A Few Comments on the Life of Mardersteig, Part 1

Stipple-drawn portrait of Giovanni Mardersteig by Mary Jo Scott, from "Twenty Years of the Frederic W. Goudy Award."

For some months now I have been meaning to comment upon the death in Verona, Italy of the notable printer, Giovanni Mardersteig, on December 27, 1977, at the age of 85.

While the craft of the printer in itself contributes to the scholarly aptitudes of most of its practitioners, the fact remains that in the past five centuries since Johann Gutenberg brought movable type to mankind, the appellation scholar-printer has been one which can reasonably be applied to very few men who have labored in the printing office.

This is particularly so in our own century. Here in the United States two printers come immediately to mind: Theodore L. DeVinne and Daniel Berkeley Updike. While both were practical printers in the sense that they were responsible for the operation of printing plants, their names remain widely known, long after their firms have been disbanded, for contributions which transcend the bottom-line syndrome so beloved of speakers before trade associations who tend to belittle any practices other than those which can be labeled as “good business.”

To this short list might be added the name of Joseph Blumenthal, who is now, after closing his Spiral Press, devoting his time to the writing of printing history.

The fact that Giovanni Mardersteig will always be associated with the great traditions of typography and its practice is unquestioned by those who have known his work and have been aware of his long service to scholarly printing. Indeed, future historians of the craft will undoubtedly be amazed that his efforts to continue that heritage came at a time when technological change was providing an atmosphere not conducive to erudition in the print shop.

I suppose that most printers who have specialized in scholarly printing have deserved the accolade, but Mardersteig’s contributions transcend the mere production of the work of men of letters through the medium of printing. As Alan Fern, discussing Mardersteig’s life before a group in New York, has stated: “His profound scholarship was reflected in this choice of works he printed. His texts were the result of his reading in a number of languages. Upon his selected text were bestowed the most careful editorial attention and the finest possible typographic form.”

The closest that the Verona printer came to describing his full philosophy is a short credo he wrote which reads:

“First, service to the author, searching for the form best suited to his theme.

Second, service to the reader, making

Reading as pleasant and light for him as possible.

Third, the giving of the whole an attractive appearance

Without imposing too much self-will.”

Born in city of Weimar in 1892 and christened Hans Mardersteig, he was fortunate to be part of an extremely literate and artistic family. While he received his degree in law, he was never with the profession and turned instead to teaching. However, an association with Count Harry Kessler, proprietor of the distinguished Cranach Press, turned his thoughts to publishing. He became an editor and production supervisor for the publishing house of Kurt Wolff, first in Leipzig and then in Munich.

Since he was often ill, having inherited a tubercular condition, he frequently found it necessary to travel to a drier climate. Thus it was that in 1922 he moved to Montagnola di Lugano in Switzerland and established himself as a printer, commissioning the construction of a hand press and naming his establishment the Officina Bodoni in honor of the great printer of whom he greatly admired. He received permission from the Italian government to recast types from the collection of Bodoni’s matrices preserved in Parma.

During the next five years he produced some 21 books, most of which were handset in Bodoni. Two books in this group became important landmarks in Mardersteig’s progress as a printer of scholarly attainments. They both represented a departure from the Bodoni pattern. First was The Calligraphic Models of Arrighi set in a cutting of the Arrighi cursive by the American type designer Frederic Warde. A year later he produced A Newly Discovered Treatise on Classic Letter Design Printed at Parma by Damianus Moyllus circa 1480, composed in Poliphilus and Blado types and edited with an introduction by Stanley Morison.

Since several of these editions were produced for other publishers, he established a principle which he was to continue for the rest of his life—printing on commission and to please himself.

His work at Montagnola was interrupted in 1926 when he won a competition to produce the entire works of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. He then found it necessary to remove his Officina Bodoni to the large modern printing establishment of Arnoldo Mondadori in Verona where the D’Annunzio work was to be printed. The fifty volumes took five years to complete and constituted a trying time for the printer as the theatrical poet often demanded to see the work page by page at his home on the shores of Lake Garda.

Following this rather harrowing experience, Mardersteig spent a year in Glasgow, Scotland, as advisor to the Collins Cleartype Press. When he returned to Verona he refused an offer from Mondadori to become art director and chose instead to take his press into his own home on a hillside overlooking the city. He now expanded his typographic resources to include such faces as Garamond, Baskerville, Bembo, Janson, and Centaur.

Mardersteig had met the typographic historian Stanley Morison as early as 1924. Both men shared an interest in the 15th century Italian letterforms, particularly the types of the punchcutter Francesco Griffo, who had produced for Aldus Manutius the faces used for De Aetna (1495), the great Poliphilus (1499), and the italic of 1501.

From his research into Griffo’s earlier types Mardersteig now designed a type of his own. He created a letter which was cut by the French punchcutter Charles Malin in Paris, but he did not use it until 1939 when he printed Due Episodi della Vita de Felice Feliciano, the 41st book to issue from his press.

In the next part of this short tribute to a great printer, I will discuss this type and other faces he designed for use at the Officina Bodoni.

This article first appeared in “Typographically Speaking” column of the December 1978 issue of Printing Impressions.

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