Books On Books Collection – Antonio Basoli

Alfabeto Pittorico, ossia raccolta di pensieri pittorici composti di oggetti comincianti dalle singole lettere alfabetiche (“Pictorial Alphabet, a collection of pictorial thoughts composed of objects beginning with the individual letters of the alphabet”) (1839/1998)
Antonio Basoli
Facsimile edition created by Joseph Kiermeier-Debre and Fritz Franz Vogel (1998) as part of the boxed set Alphabets Buchstaben Calligraphy, published by Ravensburger Buchverlag. H275 x W255 mm, 144 pages. Acquired from Antiquariat Terrahe & Oswald, 14 March 2021. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

The Ravensburger Alfabeto pittorico is like a “Black Forest Cake” — a lot of ingredients. The recipe starts with Antonio Basoli’s design of monuments based on letters of the alphabet and his original Italian and French descriptions. To this, the chefs Joseph Kiermeier-Debre and Fritz Franz Vogel add German and English translations. Then, alongside Basoli’s inventions, they place reduced versions of Antonio and Giovanni Battista de Pian’s contemporaneous alphabetical/architectural fantasies. And sprinkled throughout, providing comparative context to Basoli’s career in Bologna as a professionally and academically recognized scenographer, there are dozens of reduced versions of lithographs of opera settings by the more renowned scenographers associated with Vienna, Milan, Venice, Naples and Munich. It is entirely a pudding in the spirit of Basoli.

Basoli creates densely illustrated scenes based on each letter of the alphabet. For each view, his goal is to incorporate the letter structurally or ornamentally in a central building, which in the most successful attempts would begin with the letter. For instance, the large A-shaped building is an orangerie (as in arancia for oranges). B hints at the Tower of Babel and the destruction of the Babylonian empire. C stands for catafalque (or “crypt”) and the Capuchin monks attending to a burial.

Setting a further standard of success, the artist populates each scene with people, activities, objects and symbols that begin with the designated letter. Around the orangerie, agricultural attrezzi (“implements”) are strewn, stone aquile (“eagles”) perch on the building, alms are being distributed by a man in Arab dress, trees beginning with the letter A forest the background and pop up from pots, and the whole setting evokes Arabia according to the 19th-century perception of the region encompassing “Persia, Syria, Egypt and Ethiopia”.

As Kiermeier-Debre and Vogel point out in the preface and afterword, this scene and many others reflect the time’s preoccupation with the Orient and antiquity from the not-too-distant Napoleonic campaign in Egypt (1798-1801) that spawned the archaeological industry of Egyptology. They also reflect the scenography arising from a half century’s operas such as The Escape from the Seraglio(1782), The Caliph of Baghdad (1800), Abu Hassan (1811), Ciro in Babilonia (1812), L’Italiana in Algeri (1813), Il Turco in Italia (1814), Semiramis (1818), Maometto (1820) and Belsazar (1836). Drawing attention to the alphabetical scenes’ evidence of the wide range of Basoli’s cultural, historical, mythological and religious insights, Kiermeier-Debre and Vogel rightly conclude that the work is as much an encyclopedic pictorial dictionary as abecedary.

The author who provided the original commentary on Basoli’s scenes was G.C. Lossada, an art historian. He, too, notes Basoli’s erudition, but on the artistic success of each scene, he swings between acclamation and deprecation. Here is his concluding paragraph on the letter C:

Despite the fact that the shape of the letter C, the theme of this picture, does not lend itself to the main object that is depicted, and the larger part of the building actually lies outside of the initial, such that the whole design could well exist without it, despite all this the perspectives and proportions are so well thought out that this picture can be acclaimed as one of the best in the collection. P. 110.

Equally balanced in their appraisal of Basoli, Kiermeier-Debre and Vogel rank him behind his contemporary scenographers such as Karl Friedrich Schinkel but rate his alphabetical architecture over that of Giovanni Battista de Pian. The latter may be a matter of color and taste. Even reduced, Pian’s scenes draw the eye over Basoli’s, and if the criteria for ranking include a consistency in integrating concept, subject, technique and material, Pian’s letters strain less in their achievement. The letter C certainly takes the cake for Pian.

Basoli does, however, gain a point over Pian with his concluding ampersand. As Lossada remarks, in recapitulating the alphabet and images emblematic of each letter, Basoli’s “&” is entirely a scenic etcetera. The ampersand can be viewed online with the complete alphabet, thanks to the Civic Museum of the Risorgimento in Bologna and also RMR Productions (video, 7 June 2014; accessed 5 April 2021). Neither replicates the clarity of the Ravensburger reproductions.

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“, Books on Books Collection, 31 March 2020.

Architecture“, Books on Books Collection, 12 November 2018.

Federico Babina“, Books On Books Collection, 20 April 2021.

Giovanni Battista de Pian“, Books On Books Collection, 20 April 2021.

Jeffrey Morin“, Books On Books Collection, 20 April 2021.

Richard Niessen“, Books On Books Collection, 20 April 2021.

Paul Noble“, Books On Books Collection, 20 April 2021.

Johann David Steingruber“, Books On Books Collection, 20 2021.

Côme, Tony. “The Typotectural Suites“, The Palace of Typographic Masonry. Accessed 5 April 2021.

de Looze, Laurence. 2018. The Letter and the Cosmos: How the Alphabet Has Shaped the Western View of the World. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Macken, Marian. 2018. Binding Space: The Book as Spatial Practice. London and New York: Routledge.

McEwen, Hugh. Polyglot Buildings. 12 January 2012. Issuu. Accessed 13 March 2021.

Tsimourdagkas, Chrysostomos. 2014. Typotecture: Histories, Theories and Digital Futures of Typographic Elements in Architectural Design. Doctoral dissertation, Royal College of Art, London. Accessed 13 March 2021.

Books On Books Collection – Richard Niessen

The Palace of Typographic Masonry (2018)

The Palace of Typographic Masonry (2018)
Richard Nissan
Paperback, perfect bound. H300 x W215 mm, 348 pages. Acquired from Wordery, 29 March 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of Richard Niessen.

Website, perforated poster, exhibition and paperback, The Palace of Typographic Masonry occupies its place in the Books On Books Collection unlike any other work. The book itself is a shape shifter. Its size competes with those of museum catalogues. In fact, the Palace of Typographic Masonry is like a museum, so much so that it requires a tour guide, which is one shape the book takes. With its nine departments (Sign, Symbol, Ornament, Construction, Poetics, Play, Order, Craft and Practice), it is like a working museum of graphic design, and Dirk van Weelden, our tour guide, often hands us off to departmental “staff” for a lecture or overheard interview.

Given the guided-tour premise, the page layouts strangely, or perhaps appropriately, disorient. On almost every page, at almost every turn, we are rubbernecking and twisting to follow text that appears in a typewriter font on sheets and cards that seemingly have been stuck to a black surface with masking tape, photographed and then printed. Some of the text-bearing cards wrap from the recto page to the verso, leading the reader to think that perhaps the pages are on Chinese fold sheets. A card or sheet may be displayed complete on a page, but the next page may show its edge as if an overlapping photo had been taken. On some pages, the items overlap like a collage. At times, the effect is one of moving down a corridor of blackboards that are covered with notices and captioned photos on white, green and fluorescent orange paper. At other times, the page contains multiple cards as if lying on a flat surface — much the same as objects might be arranged in gallery glass cases — and in different orientations so that the book has to be turned clockwise or anti-clockwise to read each item — much the same as having to walk around a glass case to look at each object in it.

Interspersed glossy sections showcase projects illustrating or responding to the text or the department. For example, Slovenian graphic designer Nejc Prah delivers variations on Masonic tools for Symbols; Paris-based Fanette Mellier, on grid-based design for Poetics; and the Amsterdam-based studio Moniker, “board game cut-ups” for Play. While these sections fit their context in the book, their content and “slippery floor” substrate ratchet up the sense of disorientation. Museum visitors easily tire, and they can be bored in some departments.

Nejc Prah‘s variations on Masonic tools and symbols. Photo: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with artist’s permission.

For example, the palace’s labyrinth of scripts — also reproduced separately on the perforated poster — is followed by a discussion of the revival of Tifinagh, the nearly extinct written language of the Tuareg in the Maghreb. The labyrinth presents thirty-six scripts in those varying orientations mentioned above and is wonderful in its breadth but also tiring — especially from the effort required by the font size and orientations. The story of Tifinagh’s revival and integration through typeface design is inspiring, usefully makes the point about the cultural conventionality of alphabets and more, but also makes for a long trek before our guide moves us along into the next department.

With the website for The Palace of Typographic Masonry, Richard Niessen aims for both a collective (imagined) building and an encyclopedic (digital) space, organized into those nine departments or frames. Contributors can add to the source collections or, within the departments and their subdivisions, create new rooms based on the source collections. One contribution particularly appropriate for the Books On Books Collection comes from Tony Côme: “The Typotectural Suites“. Here in one location, the visitor can find those “language towers, typographic islands, cities to decipher, plans in the shape of letters, encrypted walls, speaking bricks, habitable capitals” created by Johann David Steingruber, Antonio Basoli, Antonio and Giovanni Battista de Pian, Paul Noble and others.

The Departments of Sign, Symbol or Order could give more prominence to the role of numbers in the world of typographic masonry. Numerals do appear in the tables for Morse Code and International Maritime Signal Flags, but the visitor would not know that counting and numbers preceded writing and letters. Perhaps the curator could persuade the art historian and archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat to contribute images of those clay tokens to which

The Mesopotamian cuneiform script can be traced furthest back into prehistory to an eighth millennium BC counting system using clay tokens of multiple shapes. The development from tokens to script reveals that writing emerged from counting and accounting. (Schmandt-Besserat, 2015)

Clay counting tokens and bullae (containers).

Or perhaps the curator could persuade William Joyce to donate some clips from The Numberlys (2012) to the Palace source collection, even preferably some snippets of interactive code with which the visitor can help the five animated characters transform numbers into letters.

Universal languages are highlighted in an Annex, which has been compiled by Edgar Walthert. An update soon to come includes excerpts from Book from the Ground by Xu Bing. A link to Xu’s film The Character of Characters would make a useful addition. It will be interesting to see whether the Annex’s accompanying lecture covers the stir over a “post-text future” and whether typographic masons are returning full circle to pictographic language.

Further Reading

Architecture“, Books on Books Collection, 12 November 2018.

The Art of Reading in a “Post-Text Future“, Bookmarking Book Art, 21 February 2018.

Federico Babina“, Books On Books Collection, 20 April 2021.

Antonio Basoli“, Books On Books Collection, 20 April 2021.

Giovanni Battista de Pian“, Books On Books Collection, 20 April 2021.

From a Visit to Art for the People, Xu Bing (Centro del Carme, Valencia, Spain, 2019)”, Bookmarking Book Art, 22 May 2020.

Jeffrey Morin“, Books On Books Collection, 20 April 2021.

Paul Noble“, Books On Books Collection, 20 April 2021.

Johann David Steingruber“, Books On Books Collection, 20 April 2021.

Côme, Tony. “The Typotectural Suites“, The Palace of Typographic Masonry. Accessed 12 March 2021.

de Looze, Laurence. 2018. The Letter and the Cosmos: How the Alphabet Has Shaped the Western View of the World. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Macken, Marian. 2018. Binding Space: The Book as Spatial Practice. London and New York: Routledge.

McEwen, Hugh. Polyglot Buildings. 12 January 2012. Issuu. Accessed 13 March 2021.

Schmandt-Besserat, Denise. 2006. How writing came about. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press.

Schmandt-Besserat, Denise. 2015. “Writing, Evolution of”, in James Wright, ed., International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2d. Edition. New York: Elsevier. Accessed 15 April 2021.

Tsimourdagkas, Chrysostomos. 2014. Typotecture: Histories, Theories and Digital Futures of Typographic Elements in Architectural Design. Doctoral dissertation, Royal College of Art, London. Accessed 13 March 2021.

Xu, Bing, Britta Erickson, and Jay Xu. 2012. The character of characters: an animation by Xu Bing. San Francisco: Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

Xu, Bing. 2018. Book from the ground: from point to point. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.