.

“Letras que Flutuam – Mapeamento dos Abridores de Letras da Amazônia” [“Floating letters — Mapping of the Sign Painters”] is a beautiful video record of Fernanda Martins’ research project on the production of ship sign makers in the Brazilian Amazon. 2

Tuscans from the Amazonas

The São Paulo designer Fernanda Martins conducted significant field research into the work of boat letterers in the Amazon region, which included the production in 2014 of an excellent video record called “Floating Letters”. In both the photographic survey and the video, the preponderance of a singular ornamental style is evident: three-dimensional letters, most of the time subdivided in two halves using various colours and always with Tuscan serifs. Martins carried out her research in several towns in the area, observing the particular work of each sign-maker. It is disturbing to note the coincidence in stylistic preference when it comes to painting the names of the boats, all in this three-dimensional Tuscan style.

All boat photos by (and courtesy of) Fernanda Martins, except for the first in the series, by Nailana Thiely.

What would we do without decorative lettering? It is clear that the Tuscan letters occupy a very special place among the expressive typographic possibilities. And whether handmade lettering or digital type, whether near or far from the deceased, they are more alive than ever.


Berry / Johnson / Jaspert, The Encyclopaedia of Type Faces, Blandford, London 1962 (third edition).

Edward Catich, The Origin of the Serif. Brush Writing & Roman Letters, St Ambrose University, Iowa 1991. (First edition 1968.)

Nicolete Gray, Nineteenth Century Ornamented Typefaces, Faber and Faber, London 1976.

Michael Harvey, Adventures with Letters. A Memoir by Michael Harvey, 47 editions, Sheffield [GB] 2012.

Rob Roy Kelly, American Wood Type: 1828-1900, New York, 1969.

Stanley Morison, Politics and Script (Aspects of authority and freedom in the development of Graeco-Latin script from the sixth-century BC), Oxford University Press, 1972.

Catalogue Ornamental Type, Pepin Press, Amsterdam 1999. (First edition 1996.)

Berthold Wolpe (editor), Vincent Figgins Type Specimens — 1801 and 1815, Printing Historical Society, London 1967.

Internet references

Stephen Coles, photo album at

Kate Fehlhaber, “Hubel and Wiesel & the Neural Basis of Visual Perception”,

Nicolete Gray, “The Filocalian Letter”, British School at Rome, 1956. Published on line by the Cambridge University Press: 09 agosto 2013.

Fernanda Martins, Floating Letters video as presented at the ATypI São Paulo, April 5th 2016.

Thomas F. X. Noble, “The Multiple Meanings of Papal Inscriptions in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages”, in The Early Reception and Appropriation of the Apostle Peter (60-800 CE), pp.58–80.

Nick Sherman, “Leeds Playbills website”,

Giampaolo Virga, “La Calligrafia Damasiana”, blog Allontanarsi dalla linea gialla (“Moving away from the yellow line”).

Teresita Schultz de Carabobo is an Argentine renown enthomologist. In leisure moments she passionately devotes herself to the criticism of the typographic arts. Her texts distill a slightly acrid humor, perhaps due to her great fondness for tasting teas.

  1. Nicolete Gray, “The Tuscan Letter and an analysis of the Victorian contribution” appendix one to Nineteenth Century Ornamented Typefaces pp.157-161, Faber & Faber, London, 1976

  2. Video available at:

With hollow feet and harlequin hats: Tuscan letters, a prank of lapidary origin? (First part)

The design of Carolinéale, a humanist sanserif inspired by medieval chant books