A compulsive tribute to Giambattista Bodoni

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In 2013 to mark the bicentenary of Bodoni’s death, designers Riccardo Olocco and Jonathan Pierini will publish the Parmigiano Typographic System which has the ambition of being the most extended family of fonts ever to have been inspired by the great punchcutter and printer who spent most of his life in Parma. Compulsive Bodoni is the name of the project designed to communicate the Parmigiano Typographic System. It introduces the font and follows its development with a series of multidisciplinary events.

In the middle of 2010 I started taking macro photographs of original copies of Bodoni’s 1818 Manuale Tipografico. My purpose was to analyse Bodoni’s roman types in order to develop some fonts inspired by his work.

Without any previous experience in ‘modern’ typeface design, shortly before the bicentenary of his death I made the decision to study the work of Giambattista Bodoni (1740–1813).

Bodoni’s roman types adhere to the so-called ‘modern’ trend of his time, initiated in the late 18th century by his main competitors, the Didot family in Paris. Thin, horizontal serifs, vertical axes, high contrast between thick and thin strokes and round terminations on certain lowercase letters are the main features of these faces.

The most prolific punchcutter in history
To my knowledge no one has ever fully investigated the many typefaces contained in Bodoni’s Manuale Tipografico. There has been no classification of Bodoni’s roman and italic types, and it seems that nobody has ever catalogued the punches and matrices preserved in the Bodoni Museum in Parma – one of the most important collections of its kind in the world.

The Manuale Tipografico displays 142 sets of romans arranged by type-size, from the smallest to the biggest. Bodoni experimented with colour, proportion and detail. Many of the characters show differences that are almost undetectable to the naked eye, but with macro photography we can identify dozens of different shapes of the main letters a, b, e, g…

The problem in analyzing Bodoni’s faces is that the Manuale never displays the whole set of letters of a typeface, but just some of them. Indeed among the characters with bigger type-sizes only a few letters are shown. For instance the letter g, which carries a lot of information about the morphology of the alphabet, disappears at the 95th roman: the Manuale does not display any g bigger than ‘Parangone’, which is equivalent to about 17 points.

These investigations led me to design three typefaces in the style of Bodoni. I followed a philological approach in two of them (one for continuous text and one for titling) while the third face was a condensed display roman rather than a revival. However, I was not satisfied with the philological approach. Following some trial offset prints I came to the conclusion that the proportions were too far-removed from contemporary tastes. The faces looked weak.

Many of Bodoni’s alphabets have extravagant proportions: some letters are too narrow, others too wide. These do not seem to be the products of contemplated design decisions and it appears that Bodoni was not following any particular scheme. For example: in the ‘Albano’ roman (Sopracanoncino 1, about 28 points, Manuale p. 127) the letter n is considerably narrower than o, while in Tolentino (Canoncino 6, about 26 points, p. 125) n is wider than o. These differences of proportions occur throughout the Manuale. My opinion is that Bodoni was following neither traditional schemes (neoclassical or earlier proportions) nor establishing his own proportions. His experimentation was compulsive. He kept on changing proportions as though he was never satisfied.

The initial idea of designing a vast family of ‘Bodonian’ fonts came from a brief conversation with Albert Pinggera, in march 2012, on the way back from Robothon. We tried to imagine how to adapt Bodoni’s work to our times. How would Bodoni have acted if he were living and working in the early 21st century? What would his approach to type-design have been?

As a Jansenist, Bodoni was convinced of human depravity: a man must spend his life in hard work and obedience to wash away original sin. He was a teetotaller, and he was completely obsessed with his work. Besides being a formidable compositor, printer and publisher (he was the Director of the Royal Printing House of Parma from 1768 until the end of his life), Bodoni was also the most prolific punchcutter in the history of printing. In the 1840 inventory compiled by his widow, his typographic material comprised 25,491 punches and 50,283 matrices. Such a number of steel punches cut by hand represents a truly colossal effort and to say that Bodoni was an obsessive-compulsive punchcutter is no exaggeration.

Parmigiano first steps
Early in 2012 I reworked the Bodonian romans trying to find a way to make a system of serifed families – without the necessity for decades of work. I found a good solution working with four master designs, each with different proportions and details. Mixing the four masters I could produce variations among different styles which were not only optical – such as can be found in many large font families – but morphological too.

Compulsive Bodoni

Given the variety of typefaces Bodoni cut (142 series of romans in his 1818 Manuale) it is illusory to talk of a single Bodoni roman. The idea most designers have of Bodoni is based on the Bodoni designed by Morris Fuller Benton for ATF (American Type Founders) in 1910 – the first face to take the name of Bodoni and still the most important revival with that name. Benton was inspired by the original types but he also had to meet financial and mechanical limitations Bodoni would never have accepted. The result is a masterful synthesis which is more vigorous, although less modulated and less ‘organic’ than any of Bodoni’s romans.

Reworking the Bodonian romans I eschewed a philological approach and kept a distance from Benton’s and other 20th century designs. My intention was to interpret Bodoni according to contemporary taste. As Bodoni spent most of his life in Parma I called them Parmigiano (i.e. Parmesan or ‘coming from Parma’).


In the Spring of 2012 I talked about the project with Jonathan Pierini, a friend and colleague at the Free University of Bolzano. He seemed very interested: Jonathan had been previously involved in other type design projects following his MA in Type and Media at the Royal Academy of Art (KABK). A skilled and enthusiastic type designer, he seemed to be just the right partner for the crazy project I had in mind. Together we set up a development plan and the Parmigiano Typographic System took on its current configuration.

The Parmigiano Typographic System
Our aim was to produce contemporary designs that aspire to be the ‘irreverent descendants’ of Bodoni’s letterforms. We decided to add other roman styles to the serifed ones. Although we certainly cannot deny the influence of Bodoni’s work in our project, Bodoni never cut sans or slab serifs (these styles came in a few years after his death); neither did he cut stencil or typewriter styles, which were introduced many decades later. Slab serifs were distant from the grace and grandeur that Bodoni strived for. Parmigiano Rough, among the serif styles – with its rather clumsy proportions – belongs to that same period; it is a parody of 19th-century typefaces, a gross and ungraceful workhorse. Bodoni never cut such shapes and we can presume that he would feel offended by our choices.


However, we felt that this was not enough to celebrate the spirit of Giambattista Bodoni at the bicentenary of his death. Bodoni is also famous for his many non-Latin faces which he displayed in the second volume of his 1818 Manuale. Not just Greek and Cyrillic scripts, but also many Hebrews, Arabics, Armenians, an Ethiopian, a Tibetan etc., etc. Bodoni was very proud of this part of his work (quite uncommon at the time), which he called – in a rather ‘eurocentric’ perspective – “exotic alphabets”. So, with due consideration given to the growing request for non-Latin typefaces, and not content with limiting our efforts to various styles of the Latin alphabet, we embarked on non-Latin scripts, involving designers from all over the word. The Parmigiano Typosystem became a group project.

The Compulsive Bodoni Project
In September 2012 the ‘Unibz Design Festival’ took place at the Faculty of Design and Art of the Free University of Bolzano where Jonathan and I are currently working as lecturers. We were invited to contribute to the Festival by setting up an exhibition and we took the opportunity to launch the Parmigiano Typosystem. Besides that, we started to think about a project which could celebrate Bodoni’s work in an unconventional manner and could accompany the development of the Parmigiano family.

Giambattista Bodoni perfectly is suited this kind of project: he was the friend of kings, ministers and many powerful people an indeed he was dubbed “Re dei tipografi, tipografo dei re” – king of typographers, typographer of kings. His popularity was great and he received an endless list of the highest honors; his utter devotion to his work was unequaled.

The exhibition — a preview of the Parmigiano Typosystem in the shape of a typographic manual, texts, maps and wall hangings – was introduced by a short theatrical piece dedicated to Giambattista Bodoni, written and interpreted by the authors and actors Matteo Carlomagno and Mirco Ciorciari. Compulsive Bodoni was the title of this little play which dramatizes certain aspects of Bodoni’s personality.


Compulsive Bodoni also became the name of the project designed to communicate the Parmigiano Typographic System: in the run-up to the release of Parmigiano, from early 2013, the project introduces the font and follows its development with a series of multi-media events such as short clips, musical compositions and graphic exhibitions.

Thanks to the contribution and the consultancy of many friends and designers it was possible to display a first preview of both the Latin styles and the non-Latin scripts we had in mind.

Most of the scripts were designed by Jonathan Pierini and myself in order to display the potential of the project but these will be subject to reworking in the near future. The Parmigiano family is in progress and other designers are getting on board too. Alessia Castelli, Irina Smirnova and Irene Vlachou have already joined the project.

Author: Riccardo Olocco
Link: Compulsive Bodoni

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