Alphabetum Romanum, by Felice Feliciano Veronese, Officina Bodoni (1960)

{Ed. Note: This is the latest article from Books and Vines contributor Neil.}

Giovanni Mardersteig, who will always be associated with the great traditions of typography, wrote this short credo on printing :

First, service to the author, searching for the form best suited to his theme.  Second, service to the reader, making reading as pleasant and light for him as possible.  Third, the giving of the whole an attractive appearance, without imposing too much self-will.

Mardersteig was born in the city of Weimar, Germany in 1892 and christened Hans Mardersteig.  He was born into a literate and artistic family.  He received a degree in law, but took up teaching.  He then turned to publishing and became an editor for a publishing house, first in Leipzig and then in Munich.

Mardersteig had inherited a tubercular condition and was often ill so found it necessary to live in a drier climate.  In 1922 he moved to Montagnola in Switzerland, establishing himself as a printer, commissioning the construction of a (Dingler) hand press and naming his establishment Officina Bodoni in honour of the great printer whom he admired.  Over the next five years he produced over twenty books with several of them printed for other publishers, establishing a principle that he continued for the rest of his life – printing on commission and to please himself. His work in Switzerland was interrupted in 1926 when he won a competition to produce the entire works of Gabriel D’Annunzio.  He found it necessary to move his press to Verona, Italy where the work was completed in 1936 – Mardersteig continued to run the Officina Bodoni from his home in Verona until his death in 1977.

Mardersteig had a keen interest in the design of printing types  and his association with Stanley Morison and Frederic Warde led him to make investigations into the development of classic typefaces.  He designed several typefaces for the Officina Bodoni including, Griffo, Zeno and Dante.  Mardersteig’s typefaces were cut by the great French punchcutter Charles Malin.  The Dante typeface is considered by most typographers to be Mardesteig’s best design.  From its first appearance in 1955 it has been Mardersteig’s choice for over two dozen titles from his press.  The Monotype company also brought out the type for the trade. During a stay in Scotland in 1933 with Collins Cleartype Press, Mardersteig also supervised the production of the typeface Fontana which was used exclusively by Collins for thirty years before becoming a standard Monotype face.

The Officina Bodoni printed and published around 200 books and pamphlets on the hand press between 1923 and 1977.  Many of the books reflected the interest of the printer in the historic aspects of his craft, with books devoted to some of the great exponents of calligraphy, lettering and typography including ; Arrighi (1926), Moyllus (1927), Brun (1928), Celebrino (1929), Mercator (1930), Feliciano (1960), Bodoni (1968) and Torniello (1971).  Some of these were reprints of early treatises with scholarly notes by Mardersteig and others.

In 1948 Mardersteig launched a mechanized press to run alongside his Officina Bodoni called the Stamperia Valdonegato produce books in larger editions, more quickly, but still applying high standards of design and typography.  Following Mardersteig’s death in 1977 his son, Martino Mardersteig, took over the running of the Stamperia Valdonega.


In The Officina Bodoni : The Account of the Work of a Hand Press 1923-1977 (Edizioni Valdonega – Verona), Giovanni Mardersteig writes about Alphatum Romanum:

More than once I have found that seemingly unimportant references gave me clues which, if followed up, led to unexpected results.  My researches on the life and work of Felice Feliciano of Verona, who figures in several books printed by me, belong to this category.

Even before I settled in Montagnola I had come across a certain Felice Feliciano in two notes in Jacob Burckhardt’s unrivalled book, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.  One referred to his construction of the Roman alphabet, the other to his collection of ancient inscriptions dedicated to Mantegna.  I followed this up and found that in 1872 Richard Schone had reproduced the alphabet in greatly reduced outline in a supplementary volume to Mommsen’s  Corpus inscriptionum latinarum.  I managed to acquire a copy of this volume which was important to me mainly for its illustrations.  Then, among the documents printed in Paul Kristeller’s splendid book on Mantegna, I came across Feliciano’s “Iubilatio”, an enthusiastic account of his boating expedition – accompanied by Mantegna and other friends – to search for, and study, ancient inscriptions on the shores of Lake Garda.

I had been particularly attracted by Feliciano’s alphabet and was keen on seeing the small vellum codex which Mommsen had discovered.  According to Schone the alphabet was tinted in different colours.  During a long stay in Rome in 1921-22 I visited the Vatican Library and made my first acquaintance with Codex Vat. Lat. 6852, the small manuscript of Feliciano, whose very name sounded so promising.  I was enchanted by the colours and the lively description of how the letters should be constructed.  As I could discover little about the author, I became eager to study his life and activities in greater detail.  But I was unable to return to Feliciano until I moved to Verona years later.  Its Libraries contained several of his manuscripts, and I used every opportunity, when travelling, to search for others which were scattered among the great European libraries.  With the help of Professor G. Sandri, the Director of the Veronese Archives, I made some real discoveries.  To begin with we were able to establish the year of Feliciano’s birth, 1433, with the names of his family; later we even found his last will of 1466, which he had made at the age of only thirty-three, presumably before setting out on a long and dangerous journey.  I was able to report on this in a first article in Olschki’s journal, La Bibliofilia, XLI, 1939.

After the war I had a visit from Charles Mitchell.  He was also doing research on Feliciano, particularly in connexion with Ciriaco d’Ancona, on whom Felice had modelled himself.  After that we exchanged news of our discoveries.  As the years went by I got to know more and more manuscripts he had written for himself or others – I know of nearly forty – and gained greater insight into his life and varied interests.  In his last will he described himself as “scriptor”, but he was much more than that.  He was an archaeologist, collector of inscriptions, illuminator, bookbinder, printer, temporary devotee of alchemy, poet, writer of stories, and correspondent with a humanistic bent, several of whose collections of letters have survived.  After I had found a Veronese inscription of 1468 that had been modelled on his alphabet, the time seemed to have come to publish his construction with a sketch of his life.  The Prefect of the Vatican Library allowed me to make coloured copies from the original because colour photographs had failed to give us the exact shades.  Most of the grid lines had faded almost to invisibility, and I therefore showed the construction and the letters themselves separately on facing pages.  By great good fortune I found a helper – Ameglio Trivella, an art master – who had sufficient patience to illuminate the twenty-five letters in each of 720 copies, using a variety of colours – two for every letter.  Thus at long last, after decades of research, I was able to publish the book – with my introduction, set in my type, printed on my press, and in a manner that does justice to the earliest construction of the alphabet within square and circle.

Alphabetum Romanum was chosen by Martin Hunter & Jerry Kelly for inclusion in their A Century for the Century (The Grolier Club & David R. Godine 2004), writing:

Giovanni Mardersteig’s Officina Bodoni was one of the longest-lived (1923-1977) and surely one of the most respected handpresses of the century.  Mardersteig was born in Germany where he began his career in printing and publishing.  For health reasons he later moved to Switzerland, and then in 1927 on to Verona, where he was to spend the rest of his life.  Several important books were produced by Mardersteig before the war, many in authentic Bodoni types cast from the original matrices – hence the name “officina Bodoni.”  After the war, and with the founding of a machine press operation, the Stamperia Valdonega, situated just down the hill from his hand press, Mardersteig’s printing activities came to full fruition.

Several of his publications concerned the Renaissance antiquary, alchemist, and eccentric, Felice Feliciano (born 1433), whose alphabet of constructed roman capitals (one of the earliest of its kind, dating from circa 1460) is reproduced in Alphabetum Romanum.  The book is set in Mardersteig’s own Dante font and contains re-drawings of Feliciano’s capitals, each hand colored in hues to match the delightful variety of the original manuscript that is one of the treasures of the Vatican Library”.

About the Edition

  • Alphabetum Romanum by Felice Feliciano Veronese
  • Edited and introduced by Giovanni Mardersteig
  • Editiones Officinae Bodoni; Verona, November 1960
  • English translation by R.H. Boothroyd
  • Feliciano’s geometric construction of the Roman alphabet (circa 1460) is hand-coloured by Ameglio Trivella
  • 225mm x 150mm, 140pp
  • Printed in Dante 12, 11 and 10 point roman and italic
  • Magnani mould-made paper
  • Bound in quarter brown morocco with Roma paper sides
  • 400 copies (there were also 160 copies in German and 160 in Italian)
  • This is copy number 139 of the English edition


(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided to highlight and visualize the work being reviewed.  A side benefit, hopefully, is encouraging healthy sales of fine press books for the publishers and fine retailers that specialize in these types of books (of which Books and Vines has no stake or financial interest). Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

Alphabetum Romanum, Officina Bodoni, Book in Slipcase
Alphabetum Romanum, Officina Bodoni, Cover and Spine
Alphabetum Romanum, Officina Bodoni, Title Page
Alphabetum Romanum, Officina Bodoni, Contents
Alphabetum Romanum, Officina Bodoni, Sample Text #1
Alphabetum Romanum, Officina Bodoni, Sample Text #2
Alphabetum Romanum, Officina Bodoni, Sample Illustration#1
Alphabetum Romanum, Officina Bodoni, Sample Text #3
Alphabetum Romanum, Officina Bodoni, Sample Text #4
Alphabetum Romanum, Officina Bodoni, Sample Text #5 (Macro)
Alphabetum Romanum, Officina Bodoni, Sample Letter #1
Alphabetum Romanum, Officina Bodoni, Sample Letter #2
Alphabetum Romanum, Officina Bodoni, Sample Letter #3
Alphabetum Romanum, Officina Bodoni, Sample Letter #4
Alphabetum Romanum, Officina Bodoni, Sample Letter #5
Alphabetum Romanum, Officina Bodoni, Sample Text #6 (Macro)
Alphabetum Romanum, Officina Bodoni, Sample Text #7
Alphabetum Romanum, Officina Bodoni, Sample Text #8
Alphabetum Romanum, Officina Bodoni, Sample Text #9
Alphabetum Romanum, Officina Bodoni, Colophon

One thought on “Alphabetum Romanum, by Felice Feliciano Veronese, Officina Bodoni (1960)

Leave a Reply