Legacy of Letters 2023—The Braidense Library in Milano

Detail from All’Immortale Iperide Foceo broadside by Giambattista Bodoni (1781).*

In the morning of the first day of Legacy of Letters 2023 we will be visiting the Biblioteca Braidense in Milano with lettering and type historian James Clough as our guide. I asked James why the Braidense was important for type enthusiasts. He sent me this overview:

The Braidense library for type afficionados
During the eighteenth century Milan and the Lombardy and Veneto regions were under Austrian rule and in 1770 the Empress Maria Theresa ordered the establishment of the Braidense library within an architectural complex that included an academy of fine arts. The facade of the building and the interior were completed by Giuseppe Piermarini, architect of the Scala theatre. After the suppression of the Company of Jesus in 1773, books for the new library were initially provided by two Jesuit collections. Many thousands of volumes were soon added to the Braidense from bequests made by various Milanese noblemen.

Besides 2000 manuscripts, the Braidense possesses 2,368 incunables. Among them is the first dated Bible (Mainz, Fust & Schoeffer, 1462) and a Lactantius (Sweynheym and Pannartz, 1465). The latter was the earliest book printed in Italy. All of the great early printers in Venice are well represented: Da Spira (Historia Naturalis Plinius Secundus, 1469), Jenson (Eusebius, 1470) and Aldus Manutius (De Aetna, 1496 and Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, 1499) etc., etc. These and other volumes such as the famous Estienne folio Bible set in Garamont’s romans provide a good understanding of the evolution of roman type.

There are copies of two of the earliest and most influential calligraphy manuals by Giovanni Antonio Tagliente and Giovanbattista Palatino. There is a copy of Fra Luca Pacioli’s De Divina Proportione with a method for the design of Roman capitals. There is also a copy of GiovanFrancesco Cresci’s Il perfetto scrittore (Rome, 1570) showing his baroque style of chancery script and his alphabet of Roman capitals – both of which had a huge impact on the history of writing and lettering.

Thanks to a bequest in 1909, hundreds of books printed by Giambattista Bodoni are another outstanding feature of the Braidense. All of his Manuali tipografici, all of his works of typographic importance, and 300 of his broadsides are present. An out-of-print catalogue of the Braidense exhibition of works printed by Bodoni (1973) is also very useful.

Page from Il Perfetto Scrittore by GiovanFrancesco Cresci (1570).**

*James says that this Bodoni broadside is rare for being printed in red as well as black. Eight sizes of capitals are present, including the largest that Bodoni cut at 34mm. It should also be noted that the capitals are among the earliest examples of Bodoni’s types in his mature Neoclassical style. In contrast, the lowercase letters of the broadside (not visible here) are still heavily influenced by the Transitional types of Pierre Simon Fournier le jeune. The caption to Plate 23 in Giambattista Bodoni: His Life and His World by Valerie Lester (Boston: David R. Godine, Publisher, 2015) says 1782 despite the 1781 date visible in the image.

**These minuscules by Cresci were the inspiration for Gerard Unger’s Capitolium typeface.

After receiving James’ summary of the calligraphic and typographic treasures of the Braidense, I followed up with several more questions.

Paul: Does the Braidense have the largest collection of Bodoniana of any library?

James: Well, I’m fairly sure the Palatina di Parma has a bigger collection of Bodoni’s works. But there are problems with Parma. For example, they have several copies of the 1788 Manuale Tipografico, but it’s not easy to find a complete copy. This is not the case with the Braidense. Their 1788 Manuale Tipografico is a complete folio book and I believe Giovanni Mardersteig had the Braidense copy photographed for his 1960 facsimile.

Anyway, in the 1973 Braidense Bodoni exhibition catalogue I see that 75 works were displayed. These include everything any type nerd would be interested to see from three Coptic/Arabic title pages from his days with the Propaganda Fide, his first book printed in Parma, and all of his books of any typographic importance—as well as the letters to the Marquis de Cubieres.

Paul: What sort of Bodoni items does the Braidense have besides the books that Bodoni printed?

James: There is a nice collection of his broadsides but there are no matrices or punches.

Paul: Are there books by printers and typographers less famous than Bodoni, Jenson, Baskerville et al that the Braidense has which you consider to be of great interest? Can you name one or two of them?

James: The Missale Ambrosianum printed by Antonio Zarotto in Milan, 1474 is one. It is set in two sizes of rotunda; the smaller size is particularly unusual because of its very long ascenders. The words in red and the initials are written in rotunda which makes for a nice comparison with the types.

(Note: See Printing, Writers and Readers in Renaissance Italy by Brian Richardson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 123–124 for more on Zarotto’s rotunda and other gothic types used by Italian printers in the 1470s and 1480s.)

Page from Vita et Fabulæ by Aesop (Milano: Antonio Zarotto, 1474) set in rotunda type with rubrications by hand.

James: Another interesting book is Purliliarum Jacobus, printed in 1492 by Geraert Van der Leye at Treviso (not far from the Tipoteca in Cornuda). Van der Leye emigrated from Flanders to northeastern Italy and was the first printer in the Friuli region. His unusual roman was one of the very few of the 1470s and 80s that was not in the Jensonian style.

Page from Purliliarum Jacobus (Treviso: Geraert van der Leye, 1492).

Paul: Are any of the Braidense’s over 2000 manuscripts of particular interest to those studying type design?

James: Yes. There’s a late Carolingian Bible, a very fine Dante (c. 1347), and a Virgil that I have a hunch was written by Sanvito. I showed it in my recent Type@Cooper talk. But there is tons more stuff that I’ve not looked at. 

Paul: You are absolutely right about the Sanvito. The manuscript is the works of Virgil (AC.XII 34; formerly AN.XV 21) which Albinia de la Mare has dated to c.1455–1458. Thus it is one of Sanvito’s early manuscripts.

Detail from Opera by Virgil written out by Bartolomeo Sanvito c.1455–1458. Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense: AC.XII 34. (formerly AN.XV 21)

Paul: Does the Braidense have anything of typographic interest from the 20th century?

James: Two items that come to mind are the four-volume Histoire de l’imprimerie en France by Anatole Claudin (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1900–1914) and Francesca da Rimini  by Gabriele D’Annunzio (Milano: Fratelli Treves, 1902). The D’Annunzio is an extraordinary book in the William Morris style. If I remember rightly, it is typeset in ATF Jenson, inspired by Morris’ Golden type. A peculiar book, but in its own way extraordinary.

Paul: Thank you James. It sounds as if we will have plenty of wonderful things to see this summer in the Braidense. 

For more information about Legacy of Letters 2023 or to register contact Paul Shaw at paulshaw@nyc.rr.com.