BODONI TO MORRIS:
FROM ONE EXTREME TO THE OTHER
IN THE FASHION TYPOGRAPHY OF THE 1800s
last update: 2/24/17
GIAMBATTISTA BODONI (1740–1813)
Bodoni was the first of the numerous tribe of typographers who are purely creatures of fashion. Printer to the Duke of Parma, honorary printer to the Duke’s uncle, the King of Spain, recipient of pensions from Napoleon and others, Bodoni was a diligent courtier, an industrious and highly skilled manual worker, and very little else. Everything he did was in imitation of Baskerville and Baskerville’s more radical epigones; his only innovations were the type designs of his later period, and here he merely one-upped Baskerville by selecting a few of Baskerville’s more obvious typographic innovations and carrying them to their logical and absurd extreme. Even in this, he was preceded by Fournier and Didot.
Bodoni is most famous today for his type designs, but it is this aspect of his work that even his admirers, if they are knowledgeable typographers such as Cleland, find most difficult to defend. A frequent defence is that the excesses of later imitators should not be blamed on Bodoni. Specifics are rarely given, such as which imitators are being compared to which of Bodoni’s faces. Later imitators may have committed different excesses from Bodoni’s, but they did not commit greater excesses.
In fact, in text typography, the “excesses” of the letterforms of Bodoni’s followers are but a very short step from the letterforms of their master. If they sometimes look markedly worse it is often because the letters were not always printed with the care such delicate forms required, care that was especially costly given the technology of the times—a limitation which did not apply to Bodoni, who served a luxury market.
Another assertion made in Bodoni’s defence is that the 20th-century revivals don’t do justice to his original designs, so that their faults can’t be ascribed to Bodoni. I do not see how this assertion can be maintained in the face of a direct comparison of currently available Bodonis to Bodoni’s best-known faces as shown in his Manuale tipografico. In fact, some of those 20th-century versions of Bodoni were modified to slightly lessen the notorious faults of the originals.
An august example of such defenses of Bodoni is one by Bruce Rogers. On p. 41 of Paragraphs on Printing, he notes: “Bodoni’s best type should not be judged by the modern reproductions of them; they were surprisingly free and irregular in their cutting, even though the designs were studied and stilted.” The unintentional irregularity in their cutting, may go a little way toward making up for the excessive simplification and uniformity of the letterforms. But it is far from doing enough: only the most absurd irregularity could make up for such simple-minded design in a text face. And the irregular cutting does nothing at all for the other faults of the designs: their excessive contrast, the inability to print well except on the best paper, and the requirement for wide letterspacing due to the large and prominent white areas within the hairline serifs, which cannot be balanced without either bringing the letters too close to each other than the length of the serifs permits, or by extreme letterspacing so that the white space within the serifs is visually outweighed by the space between the letters. Such letterspacing takes up a great deal of extra space, and the wide leading needed to balance the letterspacing takes up a great deal more. Typography that requires so much room has no relevance at all to real-world uses of type and printing.
Bodoni’s presswork and design were highly praised by many, but his types were often considered too extreme even in his own time. Also, like many “fine presses” that spend lavishly on printing and binding, he made up for it by skimping on (or skipping) editing and proofreading. (Or perhaps Bodoni, like many later fashion typographers, just didn’t know about editing and proofreading.) His editorial and textual standards were thus famously poor, though some of editions were exceptions, perhaps due to the involvement of scholars whose reputation with their market, unlike Bodoni’s, would have been seriously damaged by a bad text.
Typical of the reaction of contemporary readers were the following comments by noted bibliographer Thomas Dibdin on various Bodoni editions: “Printed in all the pomp and luxury of the Bodoni press.” “This edition is chiefly distinguished, like most of the works from the royal press of Parma, for the beauty of its typographical execution.” The ironic nature of the preceding comment is made clear by the following (citing, with approval, another’s words): “a very splendid edition, more beautiful than useful.”
Bodoni’s market, however, was not readers. His business was grand luxe interior decoration for the very rich—who were, preferably, also very noble. Bodoni was highly elated about a friendly letter he received from the great Benjamin Franklin. One wonders if he would have been quite so enthusiastic if he hadn’t somehow formed the idea that Franklin was President of the United States.
Much more in the same vein can be found in the chapter on Bodoni in volume 2 of Updike’s Printing Types: Their History, Forms, and Use, especially on pages 173–75. Updike, too, praises the beauty of Bodoni’s books, though saying that Bodoni’s earlier and less typical work was better even in this regard. Updike sums up by citing another contemporary authority who designed typefaces similar to Bodoni’s: “Didot, who published much better editions, but did not print so well, justly enough said that Bodoni’s books would figure on the shelves of collectors, but not in the libraries of savants—adding, ‘Comme littérateur je condamne ses éditions, comme typographe je les admire.’” It was not only savants, however, who would have been offended by Bodoni’s typical productions. Horace Walpole, antiquarian, connoisseur, and author, wrote one of the first gothic novels, The Castle of Otranto, of which Bodoni printed an edition. Updike cites the following, from one of Walpole’s letters: “I am glad you did not get a Parmesan Otranto. A copy is come so full of faults that it is not fit to be sold here.”
Because of their extreme design, Bodoni’s types required laborious and expensive printing to make them readable. To make them beautiful, they had, in addition, to be set at larger sizes than are normal for text settings, with more leading than would be required even by normal faces in these large sizes, and with more visual space between letters than normal text faces. The extra size, lead, and spacing took up more space, more paper, and more press time for more pages, and made the books even more expensive—and bulkier. Thus they were never good models for non-luxury printing or for books meant to be read. Didot’s books, printed in similar faces but not nearly as well printed or as lavishly spaced, found buyers among readers because the important house of Didot had previously established, and continued to maintain, a high reputation for editorial quality. If you wanted an important new book, or the best edition of an older book, you may have had to buy the Didot edition even if you didn’t like the type. This helped establish the fashion for such faces—for a time.
Reader reaction, however, eventually made itself felt, especially in England and America, where, in contrast to France and especially Italy, a larger, more industrialized, and more democratic population of readers demanded books that met a wide variety of practical needs at the lowest possible cost. (German printers still clung to fraktur, which made even Bodoni look readable. For historical (and religious) reasons, there was some resistance in Germany to using the “Antiqua” faces associated with Rome. Perhaps this is why Bodoni-style faces found some credibility in Germany for printing non-German languages, and eventually, as fraktur was dropped, for printing German.)
One result of this reaction against the Bodoni-Didot style of letterforms was an attempt at modifying them for better readability, and for readability and visual appeal without the extra leading and letterspacing required by Bodoni’s faces. It was this, I believe, that gave rise to the style of faces that typified English-language text printing in the later 1800s. To reduce the glaring contrast, and allow for tighter settings, the thick strokes were narrowed. The serifs were now bracketed, perhaps partly for readability, and partly so that extremely fine paper and printing were not required for the serifs to show well.
This, however, resulted in faces that were too thin all over. Against the background of thin strokes, the ball terminals retained from Bodoni’s faces showed up like thickly scattered flyspecks. Gradually, a reaction of readers and printers to these faces arose and penetrated the minds of fashion-befuddled typefounders and publishers. It finally became clear that neither the extreme contrast nor the thin serifs of the Bodoni-Didot faces could be retained. The stage was thus set for dropping the model entirely, and reverting to the earlier, quite functional and successful styles that were the products, not of fashionable novelty, but of evolution through use. This is what happened in the early 1900s: there was a period marked by revivals of faces from before the time of Bodoni and Didot. This was followed later in the century by development of new forms from the starting point of the revived faces, becoming increasingly independent without departing from the constraints that make type useful for purposes other than fashion. This development continues today (alongside the usual bilge of fashion faces).
Thus the faces of Bodoni, Didot, and their followers were not an important turning point in the history of typeface development. As concerns the most important and challenging aspects of type design, they were merely an interruption.
There is an especially glaring contrast between Bodoni, the imitator, and Baskerville, the originator. Baskerville was notoriously independent. He was known as an iconoclast—an outspoken atheist, definitely a marginal position in 18th-century England. He was often cantankerous (though the warmer side of his nature was also prominent). He made his own fortune and spent much of it to finance his own innovations in printing and typography.
Bodoni was a diligent and obsequious tuft-hunter, financially dependent on the very richest of patronage, such as is obtained only by exploiting existing fashion. It took a Baskerville, not a Bodoni, to found that fashion on a basis of real functional innovation, and a Didot to associate it with literature and communications of sufficient intellectual and cultural importance to prompt the generosity of top patrons. For these patrons, Bodoni provided a hot new novelty— his superficial exaggerations of Baskerville’s letterforms—and an extra dose of snob appeal, since his letterforms could only look good in the large and expensively printed editions he produced.
WILLIAM MORRIS (1834–1896)
But before the natural evolution of typography could resume, another development apparently had to intervene and run its own brief course. There are fields in which fashion is such an important factor that it can, in some situations, outweigh function. In such fields it often happens that, while knowledgeable people are deliberating and experimenting toward some needed change, the first to bring something to market is someone who is unrestrained by overmuch knowledge but has a flair for fashion marketing that frees him from the constraints of function that govern long-term evolution.
William Morris jumped into this role when the fashion launched by Bodoni and Didot had run its course, and readers and printers were looking for a better style of text face. Like Bodoni, Morris was a skilled craftsman who could produce beautiful, expensive books that no-one read but everyone talked about. Like Bodoni, he found himself well situated for tapping into the fashion market. Like Bodoni, he had an eye for beauty, but his typographic “insight” consisted solely in a penchant for simple-minded extremes—the sort of thing that catches the attention of fashionistas. Morris saw an existing extreme—the skinny, low-contrast Scotch Romans that had attempted to move away from Bodoni’s extreme—and responded by leaping to the simplest opposite extreme—black, low-contrast letters.
Unlike Bodoni, Morris was not raised as a printer. Morris did many excellent and influential things as an artist, designer, and writer. His background in visual aesthetics was in what amounts to interior decoration. It was not until he was fifty-five years old that he declared himself a printer, and immediately opened a fine press establishment.
Typographic histories typically credit Morris with shaking book typography out of the dull and anemic look that characterized it through much of the 1800s—the look of the Scotch Romans that were an attempt to continue Bodoni’s typographic innovations in a manner more suitable for real-world use. Morris called Bodoni’s characteristic types “hideous” (Lawson, Anatomy of a Typeface, p. 200).
Morris’s books, like Bodoni’s, and like Morris’s other visual arts work, were luxury productions for collectors. He apparently knew nothing about the real uses of typography, the uses that made it one of the most important cultural tools in the modern world. Morris’s books, like Bodoni’s, and like Morris’s other work, were genuinely beautiful to look at. People talked a great deal about them. I have never seen any indication in my reading that anyone ever read one of Morris’s books. I have seen it stated, by at least one knowledgeable and sympathetic writer, that no-one ever did.
Morris was a man of integrity, honest enough to be uncomfortable with the fact that he was serving a luxury fashion market while claiming to do work that was of general applicability and social value. But he was helpless when it came to understanding the reasons for such a fundamental inconsistency, or to finding a way to deal with it.
Morris’s “innovation” was in reverting explicitly and ideologically to the typographic aesthetics of the Middle Ages, and specifically to the uniform, black text “color” of manuscripts closely written in heavy, pointy blackletter. His own type designs were not blackletter, and had some merit—more merit than Bodoni’s—but he regarded them merely as compromises with the blackletter ideal.
Morris may not have realized, and may well not have cared, that in the Middle Ages books were very few, were read by only a few people who could afford to read very, very slowly, and who were mostly specialists reading books by others in their specialty, mainly about subjects that did not (especially in that age) demand a high standard of clarity or an extensive and continuously refined exposition of reasoning or factual detail that could be subject to any practical test of truth or validity.
In addition to much truly excellent work in literature and the visual arts, the overly-industrious Morris did a lot of very poor work in areas in which he was out of his depth, such as political and social issues, though he did it in a way that at least does him some credit as a man. In typography, too, he was likeable but badly out of his depth. He had no more qualifications as a typographer than he had as a statesman. As a pressman, he—or the people he employed—did well. His skills in the purely visual arts, and his general understanding of craftsmanship, were sufficient for that. What merit there is or appears to be in his typographic work comes from these, and not from any well-founded ideas about book typography, which was Morris’s self-proclaimed typographic specialty, much less about typography in general.
MONDAY AFTER THE LOST WEEKEND
In any case, the famous typographers who followed Morris quickly dropped his distinctive aesthetic and typographic ideas. It was from their work, not Morris’s, that real-world text typography developed in the twentieth century. (Morris’s work popularized the Jenson-style faces that he revived, but those who came after him did not set those faces the way Morris did.) It was only in the world of fashion typography, and in the less demanding realm of display typography, that the work of Bodoni and Morris remained influential. Bodoni typefaces continued to be used, of course, but they continued as a sideshow, not as a productive influence. Even in luxury typography (which is not necessarily the same thing as fashion typography) fine printers for the past century have provided ample proof that the luxury market can be served with work of genuine and impressive typographic merit, work that owes nothing to the work of Bodoni or Morris. (Even Giovanni Mardersteig, of the Officina Bodoni, dropped Bodoni’s typographic style.)
Typographic historians tend to say that Bodoni’s influence lived on in the more regularized letterforms that characterized both the “legibility” faces of the earlier twentieth century and the eclectic text faces of the middle and late twentieth century. However, an examination of type specimens will show that this tasteful and functional use of regularity is the obvious continuation of the work of Baskerville, which in turn was the continuation of the developments of the previous three centuries, the movement away from dependence on penforms and towards measured use of more regular forms while preserving the variety of detail required by readability and legibility, by the shapes of different letters, the need for harmony between letters, and the requirements for the appearence of massed text. Because they return to this course of development, the successful new text faces of the twentieth century are, in fact, radical departures from the simplistic extremes of Bodoni. Faces very much like them would have arisen if Fournier, Didot, and Bodoni had never lived. And they would have arisen, most likely, fairly early in the 1800s.
Without Bodoni’s radicalism we might have missed the fun of the many and diverse display faces that arose in the 1800s, and their enjoyable descendants in later times. But as far as the demanding aspects of the typographic art are concerned, the great turning points supposedly represented by Bodoni and Morris had about the same historical importance as a lost weekend in Vegas: they inspired some creative history and hopeful rationalizations (which beg not to be scrutinized too closely), but things resumed their normal course after the interlude.
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