It was June 1766, and all his preparations were made. The 26-year-old engraver Giambattista Bodoni
, son of an Italian printer, was setting off from Rome on the two-week journey to the Cambridge University Press
. In his luggage he had with him his current favourite book: the New Testament, printed by the “perfecter of neoclassical Roman type” John Baskerville
, director of the press. Bodoni was hoping to complete his apprenticeship as a type cutter under his supervision. But before he had even reached the Austrian border, an attack of fever brought the expedition to an abrupt end: Bodoni had malaria. In a North Italian sanatorium he recovered more quickly than the doctors expected, but made no new plans, spending his time cutting type instead. After a visit to Parma, he took on the position of director of the Stamperia Reale
there in 1768, commissioned by several art-loving dukes to make it into one of Italy’s great printing houses.
Bodoni worked on the Manuale Tipografico until his death in 1813. It was completed by his widow in 1817 and published in a print run of 250 copies. (Image: Octavo/Bridwell Library)
In 1771, with the aim of keeping him at his court, Duke Ferdinand of Bourbon-Parma
gave Bodoni permission to establish a private printing office at the palace. There, he soon began producing folios and special editions of classics, which attracted great attention across Europe, because Bodoni set almost every edition in a new typeface. The perfection of his work – from the cut of the type to the choice of paper – brought him the title of “Printer to the Kings and King of Printers”.
Bodoni ran the Stamperia Reale for more than 40 years until his death in 1813. Over the five years that followed, his widow Margherita gradually organised the great wealth of type that he had created. The printing house worked almost exclusively on the preservation of her husband’s legacy. Finally, in 1817, she published the two-volume “Manuale Typografico”
(Manual of Typography), in a print run of only 250 copies. With 142 alphabets and the corresponding italics, script fonts and ornaments, it continues to engage interpreters of Bodoni
to this day.
One of 142 upright Bodoni fonts in the Manuale Typografico (Image: Octavo/Bridwell Library)
When using the “royal type” it is important to note that its harmonious forms and clear contrast between black and white require careful handling. Bodoni is not the font of paper-shuffling bureaucrats. Nor is it particularly practical. But when it comes to presenting an important text to its best advantage, one does well to learn from Bodoni himself and use plenty of white space, generous line leading and a font size of at least 10 points.