Famed font brings tradition to modern city
Story by Mackenzie Nichols
SALAMANCA – Look up. Look to the left, to the right. Look under awnings, on store signs, on the ropes that corral people in museums, even on people’s flesh.
Just about everywhere in Salamanca, it’s easy to spot the pervasive red lettering that brands this city, tying its past to its present with a unique and unmistakable red gothic font.
Known now as simply “Salamanca,” the lettering originated inside the ancient University of Salamanca, where rights of passage were fiercely honored among Spain’s male intellectual elite. Here, inside the stone walls that formed the country’s oldest university, boys who arrived to study subjects such as law, theology, economics and medicine left as men only when they earned the Vitor, a symbol designed around a large “V” for “victory” that would be written onto a wall along with the student’s name and date of graduation.
If that’s not intriguing enough, consider this: The writing was painted on with bull’s blood – both because a bull, then and now, represents power and dominance in Spain, and also because the dark red liquid stained the porous sandstone walls enough so that the symbols endured. Students and teachers would use blood from the corridas, or bullfights, and local meat shops – plentiful here because Salamanca has more bull farms than any other region in Spain.
“In Spanish culture, the bull is a sacred animal, it represents strength and the consistency of natural things,” said Chema Sanchez, who taught philosophy at the university and now teaches linguistics at the Mester School in Salamanca.
Though the practice of using the font started more than 600 years ago, its presence is still vivid in contemporary Salamanca – primarily on storefronts in the Old City. In fact, as part of a measure to integrate “Salamanca” font into the city’s marketing campaign, store owners in the historic district are now required to use the red lettering.
“When a business is opening, they go to City Hall and there are certain requirements the store owners have to fulfill,” said Salamancan police officer Jesus Martinez Andres. “One of those [requirements] is the lettering of the name of the store. If they don’t use the font, they can be reported.”
If that happens, they’d receive a fine, Andres said, and also have to pay to have their signs redone to comply with the code.
ANATOMY OF A BLOOD SYMBOL
University students who were studying to be members of the clergy in the Old Cathedral, where classes were held in the earliest days of the university, were the first to use the symbol, said Ana Hernandez, manager of commerce and economic promotion for the tourism office of Salamanca. No single person has taken credit for the mark, she added. In fact, its exact origin is a mystery in Salamanca, which of course adds to the symbol’s allure and mysticism.
But history is clear about how the symbol has been used for the last six centuries.
“When [the students] passed their exams, they went through the cathedral doors singing ‘Victory!’ and signed the [Vitor] symbol and the year they graduated,” said Hernandez. The design of the symbol draws from Christian, Greek and Roman influences, historians say, and has evolved through three different iterations since the 15th century when it first emerged.
The earliest version of the Vitor appeared in the 1400s with a prominent “V” and an “I” dividing the center with a circle at the bottom of it against the point of the V.
A second version appeared in the late 1500s that incorporated a “C” instead of the “O.” The name of the symbol also changed then from Vitor to Victor. Finally, in the 1900s, the “O” was brought back, encircling the C. That’s the symbol that remains today, with some variations.
Linguists expect that influences from the Christian crismòn, the Roman SPQR and the Greek chi-ro symbol are all elements of the font. Since many people in ancient times could not read and write, these symbols were simple and universal enough to speak to and connect a large community. Also, during the Spanish Renaissance period in the 15th and 16th centuries, the esteemed intellectuals encouraged the university to praise its students and helped the symbol garner popularity.
The vertical construction of the chi-ro symbol is mimicked in the earlier versions of the Victor. The two symbols to the right and left of the prominent ‘x’ of the crismòn are used above certain letters of the alphabet in Salamancan font. The Roman SPQR, a symbol of Roman power, influenced the victor in principle. The professors and students wanted it to represent power through intellect and determination.
“There’s also a metaphoric reference [behind el crismòn] because Christ defeats death,” Sanchez said about one of the oldest known symbols of Christian origin. “The Victor represents victory over knowledge,” he added.
CENTURIES LATER, STILL INHERENTLY SALAMANCAN
As the centuries wore on, the writing moved from inside the university buildings to the walls of other structures in the Old City of Salamanca including the courtyard of the university and on external walls of both cathedrals. Eventually, those scrawlings came to represent old Salamanca – to help define it – and others including store owners, landlords, municipal officials, even tattoo artists, started to incorporate it as well.
“It is a trend, a marketing tool for the university,” said Sanchez. “There are no ties to the government, it has spread solely for cultural image and cultural associations.”
Jeronimo Cànada of Patio-Chico Regalos gift shop on Rua Mayor, a street just outside of the central Plaza Mayor, used the font for his store’s sign to comply with the city’s emphasis on preservation of its cultural image. Patio-Chico Regalos is in the old neighborhood, which includes the area surrounding the Old Cathedral and the university.
“I paid to have the lettering on the front of this store because every store in this area has to,” said Cànada. “We are so close to [the Old Cathedral and the university], so we have to use the font.”
Today, besides the pervasive lettering present on facades all over the Old City, doctoral students are still awarded a “Victor” symbol – though it only appears on their diplomas. It’s still dark red, though not written in bull blood.
Regardless, the ancient treasured symbol and lettering endure.
Said Hernandez: “I’ve known these letters for my whole life.”