How the early 19th century's finest fonts turned into the Modern display type
The incremental pace of technological developments that culminated in movable type continued in the centuries after. Paper got smoother. Better metallurgy allowed for more detailed matrices. Printers got better at levelling their presses. Each of these improvements made printing better—greater output, finer lines, subtle spacing, and more detail. The resulting fonts were the logical conclusion of the design process started in the early modern era with the Roman: the Modern.
The two preeminent creators of this style worked in the latter half of the 18th century, one in France and the other in Italy. Although they never worked together, the typefaces they developed were similar and their careers followed similar trajectories. It’s no surprise that they did; their work reflected the printing improvements left to them by their immediate forebears.
Giambattista Bodoni was born into a printing family, and grew up learning the trade from his father and grandfather. As a young man, Bodoni planned to travel to England to work with the great printer John Baskerville. When a bout of malaria kept him in Italy, he instead took charge of the Duke of Parma’s new royal press.
The Duke had Bodoni produce a variety of court announcements and invitations—no great works of literature, but they called for beautiful, eye-catching printing. Originally, Bodoni used Fournier types, but over time he developed his own style, featuring hairline serifs, extreme contrast between thick and thin strokes, and a strong vertical emphasis.
The quality of Bodoni’s work would propel him to fame in the printing world. Napoleon honoured him. Benjamin Franklin was a fan. Other cities attempted to poach him. Knowing the value of his printer, the Duke of Parma gave Bodoni his own press, where he could print whatever he wanted. Late in his life, he published his Manuale Tipografico, a comprehensive showcase of hundreds of his types.
Through it all, Bodoni’s style developed according to the design virtues of another printing family, the Didots.
Working as printers and booksellers since the early 18th century, the Didot contributions to printing were manifold. The second generation Didot printer, François-Ambroise, was responsible for the printing advances that would make Bodoni’s career possible. First, François-Ambroise developed and manufactured a fine, woven paper. Second, he developed the point system into what we use today: 72 points to the inch, with font sizes designated by number rather than name—12pt rather than petit romaine, for example. These developments enabled new design directions, such as the high contrast between thick and thin strokes that would characterize Bodoni’s fonts.
Like Bodoni, François-Ambroise’s son, Fermin, grew up in a generations-deep printing family. Like Bodoni, Fermin Didot received a great honour from Napoleon, becoming the director of the Impremerie Impériale (no longer Royal, in light of revolutionary events). Like Bodoni, Firmin Didot developed an exceptionally refined Modern, featuring hairline serifs, extreme contrast between thick and thin strokes, and a strong vertical emphasis.
Today, we call this style of type Didone, a portmanteau of the names of the two great typographers. Considering the designers' backgrounds, the Didone types made sense: they were refined, elegant, and attractive—they established the standard for how letters looked. But they weren’t necessarily good.
Bodoni and Didot designed their fonts for use in text. In text, the best types are, in a sense, invisible—readers shouldn’t notice the type, only the words. We maintain that typography is important because letters say a lot through their image—the look of letters expresses character and emotion beyond the information letters impart. In text, where the semantic values of letters and words are the main event, the best typefaces say very little so as not to distract the reader from their task: reading. Didone typefaces do not sit silently upon the page. Reading Didone texts can be a laborious drudge. By the end of the 19th century, they’d fallen badly out of fashion and inspired borderline hostility from critics.
For all their flaws as text, though, Didone types were excellent display typefaces. They were eye-catching and beautiful, they suggested class and sophistication. In a design move that echoed the relation of Old Style Romans to Humanist Handwriting, the elegance and contrast in Didone types derived from Round Hand calligraphy and Spencerian Cursive—itself a display winner. And, while they represented the very best technology of their day, they came at the cusp of a great revolution that was about to take printing to new heights, and introduce display fonts to a broad new audience.