Legacy of Letters 2023: Letterpress Extravaganza—5. Parma

July 4, 2023 | Day 5

Celebration of Independence Day with Ben Franklin and Giambattista Bodoni | Museo Bodoniano and the Biblioteca Palatina

Legacy of Letters 2023 celebrated July 4 (Independence day for Americans) by visiting the Museo Bodoniano and Biblioteca Palatina in Parma. Both institutions are housed in the Pilotta, a hulking 16th-century palazzo in Parma. In 2022 the Museo Bodoniano moved its exhibition from an upper floor to the ground floor in a new, modern installation. But our group looked at books and artifacts (e.g. punches, matrices, types, etc.) by Giambattista Bodoni in a consultation room of the Biblioteca Palatina. We did not visit the new exhibition space as a group, though most people went there on their own in the afternoon.

Page from the Bibbia Atlantica (Ms. Pal. 386) created between 1050 and 1075. The main text is written in a Carolingian minuscule. The initial letter is F. Photograph by Paul Shaw.

At the Biblioteca Palatina we looked at two manuscripts (the Bibbia Atlantica written out in Carolingian minuscule and a Eusebius written out by Bartolomeo Sanvito c.1465) before digging into Bodoni. [1] Although we had plenty of Bodoniana to look at, some items that we had been able to handle on previous Legacy of Letters tours were unavailable. They had been permanently added to the new Bodoni exhibition.

Copy of Manual Typographique vol. 2 by Pierre Simon Fournier le jeune (Paris: 1466) owned by Giambattista Bodoni. This copy has strips from a type specimen printed by John Baskerville (c. 1757) inserted at the back. Photograph by Paul Shaw.

Page from Fregi e Majuscole (1771) by Giambattista Bodoni (at right) compared to a page from Manual Typographique (1766) by Fournier (at left). Photograph by Paul Shaw.

Page from Manuale Tipografico (1788) showing the Papale roman type cut by Giambattista Bodoni. It was the largest size he cut. Photograph by Paul Shaw.

Page from Manuale Tipografico (1788) showing the Papal italic type cut by Giambattista Bodoni. In the specimen book Bodoni composed all of the texts for the roman types in Italian and all of the texts for the italic types in French. Photograph by Paul Shaw.

Page from Saggio de’ Caratteri e Fregi della Fonderia dei Fratelli Amoretti Incisori e Fonditori in San Pancrazio presso Parma, specimen book of Amoretti (1811). The Fratelli Amoretti worked for Bodoni for several years, helping to cast his types and print his books. They split with him in 1791. Photograph by Paul Shaw.


The new Bodoni exhibition space is much livelier than the previous one. The installation is beautiful, though the dim lighting seems unnecessary. The main problem with the exhibition is that there is no proper explanation of who Bodoni is in the context of Western printing and type, nor any detailed information on the processes of punch cutting, matrix making, and casting of metal type. The relevant materials are there along with captions, but little more. Many of Bodoni’s punches—in their original wooden boxes—have been ganged together on one wall. They make a pretty sight, but there is no explanation of the different sets of punches. Furthermore, the punches are no longer available for study. A touchscreen table similar to the ones pioneered by the Cooper Hewitt Museum of Design in New York is present. It allows visitors to interact with Bodoni’s many books.

Despite the jazziness of the new Museo Bodoniano installation there was no visible increase of visitors on this day. The only people present were six of us from Legacy of Letters 2023.

Livia Cattaneo, Fred Wiltshire, and Susan Fitzgerald in front of a montage of wooden boxes of punches cut by Giambattista Bodoni at the Museo Bodoniano in Parma. Photograph by Paul Shaw.

Fred Wiltshire, Susan Fitzgerald, and Jen Thomas trying out the touchscreen table at the Museo Bodoniano in Parma. Photograph by Paul Shaw.


[1] This iteration of Legacy of Letters included more Carolingian and Sanvito manuscripts than usual. Since every manuscript is unique, it was valuable to have a chance to see multiple manuscripts within a category or by a single calligrapher. The Carolingian minuscule and Sanvito’s scripts are both key moments in the history of the Latin alphabet from Ancient Rome to the Incunabula period in printing. The Eusebius is also of interest for the complexity of its layout which we were able to explore only briefly.