(or: what we talk about when we talk about typography)

In 2002 I was involved in a research for a book and an exhibition on contemporary italian type design. This research could not leave aside an overview of the typographic culture of our country.

cover of the book “Italic 1.0. Contemporary type design in Italy”. 2002

Italic 1.0 exhibition in Rome

The Italian scene has its own peculiarities. Before the digital revolution, the profession of the type designer was almost non-existent, apart from Aldo Novarese and his pupil Piero De Macchi.
Aldo Novarese designed a huge number of typefaces in his long career. Many of them, which can be classified as display, enjoyed a great popularity outside the official design world.


They can still be seen in shop signs and commercial leaflets, but have been ignored by the majority of designers, who considered type as a secondary element in visual communication. Even now, design schools rarely include typography in their curricula, and no regular type design course exists. I chose to explore this subject through some small facts and stories, that can help to shed some light on it.

1. History
Some fundamental things in the history of writing and type happened in Italy:
– the roman capitals, which have been the subject of extensive studies and a model for the evolution of type;

Roman Capitals

– the birth of italic, with the work of Francesco Griffo

Italic typeface

– and the typographic experiments of futurism in the early 20th century.

Zang Tumb Tumb


On these premises, one could suppose that typography holds an important place in our visual culture.
But things are not so simple…

2. Words
The English language has two words that reveal the Italian influence in type history: “roman” and “italic”. Italian doesn’t have anything like that, and when we come to the title of this talk, we find a point to make clear about the meaning of words.

Even if some designers in Italy use the word “tipografia” as an equivalent of the English “typography”, the real meaning is different. In a strictly technical sense, it means letterpress printing, and in general it refers to the printing field.

You can find this word on the sign of a shop around the corner, where you can go and have your wedding invitations printed


An interesting detail: traditionally, the main State institutions (Government, Ministries and so on) use in their official communications to citizens the same kind of script used for wedding invitations, even on their websites.


The word “tipografo” is used with the meaning of “printer”. A tipografo looks more like the man in this picture than like Jan Tschichold.


It’s said that the more words a language has to express a concept, the more important that concept is in the culture of the country. Italian doesn’t have a word for typography: this fact clearly means something.

Now let’s go back to one of the windows we saw before. When I took this picture I noticed a detail that brought another small type story to my mind.


3. Smuggling Helvetica
According to Massimo Vignelli, this small car had an important role in the evolution of Italian graphic design.
A couple of months ago, at a conference in Milan, Vignelli told a story about Helvetica and how it came to Italy.
He had seen Miedinger’s new typeface, which he found extremely interesting; when he met Mr. Nava, the printer he usually worked with, he suggested that he buy this new type. Mr Nava, with a car that looked more or less like this one


left on his journey to Switzerland. But he was unlucky: when he tried to smuggle the type past the customs, hidden in the car, he was stopped, and the type cases were confiscated.

When he tried again, a few weeks later, Nava was more successful, and from the early sixties Vignelli could start working with his new beloved typeface.

Despite this modest beginning, the presence of Helvetica in Italy, and mainly in Milan, was really strong in the following twenty years: Vignelli used it for his famous “democratic” posters for the Piccolo Teatro in Milan,


and his partner Bob Noorda re-adapted it for the sign system of Milan’s underground


strangely enough, Nava had Akzidenz Grotesk on the cover of his type catalogue, designed by Vignelli.


Now Helvetica has become the subject of “archaeological” studies. Recently, a badly made renovation of the Metro signs has raised protests among design-aware citizens in Milan.


In our studio, we keep these poor discarded letters from an old bank sign, which was recently replaced by a new one set in Dax.


Helvetica is not the only legacy Vignelli has left to Italy before he moved to New York. His strong opinions, relying on the idea that the use of type must be restricted to a few options, have found many disciples.

I had the chance to work with one of them. He directed the graphic design department of a school where I used to teach, and he performed a strange ritual for the new students every year. He took a copy of the old Letraset catalogue


and tore away the pages of the forbidden typefaces.
In the end only a few would survive: Helvetica, Univers, Futura, Garamond, Times, Bodoni.

4. Who’s afraid of Giambattista Bodoni?
It seems impossible to think about Italian type without Bodoni.


His types – or should I say the many different interpretations of his types – are used every day for extremely different purposes.
Italian designers can’t avoid using it whenever art, classical music, or whatever other form of high culture is involved.


But you can also see it in advertising for magazines, shoes, biscuits, …. whatever. Giorgio Armani, the fashion designer, chose a version Bodoni as his corporate type. But the clumsy letters you see on his shops show that the elegance he seeks in his clothes is completely lost.


In the second half of the nineteenth century, the work of Giambattista Bodoni was recognised as the highest expression of Italian spirit in type.
At that time our country, only recently united, was searching for unifying elements that could help creating a national identity.

Even if almost one and a half century has passed in the meantime, we didn’t move very far. Bodoni is still influencing the work of many people, and it’s present in our daily life more than ever. Many designers feel compelled to use it, re-design it, modify it, even destroy it.

There seem to be a real obsession about it. But still, nobody seems to have found a real alternative.

5. A competition
Earlier this year a competition was held among twenty design studios for the logotype of Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan’s most important painting gallery.

Not surprisingly, the majority of the projects used Bodoni. Only two of them proposed a custom typeface.
The only one worth mentioning here is BMF Brera, designed by Alessio Leonardi, a Berlin based Italian designer.
He too decided to use Bodoni as a starting point. However, his Brera type, while keeping many of the typical features of Bodoni, has a lightness of spirit that reveals Leonardi’s approach to design.


Anyway, the idea was not appreciated.
If you want to see the winning logo, here it is.


6. Looking for a new classic
Giovanni de Faccio is probably Italy’s most skilled calligrapher. When he designed his first font, Rialto, his models for the roman were the Venetian types of the Renaissance, and for the italic the calligraphy of Ludovico degli Arrighi. The main feature of Rialto is that roman and italic share the same set of capitals. It also has three styles, designed to set the text at different sizes.
The result is an excellent example of how elements from the past can be used in contemporary design.


We used Rialto as the main text face for the book Italic 1.0, and had the chance to appreciate its typographic subtleties.


Rialto is now enjoying some popularity in Italy. For example, it was chosen for the logotypes of Genova 2004 (the European cultural capital for this year) and of Palazzo Ducale in the same city.


This could suggest our designers that at least one alternative to Bodoni already exists.

7. If on a winter’s night a typeface
This is the first page of Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore, a novel by Italo Calvino. It was first published in 1979 by the publisher Einaudi.


In 1956 Giulio Einaudi asked Francesco Simoncini to design a new typeface for his publishing house. He wanted it to be a Garamond, but Simoncini and his collaborators didn’t keep strictly to the model. The typeface was designed to respond to the needs of Monotype text setting in small sizes, and it proved to be successful.

It was so successful that in the following years it was increasingly adopted by a number of other publishers. If you visit an italian bookshop and look at the book covers, the overall impression is one of diversity.


But as soon as you open the books, you’ll see that the great majority of them has the text set in Garamond Simoncini. However different they look on the outside, their inner pages are incredibly similar. Even the new, independent publishers, become extremely conformist when it comes to the choice of text type.


Only recently a publisher followed Einaudi’s example, commissioning the young designer Luciano Perondi a new text typeface for their books. Mattioli 1885 asked Perondi to design a “New Caslon”. Instead of a repetition of the original model, Perondi opted for a design that kept the same spirit of Caslon types, with their overall irregularity.


The design was completed last autumn, and started to be used in books and magazines in 2004.

A detail: the publisher, due to a restricted budget, did not ask Perondi to design an italic. This could sound absurd to many of you, but it’s not so strange in our country. Anyway, this fact didn’t stop Perondi, who’s completing the typeface on his own. Here you can see some more examples of his works.



8. Daily type
A great contribution to the Italian typographic culture has come in the last twenty years from the work of Giovanni Lussu, as a designer, teacher and writer.
Among his design work I’d like to show you some of the many book covers he designed in the nineties for the newspaper “L’Unità”.

One of his main goals in designing this series was to make readers aware of type. So he kept the text as the central element and played several variations on the theme, avoiding decorative elements; the choice of the typeface came first. I can’t say if the average reader understood his efforts. But at least this series of covers was an example of text-driven approach, in a field where images still predominate.

Lussu was also responsible for the commission to Gerard Unger of the design of the Capitolium typeface, to be used in Rome for the Jubilee.


Capitolium is widely known in the design world, much less in Italy, as it was left almost unused. Apparently, Trajan is still preferred whenever Rome is involved.

As a teacher at the universities of Milan, Rome and Bari, Giovanni Lussu organised some of the few type design workshops held in Italy so far, and encouraged the work of some of the youngest type designers.

He also introduced to Italy, among others, the works by the type historian James Mosley, which he translated.


It’s interesting to notice that the English studies about writing and type show a greater knowledge of the Italian tradition than we have.

9. Spreading type: Fabrizio Schiavi
Fabrizio Schiavi can be considered the pioneer of Italian digital type design. He was the founder of Fontology, the first Italian digital type foundry. As many others, he began with experimental works.


In the following years he specialised in the design of sans serif and display fonts, with great attention to on-screen legibility




Quite strangely, type doesn’t play a leading role in Schiavi’s graphic design works


But he recently found a different way to spread his works. He started a series of small installations in his hometown, Piacenza, using his types for fake cash slips or ads.



He left them around at random, hoping that someone would pick them up and appreciate. As a first result, he had many calls in response to his ads. We’ll see if in the future his fellow citizens will show an increased sensibility for type.

10. Names
I would like now to show you quickly the works of some designers I could not mention so far. Their work is interesting from different points of view.
Piero De Macchi began his career working with Aldo Novarese, the father of modern italian type. He represents the link between the two generations, before and after digital type design. His best known type is Nomina, designed for the telephone directories.


Leftloft is a Milan-based studio; they have set up a small in-house type lab, where they develop many projects. The most interesting is Etica, their response to the ubiquity of Helvetica.


Cristina Chiappini and Claudio Piccinini have a conceptual approach to type design. Chiappini’s Trasparenza is inspired by the idea of transparency: the three different weights correspond to different degrees of density and legibility.


Piccinini’s Reality is (in his words) “a personal research through type on psychological disease”.


Paolo Palma designs his typefaces for personal uses: every time he designs a new poster, he creates a variation on the theme of modular type. He is clearly not concerned about legibility, and the influence of Wim Crouwel on him is evident, even if Palma is more playful in his design.


Of course there’s also someone who designs “serious” type: Albert Pinggera, a graduate of the KABK in The Hague, is the author of Strada, a sans serif designed for setting texts in two languages. He’s almost unknown in Italy, and works mainly for foreign clients.


11. Weather forecast
I really can’t predict if the new interest that is raising around type matters will have lasting effects on Italian visual communication. Whatever happens, we can always rely on weather-generated experimental type, like this one I saw in Sicily. Because it simply happens, naturally, despite any effort to design.


Text of the talk given at the symposium of the 21st Biennial of Graphic Design in Brno, 16 june 2004.