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The Tipoteca Italiana: ‘we have a great future behind us!’

In 2023 the Tipoteca Italiana was the first European printing museum to be honoured by the American Printing History Association with its prestigious Institutional Award .

This article, which summarizes the origins and philosophy of the fabulous Tipoteca Italiana in Cornuda, Italy, was delivered by the museum’s director Sandro Berra on the occasion of the American Printing History Association’s 2023 Institutional Awards presentation. It is published here with the kind permission of the author and the APHA.

Main exhibition hall

A great future behind us

We are truly honored to be awarded the Institutional Award 2023 by the American Printing History Association. The fact that the Committee of this prestigious Association wanted to give Tipoteca such an award is a source of pride, enthusiasm and, at the same time, renewed commitment.

Tipoteca Italiana was founded in 1995 as a private foundation by a family of printers, the Antiga brothers. The Foundation is located in Veneto, about thirty miles north of Venice, on the edge of the foothills of the pre-Alps. It’s near the birthplace of Antonio Canova, Andrea Palladio’s Villa Barbaro, a few miles from Asolo, celebrated by Pietro Bembo in the Asolani, a book published by Aldo Manuzio in 1505. It is also in an area rich in entrepreneurship and culture: in Treviso, in the main city of our province, there is a museum with an extraordinary collection of posters: Museo Nazionale Collezione Salce.

Thanks to the Tipoteca, Cornuda has become a destination for thousands of students and enthusiasts—more than 200,000 in the twenty years since the Museum opened to the public—and the thing that still brings a smile to our faces today, when we see the study abroad programs of international groups, included some American universities, is to read the name of Cornuda next to those of Milan, Venice, Florence and Rome: the Grand Tour of design and typography in Italy.

When the Museum opened in 2002, after seven years of researching materials and designing exhibition spaces, the founders of the Tipoteca had a particular kind of visitor in mind: for at that time, they had in mind to create a place dedicated to typographers and printers, which would recognize the historical value of typography and printing in the dissemination and cultural exchange among people, with an eye also to the craft, to those who had practised this precious and fascinating art of hand setting with movable type and printing on iron presses. The fact that the very name Tipoteca had been linked to type, was a decisive choice: the graphic sign is what binds us to the tradition of handwriting and, even more, keeps us connected to the fonts of the present.

In those years, the digital revolution in our lives and in the world of typography was not yet fully perceived. In 1995 in Italy, there was still a large presence of printers using movable type, alongside the printing companies already active in the market with offset printing.

After ten years, ‘fonts’ and ‘Times New Roman’ were terms that everyone knew, and they were the telltale signs of how typography had entered the homes and daily lives of millions of people.

As a cultural institution, we had acquired an awareness of what our audience was on the occasion of an exhibition dedicated to the writing of ancient inhabitants of the Veneto area, organized by an archaeological museum close to us. We realized that the arrival of computers had enabled the ‘democratization’ of typography: typefaces were no longer the tools of the typographers’ trade, but were available to everyone on any keyboard and visible on screens. Typography was a subject that, while unknown, was used by everyone, and no longer in the hands of a few specialists, trained in schools where the craft of typesetting and printing was learned.

Here, then, the Tipoteca no longer spoke exclusively to typographers, type founders, type designers, and bibliophiles, but had to engage the fledgling digital community. It was a Copernican revolution!

Of course, the tools in the Museum were the same as always: metal type cabinets, wood type, Monotype machines, presses and platens… but it was a world physically far removed from today’s typography. With patience, study and even a bit of creativity, we had to talk to children and adults living immersed in an environment rich in typography, but invisible to most, often convinced that everything was born with the computer. Let’s say that talking about typography and putting it into practice has become a daily balancing act between analog and virtual, paper and screen, ink and pixels. Yet, people’s ability to read and write did not originate with the spread of the first PCs or the PostScript language. It existed for millennia, as actions first cultivated by a small number of intellectuals, before becoming the achievement of millions through schooling and knowledge.

One wonders what the printing museum of the future will be like. Will it still be visited by people nostalgic for the scent of paper and ink, or of the mechanical noise of composing machines and the familiar breathing of the cylinder-presses?

It is clear that the audience is radically different. For many visitors, primarily students, typography is ‘touch’ only because they touch the glass of a screen or the keyboard of a computer. They have never experienced the physical elements needed to fill the gap between lines of type and on the margin of a chase. Their perception and sensory experience of paper is most often limited to an A4 or Letter sheet of 90g/sqm of industrial production from wood pulp. How can we make people understand and appreciate that world in which B.C. stands for ‘Before Computer’?

Perhaps, we may sound too optimistic. But back in the 1990s, there was talk of the end of printing and it seemed that paper was destined to disappear. Yet, books on typography, design, photography, architecture and art turn out to be curated even in their materials: they are objects that continue to capture people’s attention and offer sensory experiences that are difficult to repeat on other media. The need to browse, discover, annotate a book is inherent to human nature and is not easily sacrificed to technology.

Never more than these days is typography popular, for better or worse. In its documentary series on design, Netflix also devoted an episode to Jonathan Hofler, a type designer. Today, names like Gerard Unger, Matthew Carter, Erik Spiekermann, Aldo Novarese, Adrian Frutiger, and Hermann Zapf are familiar to thousands of people. At one time, a typeface designer was known to few. So we are fortunate to be able to start from the present, to cultivate knowledge, to teach that even if the tools are different, the legibility and beauty of typefaces are indispensable for good communication, for the harmony of a text, for the sharing of knowledge.

We must treasure that beautiful quote attributed to Gustav Mahler: ‘Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire’.

Printing museums can be those civic sanctuaries where the fire of craft, knowledge and passion can be kept alive. And, with Norman Potter – designer and teacher – we must keep in our hearts to not ‘be conned into thinking that only new materials or processes are worth investigating. Every material available is strictly contemporary’.

Sandro Berra
Director of the Tipteteca Italiana