Archivio Nebiolo—A short conversation with Alessandro Colizzi

Cover of Ditta Nebiolo & Comp. catalogue (1895). Image courtesy of Taschen.

Paul: Why is Fonderia Nebiolo important? Can you summarize the company’s origins and place in the Italian graphic design/printing world?

Alessandro: The Nebiolo company of Torino was Italy’s great type foundry on both a national and international level for most of the twentieth century—until its closure in 1978. The company was originally established as a type foundry by Giovanni Nebiolo in 1878. The business grew steadily in the following decades and by the turn of the century Nebiolo had successfully expanded as a manufacturer of printing presses. The union in 1908 with the Urania company of Milano, enabled Nebiolo to dominate the Italian market for printing machinery and type for hand composition until the end of commercial letterpress in the 1970s. Nebiolo was well known for the quality and range of its printing machines, but today the company is especially remembered for its contributions in the field of type design.

Paul: You say that Nebiolo is primarily remembered for its type designs. What are some of the most notable of them?

Alessandro: Nebiolo’s overall typeface production can be roughly divided into three phases. In the beginning, in the 1880s, its catalogue consisted mostly of roman types in the so-called ‘Elzevir’ style (similar to those of the Parisian foundry of Gustave Peignot). By the turn of the century Nebiolo’s catalogue comprised many Art Nouveau display typefaces—cast from matrices acquired (or copied) from German and French foundries, along with some original designs—as well as fleurons, borders, ornaments and vignettes.

Spread from 1895 Nebiolo & Comp. catalogue. Image courtesy of Taschen.

Egiziano Nero from Campionario Caratteri e Fregi Tipografici (Torino: Ditta Nebiolo e Comp., 1920). Image courtesy of Columbia University Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

An early revival of a fifteenth-century Venetian type, called Inkunabula, was produced in 1911; and in 1913 Nebiolo introduced to Italy the first Bodoni revival, licensed from ATF. These historical revivals marked the beginning of a new phase in line with similar trends by foreign foundries. The mind behind this shift was printer/scholar Raffaello Bertieri, who collaborated with Nebiolo on production of two more revivals, Ruano and Sinibaldi. [1]

By the late 1920s, at about the same time as Renner’s Futura, Nebiolo came up with a geometric sans serif called Semplicità which was much appreciated by Italian printers. [2] The new design marked a further shift, which can be attributed to Giulio Da Milano, who in 1933 was appointed head of the newly established in-house design studio (called Studio Artistico). Under his short tenure—he quit in 1936—several interesting and unusual sans serifs were released, namely Titano, Neon, Razionale, and the script Veltro.

Inkunabula specimen from Campionario Caratteri e Fregi Tipografici (Torino: Ditta Nebiolo e Comp., 1914) catalogue.

Alessandro Butti was foreman at Nebiolo’s in-house printing department before joining the Art Studio as draftsman/designer. In 1936 he replaced Da Milano as director and with a small team of draftsmen (including a young Aldo Novarese) opened up a particularly fruitful period for type design at Nebiolo. Under Butti’s lead Nebiolo released many original typefaces—among them Quirinus, Fluidum, Hastile, Athenaeum, Augustea, and Microgramma—that gradually went on to both supplant the older typefaces in Nebiolo’s catalogue and at the same time, in the words of Enrico Tallone, “shape the history of Italian 20th-century printing”. Butti was forced to retire in 1952 during one of Nebiolo’s major financial crises.

Aldo Novarese succeeded Butti. With the assistance of a team (which included Piero De Macchi and Umberto Fenocchio), he cemented Nebiolo’s international reputation for distinctive display typefaces. Among them were Slogan, Estro, Juliet, Garaldus, and Magister. But the most remarkable ones were Nova Augustea, Recta, and  the internationally successful Eurostile, all of which built on Butti’s heritage. One of Novarese’s last releases was the extraordinary Stop, a mix of heavy upper and lowercase letters, stripped to the bare essentials necessary for recognition.

Quirinus typeface (1939?) by Alessandro Butti. Image from volume B of  ABC of Lettering and Printing Types by Erik Lindegren (Askim, Sweden: Erik Lindegren Grafisk Studio, 1964).

Estro typeface (1961) by Aldo Novarese. Image from volume B of  ABC of Lettering and Printing Types by Erik Lindegren (Askim, Sweden: Erik Lindegren Grafisk Studio, 1964).

Paul: Who designed the typefaces for Nebiolo?

Alessandro: About the designers of the late nineteenth-century typefaces we only have scant information. The only names that have survived are those of Edoardo Cotti, a well-known artist and teacher who managed an early in-house art department (called studio di incisione) at Nebiolo and who in the early 1920s designed the neoclassical typeface Pastonchi, and of Pietro Negri, a talented punch-cutter and engraver who eventually moved to Paris to work for Deberny & Peignot.

For the twentieth-century typefaces I have already mentioned, Bertieri, Da Milano, Butti, and Novarese. Bertieri was consultant to the foundry until the early 1930s, but he must have worked with some draftsmen or engravers on types such as Inkunabula. Da Milano was the first official director of the Art Studio. He was succeeded by Butti in 1936 who was, in turn, succeeded by Novarese in 1952. The latter remained in that position until his retirement in 1974. The number of draftsmen working at the studio varied over these years, but it never exceeded four or five people, in addition to a photographer/dark room technician.

Slogan typeface (1957) by Aldo Novarese. Image courtesy of Letterform Archive.

Eurostile Bold Extended (1962) by Aldo Novarese. Image courtesy of Letterform Archive.

Paul: What happened to Fonderia Nebiolo

Alessandro: In 1976, following another financial setback, the company was bought up by automotive giant Fiat. Two years later, the typefoundry and cast iron foundry branches were dissolved. After that Nebiolo struggled to survive as a printing machinery manufacturer. In 1992 it officially closed down.

Paul: What is Enrico Tallone’s connection to Nebiolo?

Alessandro: Enrico Tallone holds one of the most extensive and varied collection in Italy of printed materials (catalogues, specimens, drawings) and ephemera from the cold type era (matrices, foundry type, wood type). He painstakingly collected it over the four decades since the foundry’s demise in 1978.

Mechanical artwork for Boxer, an unreleased Nebiolo typeface designed in the 1970s by Gianni Parlacino and Luciano Agosto. The artwork part of Nebiolo archive at Editore Tallone.

1. Sinibaldi is a copy of Humanistic by William Dana Orcutt (1904). I don’t know whether or not Nebiolo licensed it. The typeface is based on the calligraphy of the Renaissance calligrapher Antonio Sinibaldi (1443–before 1528). The Ruano typeface is based on letters by Ferdinando Ruano from Sette alphabeti di varie lettere formati (1554).
2. Semplicità (1930) was designed in response to Paul Renner’s Futura.