This year marks the 200th anniversary of the passing of a great contributor to the linked histories of the book and typography: Giambattista Bodoni (1740-1813). Bodoni among others such as Fournier and Didot established the “Modern” fonts, typefaces characterized by the extreme contrast of their thick and thin strokes, delicate and sharp serifs and a chilly sparkling engraving-like quality heightened by generous leading and made possible by improvements in 18th and 19th century typecasting and manufacture of ink and paper. Bodoni planned and formed the royal printing house for the Duke of Parma in the Palazzo della Pilotta, where the Museo Bodoniano resides today. Associated with Pope Sixtus V, Carlos III of Spain and the Duke of Parma, Bodoni became one of the most celebrated printers in Europe.
Although Bodoni’s fame in his lifetime was of a piece with that of the Romantic figures Chopin, Liszt, Byron, Goethe and Shelley, his output was Neoclassical with editions of Homer, Catullus, Virgil, Horace and the English poets Thomas Gray and James Thomson. His two-volume Manuale Tipografico (1788, 1818) is a meticulous monument of typographic art with more than 14o sets of roman and italic typefaces, a wide selection of decorative designs and symbols and alphabets from the Greek, Hebrew, Russian, Arabic, Phoenician, Armenian, Coptic, and Tibetan languages. The 1818 two-volume edition can be viewed online at the Bibiloteca Bodoni.
This flowering of typography and design – reflective of the age and technical developments of book printing – prompts a thought toward the impact of today’s technology – screen display, ereaders, XML and HTML, cascading style sheets, etc. – not only on type and design but their purpose as well.
“The type and pages beg to be admired – that is looked at – which is well and good, except that looking and reading are quite different, actually contradictory, acts…. To look at things, we either disengage and let them flow by on their own or we stop them in their tracks. To look we hold our breath or (in the worst of cases) pant. To read we breathe.” So say Warren Chappell and Robert Bringhurst in their critical comments on Bodoni and the Moderns. (A Short History of the Printed Word, pp. 173-74; 1970,1999.)
Perhaps we are still in the age of e-incunabula and have not reached the point where type and design on the screen beg to be admired. The improvements delivered by Readmill and Readability have been welcome for their contribution to ease of reading. It may be perverse to wish for developments that may interfere as Chappell and Bringhurst assert the Modern faces interfere with reading. But that assumes that they are right in their hieratic statement “To read we breathe.” Might it be as legitimate to assert “To read we click. To read we link. To read we dim or brighten. To read we tilt from portrait to landscape causing the page to reflow.”?
Will High Definition play the role that improved paper surfaces played to allow those thinner strokes and delicate serifs in the 18th and 19th centuries? And if it does, what on-screen design, comparable to Bodoni’s increased leading, will perform the same heightening effect for new faces and design that beg to be admired?