March 2015

Sheri Caplan


Giambattista Bodoni: His Life and His World by Valerie Lester

"I only want magnificence; my work is not for the common people." -- Giambattista Bodoni

Forget about fussing over whether print is dead; the golden age of digital type is upon us. Take a brief gander around the Internet and you'll find a proliferation of distributors offering fonts from thousands of professional and hobbyist foundries while typography sites feed the frenzy over type. Yesterday's debate over the appropriate use, if any, of Comic Sans and Papyrus has now given way to whether Brandon Grotesque is suitable for branding all possible products. Apps offer everything from font-related games to creation platforms; one even touts the ability to virtually experience letterpress printing without getting one's hands dirty.

Wind back the clock a few hundred years, and getting ink under one's nails was de rigueur for typographers; in fact, many even made the ink itself. Typography then involved more than designing or arranging type. Those artisans deemed typographers combined the skills of the designer, engraver, fabricator, type compositor, and printer. Giambattista Bodoni, born in 1740 to a printing family in the northwestern Italian town of Saluzzo, showed engraving prowess in his teenage years, and his talent and ambition soon fueled his determination to become "il sommo tipografo."

His quest is the subject of Valerie Lester's Giambattista Bodoni: His Life and His World. Lester, author of Fasten Your Seat Belts! History and Heroism in the Pan Am Cabin (1995) and Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens (2004), stumbled upon her subject when her host at a dinner party recounted that he recently learned that his copy of Bodoni's Manuale tipografico had to be returned to the rare books collection at The University of Texas at Austin from which it had once been stolen. The theft, perpetrated by a library volunteer who had snatched up hundreds of valuable books over a number of years by absconding with them tucked into her clothes until being dismissed in 1992, initially intrigued Lester. She then became more interested in Bodoni himself, and, upon finding little written about him in English, set forth "as any person totally out of her mind would do" to examine his life in eighteenth century Italy.

Lester's fixation would have undoubtedly pleased the not-so-modest Bodoni. The very item that had elicited her spark of interest, the Manuale, had been his life's obsession, by which he intended to showcase his typographic expertise in publishing the world's most inclusive and beautiful specimen book of his own work.

Bodoni had ample reason to tout his talent. From when he first set out for Rome as a young man to broaden his printing skills and to seek opportunities with his sights set on becoming the pride and joy of Italy, he achieved success. His woodcuts impressed Cardinal Spinelli, the prefect of the Vatican's missionary press, the Propaganda Fide, who hired him as an assistant typesetter and invited him to live in the cardinal's palace. At the Propaganda Fide, "the springboard for his immortal flight," he worked as a printer, compositor, and woodcutter while demonstrating a flair even for non-Roman alphabets. Becoming acquainted with the city's higher social circles of clerics and scholars, his taste for elegance also emerged as did a sense of ego. Even then, he found occasions to insert his initial within ornamental engraving "in a moment of self-congratulation."

When the Duke of Parma decided that the city needed its own royal press to glorify its stature, Cardinal Spinelli's librarian, Father Paolo Maria Paciaudi, recommended Bodoni to be its director. The typographer then, in 1768, stepped into the position he would hold for the rest of his life. The 28-year-old received generous funding with which he purchased the highest quality supplies and employed staff, while overseeing all aspects of operations himself. Although he initially used typefaces bought from Pierre-Simone Fournier, he cut his own type as well. He completed alphabets within a few days whereas a skilled cutter might require five hours to complete just one punch. In a financially savvy move, he soon established his own foundry through which he sold his handiwork.

His reputation grew while he abstained from taking sides in political crises and continued to remain within the good graces of his patrons by plying them with printed mementos. This pandering prompted his friend, Spanish diplomat José Nicolás de Azara, to implore:

For the love of God, I exhort you to resist all the miserable little printings of miserable little books of miserable poetry that are proposed to you. They are only embarrassments that will impede you from making your way towards the glory of classical works. You should not let yourself be overcome by the vanity of authors who will base their entire reputations on the fact that they were printed by Bodoni.

In 1791, the tireless Bodoni established his own private press that he directed along with the royal press and his own foundry. His private printing of a folio edition of Horace marked the point when his style now became referred to as "Modern." Wide margins, dignified simplicity lacking ornamentation, and high quality printing spoke to his four guiding principles of uniformity, neatness, good taste, and charm. Not that Bodoni's work was faultless. The man who cut and set type so exquisitely could not seem to proofread it, and errors marred this volume and other of his publications.

Bodoni's early typography was influenced by John Baskerville and Fournier, while later, French rival Firmin Didot supplied much inspiration for the type that bears Bodoni's name today and which continues to be widely used to brand fashion and luxury products. The Bodoni typeface, with a vertical emphasis, an increased stroke contrast between thick and thin, and unbracketed serifs, never appears quite so cutting edge as the similar but starker style of Didot. Instead, mirroring the personality of its creator, the Bodoni type strikes a more modest divergence from the norm as it blends an artistic and sophisticated flair with an underlying classical sensibility.

The acclaimed typographer remained prolific even as he aged and became afflicted by chronic ailments caused by a pesky grape seed lodged in his nasal passages, as well as by gout. When he died at age seventy-three in 1813, the task of completing the Manuale fell to his fifty-five-year-old widow Margherita "Ghitta" Dall'Aglio, whom he had wed twenty-two years earlier. By successfully petitioning the government years earlier to revise the laws limiting a widow's inheritance, he left her with a considerable financial estate, as well as printing skills he had imparted to her. She ably produced the two-volume Manuale five years after his death, thereby confirming Bodoni's typographic legacy through over 600 pages that exhibited his wide array of characters, numerals, and decorations.

Lester brings Bodoni's story to light with considerable verve of her own. "Picture him!" she implores in the first sentence, describing Bodoni as a boy. Skip to the paragraph after next and "Saluzzo!" she exclaims before proceeding to describe his birthplace. There is no denying the enthusiasm Lester holds for her subject as she delves into her study.

One doesn't have to be either a typographic scholar or aficionado to enjoy her sojourn through the streets of 1700s Italy. And she does literally take the reader on a walking tour, pointing out not only the architectural wonders, but the gastronomical delights as well. She frets over not being able to ascertain exactly which high quality foods Bodoni may have enjoyed in Parma, but assures the reader that he would have enjoyed tortelli, as pictured in an accompanying color photo. She is able to link her discourse into food by stating that his diet "would have dire consequences for him in later life." Okay, so he was overweight and afflicted with gout in subsequent years, but as she points out later, his exposure to lead in the course of his work posed a much more "sinister contributor" to his condition.

Judicious editing to reign in some of her exuberance might have been considered. It may make your eyes roll, for example, to read the conversation she imagines between young Bodoni and his companion when they first see Rome: "Look! There's the Tiber! I see the Pantheon! Is that the Forum? Over there on the hill, that's Trinitá dei Monti! Look at the snowcapped mountains beyond!"  On the other hand, Lester distills biographical, typographical, historical, geographical, and gastronomical information so well as to not only effectively tell a story but to seed one's nighttime dreams with visions of Parma and pasta. Her acknowledgements attest to her diligent and copious research. Of key importance is the information contained in Appendices I, II, and III in which master artisans describe the practices of cutting punches, casting type, and hand printing. Without these details, it would be difficult to gain a full sense of the laboriousness of Bodoni's work or the precision that he attained.

Given Bodoni's predilection for art at the expense of readability and his stylistic maturation from ornamental to spare, it is ironic that his biographer shows little restraint when she occasionally revels in flowery prose and digressions. But in spite of, or perhaps because of, this quirkiness, she achieves what Bodoni's best work does not: Lester celebrates the typographer's magnificence in a way that makes his accomplishments accessible to "the common people." One need not have a design degree to understand or appreciate her writing.

Complete with numerous color plates of the personalities, type specimens, and related illustrations, the book satisfies the cravings of the biography lover while serving as eye candy for the typophile, bibliophile, and Italophile. No less would be expected from Boston-based publisher David R. Godine, the independent press with a reputation for fine design and vision of books as works of art. With Lester's refreshingly disarming tone distinguishing the book from many dull biographies or condescending art history tomes, this is the perfect marriage of project and publisher. And, in case you were wondering, ITC Bodoni and Bauer Bodoni, among the more popular digital Bodoni versions, do grace its pages.

Giambattista Bodoni: His Life and His World by Valerie Lester
David R. Godine
ISBN: 978-1567925289
247 pages