The neoclassic or modern typefaces category first appeared in the late 18th century. Often imitated and extended in countless revivals and interpretations over the past 200 years, the faces like Bodoni and Didot continue to be an inspiration for delightful typefaces. They became synonyms with royalty, elegance, luxury and fashion. The purpose of this project is to investigate the evolution of this category from metal type to digital development and to study how it’s shape and usage evolved throughout time and technology developments.

René Gruau, 1950 — ATF Bodoni 
Acne Paper, Summer 2009 — HTF Didot

INTRODUCTION

The neoclassic type design reflects a synthesis of the 18th century cultural and technological influences. It took further the desire of change and progress, introducing more control of the effect of typefaces in book designs and printed pages. It also brings us the kind of letter which, following Pierre Simon Fournier — the first to use the term — it’s called modern. After the stylistic progression of the Old Style and the Transitional one, the Modern Style is pushing the thin strokes as far as the printed reproduction allows them to and the thick strokes even thicker than before. Defined by a vertical axis and extreme contrast between the thin and thick strokes. Serifs are thin and flat, usually meeting the upright stroke at a right angle. Stress — that is, where curved parts become thickest — is vertical, with the thinnest areas at the very top and bottom of the character.[1]

[1] Loxley, Simon, Type is Beautiful. The story of fifty remarkable fonts, Bodleian Library, Oxford, 2016.

The neoclassic or modern typefaces category first appeared in the late 18th century. Often imitated and extended in countless revivals and redrawings over the past 200 years, the faces like Bodoni and Didot continue to be an inspiration for delightful typefaces. They became synonyms with royalty, elegance, luxury and fashion. The purpose of this project is to investigate the evolution of this category from metal type to digital development and to study how its shape and usage evolved throughout time and technology developments.

Didot and Bodoni are the most celebrated modern typefaces, but they didn’t create the modern serif. This can be found in the manuscripts of the 15th century. Thus, the first modern serif was not modern but forgotten, because the art of punch-cutting and typecasting was not advanced enough to the stage of fine, tapering and sharp serifs.[2] Heavily influenced by the scientific studies developed during the Enlightenment, by Romain du Roi, but also by some Transitional typefaces like Baskerville (England) and Fournier (France), their designs became extremely dominant as a book text faces in the 19th century, with careful presswork that printers in the early 1700s were not able to apply. It is safe and probably more accurate to acknowledge the competition and mutual influence of these two giants of type design, seeing them as researchers working on the same cause. Understanding their mutual influence is helpful in evaluating later revivals of Bodoni and Didot, where features of both designs were sometimes intertwined.[3]

In the 18th century type-founding reached a high degree of perfection, due to the technical progress of the graving instruments, a more precise printing press and better quality paper that enabled the reproduction of characters to be made with exquisite details. Before the Industrial Revolution printing had been generally acknowledged as a fine art. Giving the educational level of the people, books were reproduced for the aristocratic and sophisticated elite. This group determined the direction of literature and wanted the external characteristic of a book to match its content and set in a premium look that exercise the creative imagination in binding and typography. Even though in the earlier years the typographical aspects of fine book printing had been in decline and bibliophiles were more enthusiastic about engraved illustrations and ornaments than by the design of its text, the Didots and Bodoni changed this approach radically. With a clear reflection of the antiquity they admired and, certainly, a symbolic reproduction of their age: a brilliant, aristocratic, sophisticated, subtle, and controlled society.

[2] Morison, Stanley. On type designs, past and present, Ernest Benn, London, 1962, p.47[3] Meggs, Philip B. and Roy McKelvey, Revival of the Fittest: Digital Versions of Classical Typefaces, RC Publication, New York, 2000, p.56
Firmin Didot1764 — 1836
Gianbattista Bodoni1740 — 1813

Several revivals of the Didot and Bodoni faces have been made, first for hot metal typesetting and afterwards for phototype and digital. Although their forms and usage have suffered various changes over the years, we still admire their elegance and sophistication. They would probably not be willing to claim fatherhood to most of the typefaces currently bearing their name, but would certainly find no fault in still being celebrated as finest printers and typographers three centuries later.

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