Rob Hardy on books

 

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A Prince of Printers

 

 

Rob Hardy

 

Like many people, when I get a new book, I look toward the back pages. The acknowledgements are always interesting, and I browse the index, but what I look for first is the very back page, to see if there is a colophon. I like to learn about the type used in printing the book; I am no expert in picking out different fonts, but it is fun to read about the one I will be spending time with, where it came from, and how old it is. There was no surprise when I turned to the back of the current book: "Set in ITC Bodoni and Bauer Bodoni, both modern digital versions of the type designs of Giambattista Bodoni." Why, of course; the book is Giambattista Bodoni: His Life and His World (David R. Godine, Publisher) by Valerie Lester. These days, anyone with a laptop can select and adjust fonts, but it used to be that designing and arranging type to make the resultant words legible was only done by a few printers and designers. Bodoni was the master of such arts in a time when printers could be superstars. He was the creator of hundreds of typefaces, including the ones influenced by Roman carving, as turned into type by Baskerville and Didot, but Bodoni renewed them in elegance, upright design, and high contrast between thick and thin strokes. We are still using his letters today because they are still a model of legibility, and they are even stylish (the cover masthead of Vanity Fair is Bodoni). As Lester says in her deeply appreciative and fascinating book, we will be using them a century from now, and thereon. 

 

 

 

Bodoni was the grandson and the son of printers, born in Saluzzo, Italy, in 1740. He might have gone into the church, but the bishop of Saluzzo thought him too lively a character, and he remained in his father's business where he had already shown talent. Indeed, he he had no lack of confidence; he wanted to expand his influence, and as a teenager was off to Turin, and then to Rome. Bodoni had no end of energy, talent, and dedication, but he also had good luck throughout his life in being adopted by patrons. In Rome, his woodcuts came to the attention of the prefect of the Vatican's missionary press, delightfully called the Propaganda Fide. Cardinal Spinelli hired him as an assistant typesetter, and invited him to live in his palace. He was living and working at the Piazza di Spagna, where are the Spanish Steps, and Lester can only wonder about the girls and women he might have seen there. He continued to make woodcuts, but also fulfilled functions as a printer and compositor. He showed a talent for arranging the punches for exotic languages that did not use the Roman type; this was essential for the Propaganda Fide in order to propagate Catholicism into regions where Protestantism was encroaching. Originally he put into order the old, rusty punches already on site, but soon got instruction in how to cut new ones, and it was the making of him. "He became a magician with his tools, and soon acquired a reputation for skill and perfectionism." 

 

 

 

Cutting a punch, or forming the letter that sticks out of a steel rod, was a demanding business; there is an explanation of it here in an appendix by a modern punchcutter. Bodoni was restless and put his hands to work whenever he could. "In quiet moments, he pulled out gravers and files to create new letters and decorations. He cut punches the way other people knit - to relax while at the same time creating something." It takes a skilled punchcutter some five hours to complete a punch for a single letter, viewing the tiny work through a loupe. Bodoni created thousands of punches, as well as pictures and decorations. He not only cut the punches, but struck them into copper matrices from which the letter would be cast in lead, set the letters, and printed the resultant sheet. As time went on, there were trained assistants who did much of the work, but he was the brain over all the operations. "He made the initial decisions, constantly cut punches himself, supervised and approved the efforts of others, and had the final word." 

 

 

 

The Duke of Parma was interested in boosting the prestige of his city, and part of the plan was to have a grand royal press. The librarian of Cardinal Spinelli recommended that Bodoni become the director of the new press; Parma had presses printing utilitarian stuff, but the new royal press was intended to have even an international sway. Bodoni moved to Parma in 1768, and the royal press was to be his headquarters for the rest of his life. The court knew how important the press and Bodoni were, and he got generous funding, superb staff, and high quality materials. He also established his own foundry through which he sold his own productions. The presses issued a huge variety of material: a daily paper, posters, poems, the English gothic novel The Castle of Otranto, classics, plays, and royal proclamations. Listed here are many oddities as well, like "the poem by Gioachino Ponta, Il Trionfo della Vaccinia, a celebration of the success of smallpox vaccination and a paean to Edward Jenner, written in 104 eight-line rhyming verses in six cantos, which takes on the entire history of smallpox and Jenner's discovery of the vaccine." 

 

 

 

Bodoni's work was valued all over the world. Visitors like Napoleon came calling, as did countless scholars and other printers. He had a wide circle of correspondents, and shrewdly sent out copies of the works of which he was most proud to those who could appreciate them. One of his fans was the printer Benjamin Franklin, who sent him a gracious letter in 1787, starting it by saying that the example of Bodoni's work that he had seen "was one of the most beautiful that Art has hitherto produced." In typical and hilarious Franklin fashion, though, he continued the letter, "'I do not presume to criticize...' and then proceeded to do exactly that, taking Bodoni to task for his choice of the form of certain letters." As Lester writes, "The river of competitiveness runs deep among printers." This was especially so among the virtuosi of the time; Franklin's criticism is among the most moderate included here. 

 

 

 

Bodoni had a long life, and was working to the end of it. His magnum opus was a huge specimen book with examples of type, his Manuele tipografico. The two volumes consist of page after page of examples of Roman letters, as well as alphabets of Hebrew, Arabic, Oriental languages, and others. There were ornaments and examples of the printing of music, and much more. The book was published by his wife Margherita five years after Bodoni died; they had a wonderfully supportive marriage and she had great enthusiasm for her husband's work. He died in 1813, beloved worldwide but especially so in his adopted hometown Parma. He had written his own epitaph two years before: 

 

 

 

Here lies in this little grave the heavy body of Bodoni.
He lived happily and worked hard,
he was loved by his friends and illustrious people,
and he suffered from gout.
Now his spirit rests in Heaven.
Say farewell, o pilgrim, and continue on your way. 

 

 

 

Bodoni has a museum, of course in Parma. You can go there and even handle some of the punches Bodoni made; they have 22,618 of them, and every one is just as ready for use as the day Bodoni finished it. He has been gone for two hundred years, and his influence has not waned. It is here in this gorgeous book, not just in the shapes of the letters, but in design, layout, plates, and illustrations. It is simply a beautiful object, one that Bodoni would have appreciated. He had written about his four basic principles of typography: regularity, neatness and refinement, good taste, and grace. This appealing biography is mounted in a display of them all. 

 

 

 

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