A Few Comments on the Life of Mardersteig, Part 2

Stipple-drawn portrait of Giovanni Mardersteig by Mary Jo Scott, from

Giovanni Mardersteig always had a keen interest in the design of printing types, but his association with Stanley Morison and with Frederic Warde increased his desire to make further investigations into the development of classic typefaces.

During his stay in Scotland in 1933 with the Collins Cleartype Press, Mardersteig also supervised the production of a type for that firm. Based on the English Roman No. 1 (1760) of the 19th century Scottish foundry of Alexander Wilson, it was named Fontana. It was used exclusively by Collins for 30 years before becoming available as a standard Monotype face.

In 1934 he designed his third type, Zeno, which was cut in Paris by Malin, who was the punchcutter for all of Mardersteig’s types. Zeno, in the 16-point size, was first used in an edition of San Zeno: Vescovo: Patrono di Verona, by Lorenzo Montano, in 1937. As late as 1962 he revised this face and used it in one of the great books of the Press, The Four Gospels.

Mardersteig’s next type for Officina Bodoni was named Dante and is considered by most typographers to be his best design. Since its first appearance in Boccaccio’s Trattatello in Laude di Dante in 1955 it has been the printer’s own choice for over two dozen other titles of the Press. The English Monotype company has also brought out the type for the trade. In addition, in 1955 his last type, Pacioli Titling, was cut.

Of his output of some 165 books at the Officina Bodoni, the interest of the printer in the historic aspects of his craft may be observed in the books devoted to lettering and typography. Mardersteig produced such manuals (some in facsimile) of Arrighi (1926), Moyllus (1927), Brun (1928), Celebrino (1929), Mercator (1930), Feliciano (1960), and Torniello (1971). He paid tribute to Giambattista Bodoni in 1968 by issuing a facsimile of the 1788 Manuale Tipigrafico in a splendid folio volume which is immeasurably superior to the standard facsimile editions of specimen books. For example, in order to overcome poor inking in the original, particularly in the small sizes of type, Mardersteig had the pages blown up and each defective character corrected. The pages were then reduced to the correct size with the result that the types retained their true clarity.

Another great typographic work is the edition of Pietro Bembo’s De Aetna, which had been first printed by Aldus Manutius at Venice in 1495 in a type cut by, Francesco Griffo which in our own time became the model for the vastly popular Bembo type issued by the Monotype Company in 1929. It also strongly influenced the French type of the 16th century.

The original Latin text of De Aetna is printed in 16-point Griffo and is followed by an English translation set in the 16-point size of Bembo. Mardersteig added a long postscript to this volume in which he discusses the origin of the type and compares the recutting of it in both his own Griffo copy and Monotype Bembo.

The second World War was a period of trial for Mardersteig, but he continued to print, producing several books, the most notable of which was the Candide of 1944, on the title page of which he added Voltaire’s subtitle, or Optism, possibly looking forward to the inevitable cessation of hostilities.

After the war he arrived at a decision which was to affect the rest of his career. He had begun to think that printing on the hand press was an anachronism, particularly since he was faced with continuing demands to print books for publishers in many countries. He solved the problem by establishing a commercial printing office in which he could turn out such books, all to be designed and produced by the highest standards. Called the [Stamperia Valdònega], it was founded in 1949 and is situated on the Via Marsala in Verona. This establishment has become extremely successful and is now operated by his son Martino, who has continued to follow the high traditions of excellence established by his father.

Probably the best example of the method by which Mardersteig produced a book at the Officina Bodoni is exhibited in one of the great books of the Press The Fables of Aesop, completed in 1973.

The printer chose as his source a copy of an Aesop printed by Giovanni Alvise in Verona in 1479. This was one of the finest illustrated books of the period and is extremely rare, the best copy being that in the British Library, in which the wood block illustrations are colored by hand. It was the beauty of these cuts that prompted Mardersteig to study their source, tracing them to the miniaturist Liberale da Verona, a fact then unknown to bibliographers.

Undoubtedly most printers when confronted with the need to reproduce 15th century wood blocks would have photographed them for line cuts, but instead Mardersteig had all 68 of them recut by the fine Italian artist, Anna Bramanti, so that he also could print directly from the blocks. Thirty copies of the edition of 160 were sent to the Atalier Daniel Jacomet in Paris for hand coloring.

An important typographic feature of this edition is the reproduction of the printer’s ornaments in the borders of the cut, which in the original happened to be the first such ornaments ever cast in lead. Mardersteig commissioned Charles Malin to recut these fleurons for casting so that they could be set in the border in the same manner as in the original edition. The type used in the Centaur of Bruce Rogers, and the work was printed on handmade Magnani paper. The binding of the three volumes is in gold-tooled vellum with a green leather spine.

The set with the hand-colored blocks sold for $600 at the time of publication but went out of print immediately and will command a great deal more whenever the few copies appear on the market.

It was during the postwar period that Mardersteig’s reputation grew far beyond the circle of connoisseurs of fine printing. There were exhibitions of his work in the major cities of Europe. Honors followed in profusion. He received the Gutenberg Prize of the City of Mainz in 1969. Hans Schmoller, commenting on this fitting award, has stated, “If ours is to be the last century of the traditionally printed book, how fortunate that a printer like Mardersteig lived in it and created such an incomparable body of work.”

In 1968 the American Institute of Graphic Arts awarded him its Medal, which has gone to most of the great printers of our time. Then in 1972 the School of Printing of Rochester Institute of Technology brought him over for what he admitted would be his last visit to these shores, to receive its Frederic W. Goudy Award. The Melbert B. Cary Jr. Graphic Arts Collection at R.I.T. contains one of the best selections of the books of the Officina Bodoni in the United States, containing some 60 volumes spanning his entire career.

During that same visit to this country, Dr. Mardersteig addressed a most enthusiastic audience at the Morgan Library in New York City. In his concluding remarks there, he said: “What the future of typography will be, nobody knows. The invention of phototypesetting will have a decisive influence. But we who don’t belong to the big industry believe that it is necessary to aim for the highest standard, which could be a model for others, so that our crafts will not lose their importance. The art of printing should never die.”

On a personal note, I have been indeed fortunate to have known this great printer, having visited him in his home in Verona and having met him on several other occasions, including his visit to Rochester in 1972. In his talk there he gave inspiration to the hundreds of young people studying printing, many of whom will never forget the opportunity to meet one of the great scholar printers, certainly the most noted of our time.

Of course this quiet and distinguished gentleman will be sorely missed, but what he stood for in this printing craft will never be forgotten, no matter how the patterns of book production will change, as of course they have continued to do for the last century and a half.

This article first appeared in “Typographically Speaking” column of the February 1979 issue of Printing Impressions.

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