The beginning: Piedmont
The Roman period
On 15 February 1768, Bodoni left Saluzzo with the aim of improving himself in Rome, where he was employed at the Printing Office of the Congregation of Propaganda Fide. He began as a typesetter of “exotic” works, then he took on the delicate job of sorting out sets of punches used for oriental types that had been engraved, at the behest of Pope Sixtus V, by the renowned typographers Garamond and Le Bè. This was a crucial period on Bodoni’s journey as a type-engraver and for his interest in oriental alphabets; at the same time he learnt the rudiments of oriental languages by attending the Collegio della Sapienza.
He left Rome with the intention of going to London but he was forced to return to Saluzzo for health reasons.
Congregation of Propaganda Fide
Founded by Pope Gregory in 1622, it was a Congregation of the Holy See with the double aim of spreading Christianity in areas hadn’t yet been reached and defending the heritage of faith in places where heresy had brought it into question. Propaganda Fide was then and still is today (in 1988 its name changed to “Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples”) the Congregation responsible for the organization of the missionary work of the Church. At the will of Pope Urban VIII, in 1626 the Congregation was provided with a polyglot typography where books were printed in Greek, Ethiopian, Illyrian, Bulgarian, Armenian, English, Persian, Arabic, Hebrew, Albanian and Irish.
Parma and the Ducal Printing Office
In February 1768, the typographer-to-be was called to Parma by Ferdinand of Bourbon with the purpose of establishing and managing the government Ducal Printing Office, that Bodoni would be in charge of for the rest of his life. He looked after the construction of presses and other printing tools; the Printing Office, situated in the Pilotta Palace, along with the private rooms of the typographer, was ready in a few months for the official launch. Bodoni soon started a collaboration with the architect Petitot and the engraver Benigno Bossi on printing celebrative editions of pageantries of the Duchy, such as the Ara Amicitiae, in memory of the visit of Emperor Joseph II, and the Descrizione delle feste… per le nozze del Duca Ferdinando con Maria Amalia d’Austria, the most splendid Italian celebratory book ever, adorned with 70 elements: plates, block initial letters, headpieces and tailpieces; both the works dated back to 1769.
The publications of the first years of the activity were made using types from France, but Bodoni had already begun to design and produce his own types since 1771 (the first typographic essay Fregi e Majuscole incise e fuse da Giambattista Bodoni Direttore della Stamperia Reale dates back to that same year); he was assisted by his collaborators, in the first place his brother Giuseppe, who had been called to supervise the type-foundry.
Bodoni’s collaboration with the orientalist Gian Bernardo De Rossi was extremely fruitful, since several polyglot publications came into being, culminating in the Epithalamia exoticis linguis reddita (1775), a big encomiastic folio book for the marriage of the Prince of Piedmont; decorated with a hundred and thirty-nine allegorical and ornamental branches, it exhibited texts in twenty-six oriental languages and constituted one of his first specimens of exotic types. His passion for drawings and engravings in oriental types would be longstanding, a fine example is The Lord’s Prayer (Oratio Dominica) of 1806, printed in 155 different languages.
Numerous editions followed, becoming very popular among men of letters, bibliophiles and travellers on the Grand Tour who stopped in Parma to admire paintings by Correggio and to visit the Bodoni Printing Office. On the occasion of the visits of sovereigns, Bodoni honoured them by printing typographical tributes, such as the Essai de Caractère Russes of 1782 for Tsarevich Paul, son of Catherine the Great, and the Upomnema Parmense in adventu Gustavi III for the King of Sweden (1784). Moreover, in those first decades, Bodoni gained his reputation for the publications Gli amori pastorali di Dafni e Cloe of Longo Sofista translated by Annibal Caro (1786), Aminta by Torquato Tasso (1789), for various Greek classics, Aristodemo (1786) and Versi (1787), and for Poesie campestri by Ippolito Pindemonte.
Bodoni’s studies on shapes of alphabetical characters became the exclusive object of presentations in the “manuals”, that were samples of types Bodoni had been preparing and improving since 1771. In 1788 he published the first manual Manuale tipografico containing a hundred Roman type alphabets, fifty italics and twenty-eight Greek alphabets and the essay Serie di majuscole e caratteri cancellereschi, an outstanding exaltation of his alphabets. The harsh, neoclassic characters, marked by the clear contrast between the thickness of strokes and the thinness of rules and serifs; the nude, epigraphic composition of title pages and dedications; the airy, balanced proportion between the text and the images, light and shade, made the Bodonian page a prodigy of harmony and readability.
Ferdinand of Bourbon, Duke of Parma and Piacenza
Parma 1751 – Fontevivo (PR) 1802
Second-born and first son of the Philip of Bourbon-Parma and Louise Élisabeth of France, in 1765 Ferdinand was given the title of duke at the early age of fourteen; although in fact Minister Guillaume du Tillot governed at least until the end of that decade. Although Ferdinand received an enlightened education, he had a weak and somewhat sanctimonious character. His marriage with Maria Amalia of Austria, daughter of Empress Maria Theresa, put an end to du Tillot’s power, since he was disliked by the new duchess; in 1771 the minister was weeded out and Maria Amalia succeeded in imposing a pro-Austrian policy.
In the following years the duke, dominated by his wife, basically carried out a return to the past, thus reversing the innovative reforms introduced by du Tillot. However, the duke did not stop supporting the scholars and intellectuals who gravitated around the court. The torpor in which the Duchy had settled was upset by Napoleon’s troops (in 1799 they reached Parma, but they had arrived in the area of Piacenza three years before). With the Treaty of Aranjuez (1801) Ferdinand was stripped of the Duchy, which was annexed to the French Republic, while his son Louis I received Tuscany and became King of Etruria. The following year Ferdinand of Bourbon died suddenly, perhaps as the result of a French plot.
Giovanni Bernardo De Rossi
Castelnuovo Cavanese 1742 – Parma 1831
A clergyman, after his studies at the Episcopal Seminary of Ivrea, in 1762 Gian Bernardo De Rossi was admitted to the faculty of Theology at the University of Turin, where he began to study Hebrew, a compulsory subject for that degree. Involved in the Jewish debate, he soon also learnt Aramaic, Syrian, Arabic and Samaritan. Thanks to his numerous qualifications, in 1769 he was called to Parma to teach oriental languages at the newly reformed university, later holding the position of dean at the faculty of Theology. His extremely rich collection of handwritten and printed Hebrew books was celebrated throughout Europe; in 1816 Duchess Marie Louise purchased this precious collection and today it is one of the most valuable collections at the Palatina Library of Parma. Bodoni printed a great many of De Rossi’s works.
The private printing office
In 1791 the duke allowed Bodoni to open a private printing office, where all the masterpieces of his life would come into being; the Royal Printing Office would focus on less important prints and on ordinary government needs. Bodoni’s private office employed no more than twelve people, namely typesetters and pressers, while the Royal Printing Office counted about twenty workers. That same year Bodoni married Margherita Dall’Aglio, who would be a loving helpmeet to him in private life by assisting the typographer in his countless health problems, as well as in his work. In particular, she helped him with his very copious correspondence and continued her husband’s work in the typography after his death.
In 1791 Bodoni was highly productive: he printed Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto on behalf of the London bookseller Edwards, as well as Odi by Giuseppe Parini; it was after that year that the wonderful editions patronized by Nicolas de Azara were produced by the presses at Bodoni’s Printing Office: the sumptuous folio books by Horace (Q. Horatii Flacci Opera, 1791), by Virgil (P. Virgilii Maronis Opera, 1793) and by Latin elegists (Catulli, Tibulli, Propertii Opera, 1794). However, their collaboration had begun some years before, when the book Opere di Antonio Raffaello Mengs (1780) had been printed, followed by the editions of Anacreon in various sizes (1784-85-91), dedicated to the Spanish minister himself.
The large format editions produced for de Azara, and the extremely elegant ones by Torquato Tasso La Gerusalemme Liberata, (1794), by Dante (1795), Petrarch (1797) and Callimachus (1792), the Britannia by Lord Hampden (1792), De Imitatione Christi (1793) and Poems by Gray, as well as other publications of the final years of the ancien régime achieved an absolute typographic purity and simplicity thanks to the omission of flourishes and figures. However, the lack of ornamental engravings did not exclude the presence of illustrations: an excellent example is the volume Pitture di Antonio Allegri… nel Monistero di San Paolo (1800) containing wonderful tables in sanguine engraved by Francesco Rosaspina, which brought to light for the first time the masterpiece by Correggio hidden in the Monastery of Saint Paul in Parma.
José Nicolas de Azara
Barbuñales 1730 – Paris 1804
José Nicolas de Azara was a plenipotentiary minister of Spain at the Holy See and an able diplomat. Fond of arts, he was a man of letters himself, also founder of an archaeological society and member of several academies, among others of the Academy of Fine Arts in Parma; furthermore, Pope Pius VI commissioned him to arrange the Pio-Clementino Museum. Azara was a friend and patron of many artists, such as Canova, Winckelmann and Anton Raphael Mengs (whose work was published with Bodonian types by Azara); at the end of the XVIII century he became Bodoni’s main adviser and patron, offering him the position of royal printer in Madrid and inviting him to Rome to work for the publication of Latin classics.
Bodoni and the French government
When in 1796-97 the French arrived and in 1802 the Duchy was directly annexed to France, the new Napoleonic aristocracy didn’t deprive Bodoni of commissions and prestigious protection. It was a good opportunity to undertake the publication of works requiring great typographical effort, such as Inno a Cerere by Homer with a dedication to Francesco Melzi d’Eril (1805); Bardo della Selva Nera by Vincenzo Monti dedicated to Napoleon (1806) and Descrizione del Foro Bonaparte of the same year, designed by Antolini, and the Orazio Dominica dedicated to the viceroy Eugène Rose de Beauharnais; the Iliad, in Greek, composed of three extremely ample volumes with a dedication to Napoleon, an unreachable typographical monument; the Cimelio tipografico Pittorico offerto agli Augustissimi genitori del Re di Roma, which continued Giovanni Gherardo de Rossi’s forty Scherzi poetici pittorici by printing them, in the same space, with forty different types, a real typographical tour de force. These unequalled typographical monuments were followed by Bodoni’s last labours: French classics commissioned by the King of Naples, Joachim Murat, for educational purposes of his son (Fénelon in 1812, Racine in 1813, and La Fontaine and Boileau finished by the typographer’s widow in 1814).
Bodoni expired on 30 November 1813 in Parma. His demise was announced through the city by the sounds of Bajon, the cathedral’s largest bell, death knells that were strictly reserved for princes, high profile dignitaries and the most illustrious personalities. His body was buried in the cathedral, after the obsequies had been held on 2 December in the presence of government officials and municipal representatives, as well as academics and artists.
His widow, Margherita Dall’Aglio, completed Bodoni’s projects; in 1818 she printed Bodoni’s final Manuale Tiprografico, a manual in two volumes with a dedication to the new sovereign Marie Louise. Fruit of more than forty years of work, it was composed of 265 pages with roman types, 125 capital letters, 181 Greek and oriental types, 1036 flourishes, 31 contours made with movable components and 20 pages of characters, numbers and musical symbols.
Through the intercession of José Nicolas de Azara, in 1782 Bodoni was given the position of the Royal Typographer of Charles III of Spain; in 1793 Charles IV added to that title an annual pension of six thousand reals. In 1803 the Seniority of Parma bestowed honorary citizenship on Bodoni and coined a medal in his honour. In 1806 the typographer sent fourteen of his editions to the Paris Exhibition winning the gold medal of first prize. In 1807 he was exempted from paying taxes as a “supreme artist.” Bodoni was awarded with a life pension in 1808 by Murat and in 1810 by Napoleon “because of the good progress he made in the art of typography.” In 1812 he was decorated with the Imperial Order of the Reunion.