Tipoteca Italiana: Working Museum for the History of Italian Typographical Design

WESS Newsletter

Fall 2009, Vol. 33, No. 1

Text and photographs by Claude Potts
Italy is home to biblioteche, pinacoteche, cineteche, discoteche, and enoteche but few know that it is also home to the only tipoteca (museum of type) in the entire world. While printing museums can be found in most industrialized nations, there is not one whose curatorial mission is to evaluate and document typographical design like the Tipoteca Italiana Fondazione (tif). The museum is located in a sleepy town called Cornuda in the northeastern province of Treviso, where the Veneto lowlands rise towards the pre-Alps. A visit to this magical place warrants the hour-long train ride through Prosecco vineyards north of Venice where, incidentally, one of typography’s many revolutions took root. It was in Venice at the end of the 15th century where the printer and publisher Aldus Manutius commissioned Francesco Griffo to devise the first italic typeface, prompting a 500-year progression of type as an object of design that continues to this day (albeit in digital form).

In 1995, Silvio Antiga and his three brothers, who own the printing firm Grafiche Antiga, established the museum foundation to rescue a rich artistic tradition on the brink of extinction. After eight years of fundraising and collecting dilapidated machines, matrices, and type from printshops and type foundries, the brothers fulfilled their lifelong dream when they opened the Tipoteca’s doors to the public in 2002. Housed in the former Canapificio Veneto hemp mill, the museum leads the visitor through all periods of Italian typographic history—from various hand-presses through the more recent platen and flatbed cylinder presses. The emphasis is on Italian type designers of the latter 19th and early 20th centuries—the period when the proliferation of the first casting and composing machines gave rise to an unprecedented explosion of new and often revolutionary typefaces. “I am comforted by the conviction that the Tipoteca is a tribute to the respectful preservation of their type designers’ memory and consequently of the immense artistic-cultural heritage they have left us,” Silvio Antiga writes in A Story with Character: Ten Years of Tipoteca Italiana. “Our efforts and passionate hard work are simply intended as humble homage to their unequalled value.”

The 23,000 square foot facility holds more than 180 printing presses and typecasting machines. It archives more than 1,000 lead founts, more than 2,000 woodtype founts, and more than 1,500 matrices sets ascribed to a long list of Italy’s most formidable typographers. To name just a few, there is the work of Francesco Pastonchi (1877-1953), also a poet, fabulist, and literary historian. After being invited by the publisher Arnaldo Mondadori in 1924 to direct “La raccolta Nuova di Classici italiani,” Pastonchi brought to the publishing house a signature typeface still used today. The work of Francisco Simoncini, founder of the Officine Simoncini foundry in Bologna, is also on display in the museum. Designer of Aster, Life, and Delia fonts, he is best known for the Linotype Simoncini Garamond he created in 1958 with Wilhelm Bilz for the publisher Giulio Einaudi.

The Tipoteca also exhibits the work of Alberto Tallone (1898-1969) whose internationally reknowned private press is still operated by his family in Alpignano. He is credited with the garalde face Tallone which was inspired by the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio’s Villa di Maser. Giovanni Mardersteig (1892-1977), who was born in Germany but Italian by choice, is another type designer in the Tipoteca’s printing pantheon. He is best known for his work at the Officina Bodoni in Verona, where he resurrected matrices of the 18th Century master Giambattista Bodoni (1740-1813) and other classical fonts. Carlo Frassinelli (1896-1983) is the author of Trattato di Architettura Tipografica (1941) and a central figure in the Italian graphic revolution and whose work is indelibly influenced by futurism. The Tipoteca also showcases and preserves the work of Alessandro Butti (1893-1959), one of the most influential Italian typographers and former director of the Nebiolo type foundry in Turin. And one must not forget Aldo Novarese (1920-1995) with whom Butti closely worked at Studio Nebiolo and arguably the most famous Italian type designer and a noted type historian in his own right. In his lifetime, he created more than 100 distinct fonts and authored two seminal works: Alfabeta: lo studio e il disegno del carattere (1964) and Il segno alfabetico (1971).

But what is so special about the Tipoteca is that it is more than just a static museum; it’s a place where one can get a glimpse of the printing technologies of the past, but also witness them being used or even use them yourself. Since its inception, the museum has also functioned as a working printshop, outputting posters, cards, and artists’ books that keep the letterpress tradition alive and relevant. Both local and visiting artists and printers can make use of this extraordinary three-dimensional archeological record of lead, paper, ink, and cast iron. Shortly after opening the Tipoteca, Grafiche Antiga was awarded the Assolombarda Prize for the best enterprise museum-archive, competing against such industrial design giants as Illy coffee. The jury cited “the Tipoteca’s farsightedness demonstrated by investing in the collection and the renovation of a legacy of production traditions linked to printing which has permitted the opening of this fine example of an enterprise museum-laboratory.” Active and engaged learning is central to the Tipoteca’s ever-evolving mission to collaborate with educators, students, librarians, scholars, publishers, and printers.

On the second floor of the Tipoteca, there is a magnificently specialized library that visiting researchers can consult to supplement the wealth of visual and textual information on display. Focusing principally on typography, the library contains historical journals, specimen books, type classifications, and rare first editions. Sandro Berra, who coordinates the activities of the foundation and and is the author of A Story with Character – the book that documents the first ten years of the museum, encourages anyone planning to visit the Tipoteca to consult him in advance so he can give a personalized welcome. Sandro’s words provide a fitting conclusion and eloquently capture the Tipoteca’s mission: “Italy has thus made a fundamental contribution to the history of type; a rich graphic tradition from the past that remains a cultural standard for today. In the chock-a-block world of signs, styles and ideas made up of type, the aim of the Tipoteca is to evaluate and document the peculiarities of Italian typographic design, focusing on the creative processes of its designers and the procedures and techniques it used.”

Alberto Tallone Editore
Berra, Sandro. A Story with Character: Ten Years of Tipoteca Italiana. Translation of Una storia di carattere: dieci anni di Tipoteca italiana. Cornuda: Tipoteca Italiana fondazione, 2006.
Tipoteca Italiana fondazione (TIf)
“Type in Italy” by Luc Devroye

Claude Potts is the Librarian for Romance Language Collections at UC Berkeley. In this same issue of the WESS Newsletter, he also reports with Sarah Wenzel on Turin’s Fiera del Libro 2009.