The letters that we would identify today as being unmistakably modern had their first appearance in the 1780s, in France, and were produced by François Ambroise Didot, member of a family with a large ancestry in typography and probably the most illustrious printing dynasties in typographical history. For almost two centuries a member of the Didot family printed or published in Paris, reaching high standards in type design, paper making and book publishing.

François Ambroise, Pierre and Firmin were the ones who started to cut typefaces and developed Didot Style.

FRANÇOIS AMBROISE DIDOT

Following his father François Didot, printer and editor in Paris, François Ambroise was the first to establish the Didots reputation as master printers and to design the first characters. In collaboration with the punch-cutter Piere Louis Vafflard, they cut a roman and a cursive of significance, with an increased contrast between the thicks and thins, a hair-line serif, with capitals narrower than was the case in the Aldine-Garamond style but no narrower than the Imprimerie Royal.[4] Their first book where the characteristics of the new typographic models were appreciated and also considered the first authentic modern letter was La Gerusalemme liberta, de Torquato Tasso, printed in 1784. The original neoclassic A.F. Didot design was a response to the ornamental styles of Fournies, and a return to the old classic forms like Baskerville or Romain du Roi, using a more formal and geometric rational, not only to create the modern type but also to consolidate the book design and to rationalize a new typographic metric system. A point system based on the pied-de-roi that was one of the foundations of the typographic revolution experienced during the 19th century, which shortly became the most used practice in typography.[5]

After the great contributions of F. A. Didot, his two sons, Pierre and Firmin were the ones who took even farther the family genius and continued polishing the neo-classic typographic style. In 1789, Pierre succeeded to the print shop while his brother inherited the foundry. Firmin exercised his considerable skill as an engraver of delicate lines. Sharing Baskerville’s desire for a face of clear and sharp design, he obliterated almost all trace of the cursive from his characters and began to approach his art not solely as a medium of communication but also as an object of delight. He moved to lighter, more modelled types of the readable and elegant volumes of the classics which Pierre produces.

The family business reached its highest success thanks to the extraordinary collaboration between the two brothers. The characters of Firmin served Pierre to consolidate his printer reputation as one of the most famous families of printers with the greatest publications in France.

[4] Morison, Stanley and Kenneth Day, The Typographic Book 1450—1935, Ernest Benn Ltd, London, 1963, p.45[5] Corbeto, Albert and Marina Garone, Historia de la tipografía La evolución de la letra desde Gutenberg hasta las fundiciones digitales, Ed Mileno, Lleida, 2015, p. 136
Romain du Roi, 1699
Pierre Simon Fournier, 1742
François-Ambroise Didot, 1784

PIERRE DIDOT

Applying François Ambroise’s mathematical sense of type, Pierre soon began to produce outstanding editions of the classics that led to an invitation from the government to move in the rooms of Louvre formerly occupied by the Imprimerie Royal. In 1809, Pierre opened his own foundry with the help of Joseph Vibert, a punchcutter trained by Firmin and with whom they design a new series of modern characters with the novelty of the subtle sequence of the different body sizes increasing by half point the changes of each size. Their specimen, published in 1819 was the first one to use the numerical classification based on the new point system. This series became a standard for the majority of book printed in France.[6]

[6] George, Albert J.,The Didot Family and the progress of printing, Syracuse University Press, New York, 1961, p.10
Specimen des nouveaux caractères de la Fonderie et de limprimerie de P. Didot, P. Didot l'aine, Paris, 1819

FIRMIN DIDOT

Firmin, the younger son, was the one who actually imposed the Didot types on most of Europe. In his hands, they crystallised into the forms that we are familiar with nowadays. Cultivated and learned, he also earned its prestige as a printer, a paper maker and a litterateur. He cut his first fully developed modern-faced romans and italics, in 1809. Became the printer of the Institute of France on October 16, 1811, was invited to reform the typography of the Imprimerie Imperiale in 1812 and named Royal Printer two years later. By the early 19th century Firmin’s part of the House Didot was one of the best-known printing establishments in the world. The Didot style reflects perfectly the 18th century attitude with its lucidity and legibility. The thin lines, the shaven serifs, the mathematical logic and their construction, appealed to the neoclassical sophisticated and rational mind. And because the family had long specialized in publishing the ancient masters, the age came to associate their types with antiquity itself. Reading into the rigid, clean, restrained characters, their own understanding of a past they admire. Didot types come to mean classics and therefore, to stand for the national heritage; it is no wonder they earned a solid place in French typography.[7]

[7] George, Albert J.,The Didot Family and the progress of printing, Syracuse University Press, New York, 1961, p.14—15
La Henriade, Poeme epique en dix chants, de Voltaire, L'imprimerie de Firmin Didot, 1819
Specimen des caractères, Fonderie de Firmin Didot

This article is part of my final project for the Advanced Typography Master 2016—2017 at EINA, Centre Universitari de Disseny i Art de Barcelona — The Revival of the Neoclassic Typefaces, tutor: Albert Corbeto