Valerie Lester. Giambattista Bodoni: His Life and His World

Valerie Lester. Giambattista Bodoni: His Life and His World. Boston: David R. Godine, 2015. 280p. ill. ISBN: 9781567925289. US $40.00 (hardback).

Eminently readable and informative, Valerie Lester’s handsomely produced volume brings to life Giambattista Bodoni (1740-1813) as he progresses as a provincial printer’s son from an aspiring young man keen to be recognized for his skill in the art of typography to the author of the Manuale Tipografico. The manual was an unprecedented work, more than 600 pages in length, on which Bodoni had been labouring for more than four decades and which was completed and published posthumously by his widow, Ghitta, in 1818. Lester devotes attention to his early life, including his growing up in Saluzzo, in Piedmont. She imagines him as preoccupied from an early age with old matrices that his grandfather had produced and which, so Lester supposes, would have playfully initiated the boy, Giambattista, into the world of the printed word and typographic art that he was to shape so decisively by the late eighteenth century. The author sheds light on her subject’s formative period in Rome, where he was working at the Propaganda Fide press, from late 1758, under the patronage of Cardinal Giuseppe Spinelli. She then turns to his recruitment, in 1768, to head up the ducal press at Parma. It was at Parma, in a workshop situated in the palace of the Pilotta, that he would produce the works for which he was known throughout eighteenth-century Europe and in particular Italy. These publications, many of which were realized in non-Roman type, established his preeminent reputation as the foremost Italian typographer of his age, even though he also undertook extensive jobbing printing for the courts of Don Fernando and, subsequently, Don Ferdinando. While Giambattista Bodoni introduces Bodoni’s voice through translated text gleaned from his extensive epistolary correspondence, Lester also frequently offers asides that express her admiration for the typographer, as well as a large number of details not only on the cities where he worked, but also on the food he consumed. This multifarious and wide-ranging information makes for entertaining reading, though the reader cannot help but wonder whether some streamlining of this additional material would not have allowed the author to provide more discussion on why the typographic art of Bodoni was so remarkable.

Lester’s biography of Bodoni is the only modern English-language account of the typographer. However, the author at no point specifies what her intended readership is, and this is problematic. Giambattista Bodoni will appeal to the general reader interested in the cultural history of printing and that of Italy in the second half of the eighteenth century. The inclusion of a large number of illustrations of, among other subjects, historical figures mentioned in the text and samples of Bodoni’s typographical practice that demonstrate his skill, is geared towards familiarizing readers with a world that requires visual demonstration. Equally, the explanatory appendices (on subjects such as punch-cutting, the production of matrices, and printing on a hand-press, as well as a short contribution entitled “The Trieste Leaf” by James Mosley) further indicate that the book is not targeted at historians of printing and European print culture. This is not a problem per se, but Lester’s work will be read by both non-specialists and specialists. The latter will deplore that the latest biography of the typographer does not relate Bodoni to the extensive interest that European collectors showed in his work – in particular, David Stewart Erskine, who commissioned English-language editions from Bodoni and marketed these in Great Britain. While Bodoni is shown to have been well connected, the extent of his network of correspondents cannot be discerned in Giambattista Bodoni. At the same time, even though Lester introduces the now famous letter in which Bodoni’s brother, Giuseppe, as a result of his sibling’s leaving everything to his wife, accused Giambattista of various transgressions, she simply notes: “It seems that the historians assumed that Giuseppe, bitterly disappointed by his brother’s will, was not telling the truth, conveniently enabling them to disregard his manifesto” (192). Is Lester suggesting that Giuseppe was telling the truth? Such a suggestion would scratch the patina of the idealized Bodoni she has constructed throughout her narrative. No such questioning of Bodoni’s character is introduced, however, as Lester, too, disregards the letter by not discussing it.

Readers with little knowledge of Bodoni and printing history will learn a great deal in Lester’s book; those who read the volume in the hope of finding information that goes beyond existing biographies will be better served by visiting the Museo Bodoniano in Parma with a view of producing a much-needed critical biography of the typographer.

Sandro Jung
Ghent University