The book factory

Production of the book

Giambattista Bodoni started his ambitious project at a historical moment when both the typographic techniques of book production, and the aesthetic form of books, were already fully established. Nonetheless, Bodoni not only managed to refine the printing techniques of his time, including type casting, but also to transform the book itself, achieving a perfect balance between elegance and simplicity on the printed page. This exhibition enables visitors to explore each phase of Bodoni’s activity through archival documents and his typographic tools. His workshop comprises around 70,000 items: steel punches, copper matrices, and
various tools for type casting, as well as typesetting equipment. The revolutionary nature of Bodoni’s innovation is demonstrated in his famous treatises on printing, type pattern books and edition of books published both at the Stamperia Ducale (the Duchy of Parma printing house) and at his own workshop. With a maniacal attention to detail, Bodoni achieved the highest quality and greatest elegance in print: he created tasteful typefaces (to date, the «Bodoni» font, inspired by his types, remains among the most popular typefaces), renewed the art of composition and brought printing techniques to perfection, printing on the finest paper, silk and parchment.

Type Design and Punchcutting

In order to produce a single type it was necessary first to draw the letter or symbol, for example punctuation mark, number, fiourish… (5911); then transfer the outline of the letter or sign to one end of a steel bar (the punch); and afterwards cut around the outline of the punch in order to obtain a three dimensional image of the letter or sign (6781012131415).

Various tools were used to make the punches, such as vices (12) and awls (3); while justifiers (16) calipers (17) and files (18) were needed for finishing and checking quality.

Matrix production and type metal casting

After cutting the punches, the next step was to make hollow matrices (2 & 7) by placing blocks of copper on an anvil (1) laying the punches on top of them and then pounding with a hammer so as to push the punches into the softer copper to a certain depth, so creating a mould. The resulting matrices reproduced the punch marks in relief, hollow and upright, so that when later filled with molten metal, they produced identical types in the quantity required.

The next step in casting the types was to prepare the type alloy by combining three metals in a fur- nace: lead (compact, fiexible and easy to blend), antimony (extremely hard), and tin (amalgamat- ing and antioxidant). Conserved from among Bo- doni’s tools are a metal tray (4), which was used to make the alloy ingots ready for use when types were to be produced, and two ladles, one round (3) that was used to remove the type metal from the furnace and pour it into the tray or moulds, and a skimming ladle (5) that was clearly used to filter the alloy by removing any impurities.

Type fusion, finishing and quality control

In one hand, protected by a robust glove, the cast- er held a mould (1, 13 & 14), inside which he put the matrix and fixed it with a spring. With the other hand, using a rapid, firm movement, he dipped the casting ladle (15) into the molten type metal and poured it into the mould, working as quickly as pos- sible so that the type metal filled the matrix’s shape fully before cooling. When the operation was com- plete, the caster opened the mould (14), extracted the type – in more obstinate cases making use of the hook affixed to one of the two parts of the mould – and was then ready to start again, repeating the action three to four thousand times a day.

The types, or “sorts,” were then filed and smoothed, and lined up in a clamp to be planed to precisely the same “type height.” The planer devic- es were of different sizes (6 & 9), and there were numerous spare blades kept in a drawer (3).

Finally, each type was checked for quality, us- ing various tools such as composing sticks, palettes and squares (10).

Besides casting moulds to create types of dif- ferent shapes and sizes, there were also those to make “blank characters,” namely spaces (5) and interlines (12).

Typography, chalcography and xylography

Typesetting and Printing

Once finished, the characters were kept in a typog- raphers’ case, a shallow tray with numerous divid- ers to store each individual letter, symbol or “sort.” In order to set the types, the compositor needed a version of the text to work from, such as a previously published copy (with no copyright restrictions) or the author or patron’s manuscript (1). The compos- itor selected the types from the case, placing each one – upside down and backwards – in the compos- ing stick (3). Once a line was finished it was put aside on a wooden panel the size of the page of text (2) – and line-by-line the whole page was created. Once the pages were set (4), they were tied tight- ly with string, to avoid any movement that might cause disarray in the lines under the pressure of the printing press. These in turn were arranged in a frame to form the correct sequence of pages once printed. Next it was time to activate the printing press. The pages of type were inked evenly using two large leather pads (6). Obviously proofs were made (7) and corrected by hand, before obtaining the good copy.

An expert duo of workmen could print about 180 sheets of paper an hour. Once printed, the sheets were hung from the ceiling to dry, then piled, assembled and stored in the stockroom or sent to the patron.


The compositor’s job was made more complicat- ed by the presence of illustrations (complete pages without text, plates and elements such as frames, initials, coats-of-arms and portraits). There were two usable techniques: xylography, which is to say printing engravings from a woodblock (8 & 9), and chalcography, namely printing engravings from a copper plate (10 & 11).

Woodblocks could be set together with the type. Indeed, in some cases, when types were too intri- cate to be engraved on punches, Bodoni would use woodblocks, as in the Chinese ideograms of the version of the Lord’s Prayer (5).

It was more time-consuming to insert chalco- graphic illustrations with the type, because the sheet of paper had to go through a second printing process.