History of Lettering

Signore Giambattista Bodoni, Justus Erich Walbaum and Dr Giovanni Mardersteig

The relationship between the first and last named is that of an enthusiast who gained prominence through fine printing using the original matrices of the Italian type founder – known as ‘The King of typographers and the Typographer of Kings’ (for good reason: he was printer to Carlos III of Spain and received pensions from, among others, Napoleon. [Updike has a beautiful footnote in Printing Types (2nd ed), p168 that’s too long to quote here but for those with a copy near to hand deserves a read and a chuckle.] As for the grumpy German (my emotive), well he was active the same time as Bodoni and introduced a similar ‘Modern’ face with the thin serifs etc.

Mardersteig (born a Swiss) came across the Walbaum types in Leipzig and said; ‘My discovery that Walbaum originally stemmed from Bodoni…strengthened my conviction that it would be best to reach back to Bodoni and choose his type for my future press. A good recutting at that time did not exist’ (The Officina Bodoni, 1978, British Library, p16).

Life has moved on since then, with faces cut and recut like a hairdresser remodelling a style that needs to be tinkered with to fit in with modern taste. Stan Morison had a go back in the 1930s with Bodoni, producing what Updike called a ‘composite’ (p235).

The illustration of the face shown here is from the Bauer type foundry, which, according to Jan Tschichold (Treasury of Alphabets and Lettering, English language edition, 1985, p232) ‘…is the best and most faithful interpretation of Bodoni available’. These are contrasted with those from Monotype, of both ‘Bodoni’ and ‘Walbaum’.

History of Lettering Thoughts on lettering

Bodoni, Officina Bodoni and Giovanni Mardersteig

There are some printers who are also scholars. One such was Giovanni Mardersteig (1892-1977). His press, Officina Bodoni, published some 200 books, many using type cast from the original matrices of Giambattista Bodoni. These illustrations are taken from a catalogue that accompanied an exhibition of the press’s work, held at the British Library in 1978.

Mardersteig had no formal training in press work, the catalogue reports, with his primary reason being “the slow process [a hand press] permits printing on damp hand-made paper. The ink is more easily received by a paper made of rags and hemp which has become flexible through wetting. Considerably less ink is required than in dry-printing and a sharper and more even impression is obtained”.

Mardersteig’s first type ‘design’ was Griffo (cut in 1929 by the French punch-cutter Charles Malin, who had a strong relationship with Mardersteig). This was cut on the instance of Stanley Morison, and based on the roman by Francesco Griffo for Aldus Manutius, first used in Pietro Bembo’s De Aetna of 1495. Morison thought it better than Monotype Bembo, being closer to the original.

Other designs by Mardersteig include Zeno (1937) and Dante (1955), which also has a resemblance to Bembo, being cut by Malin between 1947-1954. Morison had the face cut for Monotype, and it has become one of the ‘great’ faces.

Mardersteig noted that Dante was the finest achievement by Malin, who completed it before his death in 1956. “When the inventive powers of Malin came to an end so did my pleasure in type designing,” Mardersteig wrote.