Giambattista Bodoni

Every piece by the Italian printer and type designer is a paragon of the art

Drawing Board
Giambattista Bodoni’s punches for swash italic type, ©Alessandro Bianchi/Archive Franco Maria Ricci. All images courtesy of David R. Godine Publishers.

Caslon, Baskerville, Garamond, Bodoni — artists whose every work is a masterpiece. Yet though we know their work when we see it, we rarely pause to name it. The clarity of the page renders the craft opaque. The hand that set the type is effaced by the text, and the ink-blackened fingers leave no prints on the white field, only a crisp and curling two-dimensional architecture whose sequences draw the mind past words to things. There may be no finer tribute to the print and type designs of Giambattista Bodoni (1740-1813) than that Valerie Lester’s Bodoni: His Life and World (David R. Godine, £32.95) is the first biography in English.


“Saluzzo mia amata patria” from “Manuale tipografico”, ©Houghton Library, Harvard University, Typ ts 725.88.221
Hand-stamped proofs of metal type ornaments for “Fregi e majuscule . . .” (1771),  ©Houghton Library, Harvard University, Typ ts 825.18.225

The son of a printer from Saluzzo at the foothills of the Alps, Bodoni set off for Rome at the age of 17, determined to become the greatest printer of all time. He soon found work as a compositor at the press of the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, the Vatican’s missionary arm. Its prefect, Cardinal Giuseppe Spinelli, was erudite, pious, and committed to spreading the Catholic faith. His press needed vernacular Bibles and missals for the global battle for souls, and it held the punches and matrices for 23 languages. For almost a decade, Bodoni set and engraved Latin and non-Latin characters for such complex productions as an Arabo-Coptic pontifical, and the Alphabetum Tibetum of Fr Antonio Giorgi, which featured a Latin history of the Tibetan language, a tour of the religions of the East that mixed several scripts, text diagrams, and engravings of “prayer wheels, the crucified Indra, and the Buddha’s toenails”.

In 1768, Bodoni set off for the land of Baskerville. He spoke no English, but his encounters with Grand Tourists at Rome had convinced him that every Englishman spoke Italian. Struck down by malaria, he never left Italy; after months of recovery he landed at the court of Ferdinando, Duke of Parma. There, Bodoni became “the prince of typographers”. In Giuseppe Bossi’s tribute, The Apotheosis of Bodoni (1800), the 60-year-old Bodoni is already among the immortals, crowned with a laurel wreath by an angel, as Dante, Petrarch and Homer read his books. He died in 1813 from pneumonia, leaving unfinished his final masterpiece, the Manuale tipografico, “the world’s most inclusive and ambitious specimen book”. But his wife Ghitta set to work only four days after her husband’s death and saw it through his press.

“The Apotheosis Of Bodoni” (1800) by Giuseppe Bossi, ©Alessandro Bianchi/Archive Franco Maria Ricci.
Giambattista Bodoni (1792), by Giuseppe Turchi, ©Museo Bodoniano