Legacy of Letters 2023—Museo Bodoniano

The Pilotta complex in Parma which houses the Museo Bodoniano. Photograph by Lauren Huber 2012.

One of the highlights of Legacy of Letters 2023 will be a morning at the Museo Bodoniano in Parma. I first visited the museum in 1991. It was the first stop on my first trip to Italy. I bypassed Rome, Florence, and Venice and headed straight for Parma. I spent three days at the Museo Bodoniano. Although Angelo Ciavarella was the director at the time, I never met him. Instead a middle-aged woman—whose name I have forgotten—showed me Bodoni’s books, punches, matrices, and other materials. She did not speak English and, at the time, I did not speak Italian. We communicated in broken French. Despite our communication difficulties (or maybe because of them), my visit was wonderful. To my surprise and delight, she allowed me to make rubbings of some of Bodoni’s punches—not individually, but collectively housed in their wooden boxes!

Punches for swash capitals by Giambattista Bodoni. His punches used to be housed in specially made wooden boxes such as this one. In the last decade-and-a-half, some of them have been transferred to acrylic boxes, a move that has generated controversy among type historians. Photograph by Paul Shaw 2008.

Punches by Giambattista Bodoni. The C has been removed from the wooden box to show the length and shape of the punches. Photograph by Paul Shaw 2008.

I was unable to take many photographs on that first trip since my camera could only accommodate batches of 36 slides at a time. Things were very different when I made my second visit to the Museo Bodoniano in 2008.  The museum was in the midst of an administrative change and a young female art historian from Rome was temporarily in charge. She had no background in printing or type history and allowed me complete freedom to take photographs of punches and matrices with my new digital camera. I was able to bring the wooden boxes of punches to a window for better lighting as well as to take some of them out to be photographed individually and placed near their respective matrices.

That second trip to the Bodoni museum planted the seeds for the revival of Legacy of Letters. The original Legacy of Letters, conceived by Garrett Boge in the mid-1990s and run by the two of us from 1996 to 2000, focused on Rome and Florence. I wanted to extend the Legacy of Letters idea to northern Italy. With Alta Price as my partner—Garrett had retired after 2000—Legacy of Letters was relaunched in 2010. Unfortunately, that year we were not able to fit Parma into our itinerary which ran across Italy from Milano to Venice and then down the Adriatic coast to Ravenna.

Legacy of Letters 2012 participants at the Museo Bodoniano. Photograph by Claudio Piccinini.

Moulds and other items on display in the Museo Bodoniano in 2012. Photograph by Patricia Vining.

Parma and the Museo Bodoniano finally became a part of Legacy of Letters in 2012. And since then we have returned three other times: in 2013, 2015, and 2022. Although our guide has always been curator Dott.ssa Caterina Silva, our viewing experience has shifted several times. In 2012 we looked at Bodoni’s punches, matrices, and moulds in the Bodoni museum itself and his books in the Biblioteca Palatina. (The two institutions are both housed in the Pilotta, a massive structure begun in 1583 and built over several centuries prior to being severely damaged in World War II, that also contains several other museums and cultural landmarks.) However, in 2013 a small electrical fire in the museum forced the staff to relocate temporarily to premises outside of the Pilotta which is where Caterina brought us the Bodoni artifacts. We were still able to examine a few Bodoni books, principally his 1771 specimen and one of his 1788 specimens, in the Biblioteca Palatina.

Lauren Huber, David Wolske, and Alta Price scrutinizing large and small punches by Giambattista Bodoni during Legacy of Letters 2013. The small punches are in the acrylic box and two large ones are in front of David. Photograph by Paul Shaw.

Caterina Silva and Alan Kitching examining the smallest punches cut by Giambattista Bodoni. (The entire set fits into the palm of one’s hand.) Photograph by Paul Shaw 2015.

In 2015 we were back in the Museo Bodoniano itself to view Bodoni’s punches, matrices, and tools—along with non-Bodoni material on the history of printing that was on display in vitrines. For Bodoni’s books—not only his manuales, but works by Virgil, Horace, Clemente Bondi, Vincenzo Monti, Horace Walpole, James Thomson, and others—we went to the Biblioteca Palatina.

However, when we returned seven years later in 2022, we were again unable to visit the museum itself. A complete overhaul of its exhibition space was in progress and so Caterina brought all of the Bodoni material to a study room in the Biblioteca Palatina. There we had a very long table where we could lay out books, punches, matrices, and other items together at one item for close examination and comparison. Although the room was cramped and quotidian, the arrangement proved to be an excellent one.

Rosemary Rae photographing Bodoni punches during Legacy of Letters 2022. Photograph by Paul Shaw.

Although, the new installation was completed at the end of November 2022, we plan to use the Biblioteca Palatina study room again this summer. Caterina’s arrangement proved to be the best one we have tried for studying Bodoni’s work and materials in conjunction with books by his role models Pierre Simon Fournier le jeune and John Baskerville. Either before or after our study session, we will have an opportunity to see the new exhibition space.

For anyone deeply interested in the history of type, the Museo Bodoniano is one of the must-see places in the world. (I rank it with the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp and the St. Bride Library in London). For some past participants, visiting the Bodoni museum was the most memorable part of their Legacy of Letters experience.

Interior of the Biblioteca Palatina. Photograph by Alta Price 2011.

Our visit to the Museo Bodoniano and the Biblioteca Palatina is scheduled for the morning. In the afternoon, Legacy of Letters 2023 participants will have several options: return to the Biblioteca Palatina to look at more books and manuscripts, visit the Teatro Farnese and/or the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Parma (both located in the Pilotta and both worth seeing), or simply stroll about Parma, one of the most charming cities in Italy.

Here are some additional photographs of Bodoniana taken during the four Legacy of Letters visits to the Museo Bodoniano.

Bodoni’s copy of Manuel Typographique (1766) by Pierre Simon Fournier le jeune with strips from a type specimen by John Baskerville pasted in. Photograph by Paul Shaw 2015.

Title page of I Voti (1768), the first book printed by Giambattista Bodoni at the Stamperia Reale in Parma. Photograph by Henri-Paul Bronsard 2022.

Spread from Le Stanze by Angelo Poliziano (1792), printed by Bodoni on silk. Photograph by Erica Carras 2022.

Detail of title page of Descrizione del Foro Bonaparte by Giovanni Antonio Antolini (Parma: Tipi Bodoniani, 1806). Photograph by Henri-Paul Bronsard 2022.

Papale size of Cyrillic capitals from Manuale Tipografico vol. II (Parma: Press la Vedova, 1818). Photograph by Alexander Trubin 2012.

Single sheet specimen of Numeri Arabici by Giambattista Bodoni. Photograph by Paul Shaw 2013.

Detail of spread from Serie di Majuscole e Caratteri di Cancelllereschi (1788), the first specimen book to show Bodoni’s mature style of type. Photograph by David Wolske 2013.

Detail of punches for Arabic figures by Giambattista Bodoni. Photograph by Alta Price 2011.


Legacy of Letters 2023 will take place from June 29 to July 12, 2023. It will include stops in Milano, Torino, Alpignano, Casteggio, Parma, Modena, Predappio, Venice, and Cornuda. We will visit five libraries/museums, five letterpress shops, one silkscreen shop, and the Tipoteca where we will have a multi-day letterpress workshop.