Giambattista Bodoni is among the greatest typographers in the history of printing, not only in Italy.
He was a bookmaking artist, in marked contrast to commercial printing; his interest was not to sell the greatest possible number of copies, but to create true works of art in print and, in that sense, he pre-empted the “limited print run,” made to increase the value and rarity of copies. Today his skills would be subdivided into various professional activities: graphic designer, printer, editor and even seller of books.
Bodoni’s career took place at a historical moment when bookmaking techniques for the printed book, like its shape, were amply consolidated. Despite this, he succeeded not only in refining old techniques but also, starting with creating characters, in transforming the book into a new product, reaching heights of perfection, style, elegance and at the same time simplicity, that have never been equalled since.
The more classical the book the more appropriate it is for the beauty of the characters to shine out on their own.
He gave the book the neo-classical taste that, like his work, was dominating the arts. The result was elegant pages – a sober and essential beauty – obtained by laying aside attention-seeking decorations and flourishes to let the characters assume the role of protagonist. Wide margins, generous interspacing of lines and carefully studied arrangement of words bring the sense of a breathing space and underline the beauty and legibility of the characters. Bodoni succeeded in returning typography to its essentially geometric nature and in bringing back to life, lightened, the solemnity of Roman inscriptions on stone.
His famous typographic manuals, sample sets, rich with hundreds of different characters in the most varied alphabets and his publications – off the press at the Duchy Printing Office and his own private printing office – show how radical his “revolution” was in the history of the art of typography. A revolution that was the fruit of a maniacal attention to every phase of the process, always maintaining the objectives of high quality and sophistication: from choice, ideation and typographic character (still today the «Bodoni» font is inspired by the characters he created and is among the most widely used), to graphic typesetting, to the honing of printing techniques on paper that was carefully selected, but also using special surfaces such as silk and parchment. Finally, colour printing, sober bindings, works of clean elegance and the sales catalogues with which Bodoni kept bibliophiles, collectors and libraries abreast of his new publications as they came to life.
I have just thrown all these characters in matrices pummelled with punches, made perfect with great love by my hand.
«The more classical the book the more appropriate it is for the beauty of the characters to shine out on their own», confirmed Bodoni. From which derive not only his attention to characters, of his own creation, unique and true protagonists of the page, but also the typesetting, in a perfect and studied balance of empty and full, from the intense black of the ink to the ivory of the page. With Bodoni one speaks of a true revolution in the art of printing, a role of which he himself was aware, so much so that he proudly asserted his publications had «introduced a new harmony in the simple and majestic formation of title pages, and an improved and less rigid relationship in the pages adapted to the various qualities and shapes of paper».
They ask me for punches for characters. They are my inalienable possession for as long as I live. […]
I would say more; they are my children….
Some examples of Bodoni's works
Oratio Dominica in CLV liguas versa
Parma, typis Bodonianis, 1806
Bodoni issued this huge work, the Our Father, in less than a year. It was printed in 155 languages and with 215 different types: Latin, Greek, exotic.
The project was suggested by Pope Pius VII who, on May 1st, 1805, on his way back from Paris (he went there to crown Napoleon), stopped over in Parma, where he had already been during the outward journey. The Pope received Bodoni and told him about a gift he was given, the Oratio Dominica, that is Our Father in 150 languages published by Jean-Joseph Marcel, head of the Imprimerie Nationale. The Pope urged the typographer to realize a similar edition, but richer in languages and types. It includes a dedication to the viceroy of Italy, Eugène Rose de Beauharnais
Ilias tomos protos [-tritos]
Parmae, typis Bodonianis, 1808
Composed of three folio volumes, edited by the Grecian Luigi Lamberti, this is the most monumental Bodoni’s work. The typographer printed two copies of it on parchment of Bavaria, one for Napoleon (now in the National Library of Paris) and the other for the viceroy of Italy, Eugène Rose de Beauharnais (in the Palatina Library of Parma since 1929). The project dated back to 1803, but it was accomplished between May, 1807 and December, 1808, when the book was printed. It took a long time, since Bodoni in 1805 printed the Inno a Cerere (a proof essay before the Iliad), he had to cast lots of new Greek types and to press type matrices together with breathings; eventually, it was difficult to find the parchment for the prints dedicated to Napoleon and Beauharnais, and Lamberti needed much time to organize the book.
Manuale tipografico del cavaliere Giambattista Bodoni
Parma, presso la vedova, 1818
The book comprises one hundred Roman type alphabets, 50 italics and 28 Greek alphabets. It is the most complete manual at which Bodoni worked for many years, but he never finished it. Divided in two volumes, the first one contains chancery and English typefaces, as well as capital Latin letters; the second one is composed of Greek, exotic, Gothic and Russian types, as well as countless flourishes and types for writing music.