Making an Ampersand

The 2012 Legacy of Letters tour and workshop, led by myself and Alta Price, took place in northern Italy this past July. As in previous years, it was an opportunity for calligraphers, letter cutters, typographers, and anyone else passionate about letterforms to study the history of the Roman alphabet in the place of its origin. This year’s tour began in Milan and ended in Verona. In between it stopped in Parma for an exhilarating visit to the Museo Bodoniano to see original punches, matrices, and books by Giambattista Bodoni; in Venice for a visit to the Fondazione Cini to look at (and handle) incunabula by Nicolas Jenson, Erhardt Ratdolt, and Aldus Manutius; in Aquileia to see an outstanding collection of ancient Roman inscriptions; and in Rovereto to visit the Casa Depero, home of the Futurist artist and designer Fortunato Depero. Interspersed with these day trips were workshops—four days of calligraphy instruction with myself and Luca Barcellona, and letterpress printing with Lucio Passerini at the Tipoteca Italiana Fondazione in Cornuda.

This year’s tour had eight participants from four countries: Patricia Vining, Maureen Hoffmann, Tim Chambers, and David Shields from the United States; Angela Holland from England; Alexander (Sasha) Trubin from Russia; and Clint Harvey and Diana Pasovski from Australia. Despite their divergent backgrounds and experiences, the group quickly bonded and everyone had an exciting 10 days.

The group’s tightness was especially evident when it came time to make a collective keepsake at the Tipoteca. The keepsake was originally intended to be a poster or broadsheet, and Lucio and I had figured out the basics of its design (paper size and weight, typeface options, etc.) in advance. But Maureen suggested a method for turning the poster into a “maze book,” and the other members of the group came up with the idea of unifying the eight pages with the letters of the word alfabeto (Italian for “alphabet”). Each of them would design one letter of alfabeto for the keepsake. Clint and Diana then arranged to work on E and T so that they could turn the pair into an ampersand (& is the ligature et, which is Latin for “and”).

Having acquired the components of an ampersand, Clint and Diana asked me to design one for them that they could interpret typographically. I wrote out several versions using a large broad-edged marker. We chose one (see above) and then I redrew it as a sans serif with some weight so that its outlines could be filled by individual letters. I turned curves into chamfers to make assembly easier. Clint’s initial idea was to fill the outline with ampersands from different founts. But the Tipoteca did not have enough ampersands to accomplish this (the design required several hundred.) Diana suggested using ornaments instead. But there was only one ornament available in the quantity needed, a square divided into four parts with a squiggle pattern.

To provide a bit of levity to the design, Clint inserted a skull-and-crossbones dingbat at the intersection of the two strokes of the T (see top image). Diana, tweezers in hand, did most of the composition, assembling the hundreds of ornaments to form the ampersand.

Clint and Diana assembling the ornaments to form the ampersand.

The color chosen by Maureen and me for the first run of the keepsake was an orange. (The caption information, in Doric Black Italic, was set by Alta and printed by Lucio in black.) After the ampersand was printed in orange, Diana had the idea of reprinting it in the second color (olive green, another Maureen choice)—but with a twist. Her plan was to replace every other ornament with a space and then print the assembly off-register to create a shadow effect (see below). This was an enormous amount of work—at least twice as much as Diana put in originally to assemble the ampersand. Fortunately, she got help from Maureen and Patricia. The resulting two-tone ampersand became the star of the keepsake.

Maureen and Patricia helping to insert spaces into the ampersand

The other designs were inventive in their own ways. Angela flanked her initial A, in a condensed metal type with flared terminals, with the names of her children and grandchildren in a variety of metal faces, including Slogan by Aldo Novarese and Broadway. David used his initial L (a bracketed slab serif wood type) as the first letter of Luna (“moon” in Italian). In collaboration with Alta—who also serves as our Italian translator—he added the Italian words for “waxing” and “waning” and made crescent moons from parentheses.

Click the images to view larger versions.

Sasha took a graffiti quotation he stumbled across earlier in the tour (“Se perdo Te perdo tutto”—If I lose You, I lose all) as the basis for his F design. His condensed Egyptian wood type F was joined by an extremely condensed sans serif wood type—and a tiny cross and the Tipoteca logo. The other A was Patricia’s. She used it to begin the word asolare, invented by Pietro Bembo to mean the leisurely passing of time with no purpose. It was an homage both to Bembo (whose name graces a familiar typeface) and to the small hilltop town of Asolo where Legacy of Letters participants stopped for dinner and drinks one evening.

Tim employed his wood type B (similar to Trenton from Hamilton Wood Type, 1889) as the linchpin in a pangram (“How razorback-jumping frogs can level six piqued gymnasts.”). Finally, Maureen took what was supposedly a weird Q and placed it upside down to become an O, the first letter in three lovely Italian words: “Ogni Opalescente Opportunità” (Every opalescent opportunity). Her design was completed by two circular ornaments above and below the curly O. (The lower ornament is the emblem of the Republic of Italy.) All in all, the participants produced, both individually and collectively, an amazing keepsake—especially given the short amount of time and that only three of them (David, Clint, and Diana) had previous letterpress experience.

The final keepsake, before being trimmed and folded into an accordion book

Legacy of Letters 2013 will be dedicated to Giambattista Bodoni on the bicentennial of his death. Tony Di Spigna will be our guest teacher along with Lucio. Alta and I look forward to seeing if the next group of participants can top this year’s keepsake with its checkerboard ampersand.

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