A Brief History of Type

Part Four: Modern (Didone)

In the previous installment of this series, we took a closer look at Transitional style typefaces, so-called because they mark a transition from the former Old Style types—epitomized by Baskerville—and the subject of today’s brief history, the Moderns, also known as Didone (the terms Modern and Didone are used synonymously throughout this article).

Baskerville’s types, compared with their Old Style (or Garalde) predecessors, are marked by high contrast between thick and thin strokes, so much so that one commentator declared Baskerville was “blinding the nation.” The Moderns or Didones take this contrast to further extremes (just about as far as one can take them).

The first Modern typeface is attributed to Frenchman Firmin Didot (son of François-Ambroise Didot), and first graced the printed page in 1784. His types were soon followed by the archetypal Didone from Bodoni. The Italian type designer, punchcutter and printer Giambattista Bodoni (what a great name! [1740-1813]) drew his influence from the Romains du Roi (with its flat, unbracketed serifs) and the types of John Baskerville (high contrast), for whom he showed great admiration.

Bodoni Manuale Tipografico

Bodoni will forever be associated with the hordes of digital interpretations from just about every type foundry on earth—the FontBook devotes some 14 pages to flavors of Bodoni; some are faithful digital renderings, others well-crafted interpretations; while others still are nothing but parodies, suitable only for poster headlines or the typographic scrap-heap. However, Bodoni was a prolific type designer, completing hundreds of typefaces; the Museo Bodoniano in Parma, houses more than 25,000 of his punches! Bodoni’s Manuale Tipografico¹ (1818) contains 142 roman typefaces and their corresponding italics—and that’s just volume one. The second volume includes numerous ornaments, Arabic, Greek, Russian, and Tibetan types, to name but a few.


1. High and abrupt contrast between thick and thin strokes;
2. Abrupt (unbracketed) hairline (thin) serifs
3. Vertical axis
4. Horizontal stress
5. Small aperture

didot / modern traits

In fact, if you grab a Baskerville, take away the brackets that join serifs to stems, thicken up the vertical strokes, you’ll be left with something that resembles a Didone (though don’t expect it to be pretty).

baskerville and bodoni

If you’ve read the preceding three installments, then you will have noticed a move away from the Humanist or handwritten letterforms. The romans of the Modern types owe very little, if anything to the earlier calligraphic forms; they are too precise, too sharp, too clean. Whereas the Old Style types are Neoclassical, the Didones are Romantic. Though both forms share a common vertical (rationalist) axis, the Moderns have even greater contrast.

What are they good for?

There’s something rather clinical about the Moderns, especially in the roman capitals. Their vertical axis coupled with strong horizontal stress furnishes them with the stiffness of toy soldiers on parade. They are elegant, and like all things elegant, look unhurried, calm, and in control. They’re generally not suited to setting extended text, as the verticality of the letter forms interferes with the text’s horizontal rhythm. The letters don’t lead our eyes across the page, but rather up and down. Unsurprisingly, Bringhurst brings some clarity to the subject when he writes,

Romantic letters can be extraordinarily beautiful, but they lack the flowing and steady rhythm of the Renaissance forms. It is that rhythm which invites the reader to enter the text and read. The statuesque forms of Romantic letters invite the reader to stand outside and look at the letters instead

The Moderns need lots of space (white space and inter-line space), so give them extra leading and  generous margins; and if you pair a Modern with another face, then make sure it’s not a fussy one, or your page will look like a circus poster designed by a visually impaired dog. If you know the beautiful, yet austere architecture of Tadao Ando, then mixing a Didot with, say a Blackletter is akin to draping one of Ando’s monoliths in a giant lace doily.

Erik Spiekermann, in Stop Stealing Sheep, recommends ITC Bodoni as “much better at small sizes than all the others.”³

Modern-day Moderns

Open just about any fashion magazine, and you’ll spot a Didone. If it’s a premium brand (read “very expensive”), then it may well be brought to you on the back of Bodoni or Didot. Not being a subscriber to any fashion titles (you’d understand if you saw my wardrobe), I took a trip to my local café and snapped about 100 examples of Modern types. Here are just a few:

modern-day moderns

And of the many modern interpretations, these are three of my favourites. The beautifully crafted Didot from Jonathan Hoefler,

Hoefler and Co. beautiful Didot

Ambroise from Jean François Porchez (also used to set today’s masthead),

ambroise from Jean Francois Porchez

and Moderno FB,

moderno fb

Here are four Didone m‘s compared:

didone comparison

And here are some other notable Moderns: ITC Fenice (I’m not a fan of this one), ITC Zapf Book, Adobe New Caledonia (actually pretty good for extended text), ITC Bodoni*, and Günter Gerhard Lange’s  Berthold Walbaum (a little wider set than your average Didone).

Well, I’ve only just scratched the surface, but I hope that this has given you a taste of the Moderns. In part five, the serif pendulum swings to the opposite extreme when we consider Slab Serifs.

1 You can see the entire book online at Rare Book Room.
The Elements of Typographic Style, page 130.
Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works, page 83.
* See The Typographic Revolution—Porchez Typofonderie.

I have renamed this series “A brief History of Type”. I think it better suits the thrust of these articles.

Read part one | two | three | four | five

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