The Daily Heller: The Places and Faces of Italian Type

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Why is everybody so enamored with Italy? It is too numerous to list but if you’re reading this it is for the love of type, typography and letters, of course!

For ten years SVA MFA Design’s co-chairs organized The Masters Typographic Workshop in Italy (along with a stellar faculty) which was devoted to the study of Italian type, typography, signs, ephemera and printing. One of the early stops on our two week tour was in Corrnuda at Tipoteca, the extraordinary hands-on wood and metal type and printing archive, museum and letterpress printing/workshop, directed by Sandro Berra (

Our first day trip (an hour from Venice) to visit Tipoteca provided an underpinning for the two week Masters experience. Now, Sandro, in collaboration with type historians Bill Moran (formwely of the Hamilton Woodtype & Printing Museum) and Riccardo Olocco, have devised a matchless intensive Italian type experience: TipoItalia from June 12 – June 23, 2023.

Simply put . . . I’d go if I could in a heartbeat (but I can’t). But I urge all designers to consider making this (reasonably priced) investment. So, I’ve asked Bill and Sandro to whet your appetites for type, with a few more details below.

I asked Bill Moran:

What do you and Sandro hope to impart with this Tipoteca experience?
Glad you asked! We are providing a two-week guided discovery of Italian letterforms (early inscriptions, street signage, etc.) to trace how they evolved and resulted in the wood and metal typefaces that make up Tipoteca’s collection. We will print with the museum’s faces and the student’s hand-cut letterforms, then compare styles and design traits. During the second week participants will execute a digital type face based on these ideas to take home as a souvenir.

Who are you looking for as the ideal student?
Anyone with an interest in historical letterforms, vintage signage and their provenance. Educators are definitely an intended audience as it lets them take this process back to their institutions and pass on this revival method to their students using letterpress and/or digital typography.

Does there appear to be an even greater interest in the history (theory and practice) of type than ever before?
Absolutely. Before Covid, Tipoteca was regularly hosting students from universities in Europe and the U.S. It’s become something of a pilgrimage for graphic designers. Then during the pandemic Tipoteca, like many museums, had to turn to sharing their collection and educational efforts online which sent curious aficionados on a deeper dive to explore typographic history via the web. With the easing of the pandemic there’s definitely a pent-up demand to get our hands inky again and this will be the perfect opportunity.

Do you see this interest in a similar light as vinyl is for record aficionados who want to return to “authenticity,” or is there a more fashionable underpinning (or both)?
Yeah, that’s a great analogy. If you love music, vinyl records have a definite draw, not only the warmth of the sound but also the ritual of playing a record (Slow Music if you will) and letterpress is just like that. Extending your analogy, we are then using the equivalent of Garage Band to create a new composition. Music for the eyes. We’re especially jazzed (see what I did there?) to have Riccardo Olocco facilitate the font making portion of the program. His historical revivals of fonts are breathtaking. Check out Olocco and his partner’s work (here).   

We’re living in digital environment totally overwhelmed by typography (on paper, screens, walls, cities… ). The act of setting not only physical type, but also spaces, interlines and margins is a good way to practice and have a solid experience in our daily ways of using (and reading) type in use. 

I asked Sandro Berra:

Where will you be taking your students?
In addition to working at Tipoteca and staying at the amazing Villa Bolzonello we have a number of day trips planned. The first one will be in Venice, where we will have as a special guide a calligrapher and passionate sign painter, who will take us in a walking tour to see the most interesting inscriptions in the city. Another outing will be a visit to Rovereto, where in addition to having the most important museum on futurism (Mart), we will also get to visit the Casa Depero. A third outing is planned in Milan, where we will be introduced to the lettering of the Monumental Cemetery by James Clough. In short, a varied and stimulating range of proposals.

What aspects of lettering and type will be the focus?
Italy, as we know, made an important contribution to editorial typographic design, with the arrival of printing especially in Venice. And, before Jenson and Manuzio, the capital lettering of the Latin alphabet was established in Rome. At the same time, Italy is also a country that is proud of its cultural diversity and richness (just think of the gastronomy!) and treasures it. Not surprisingly, the Slow Food movement was born right here. In a way, we would like to investigate not only the canonical letters, imprinted in books, but also the vernacular lettering of signs or inscriptions, which can still convey original ideas in our time always.

Is there more of the past to still be uncovered, analyzed and studied?
The best way to answer to this question, is a quote of Norman Potter: “Don’t be conned into thinking that only new materials or processes are worth investigating. Every material available is strictly contemporary.” So, whatever is behind us, can be uncovered, analyzed and studied because they are still part of our world.

What prerequisites if any are the students required to bring with them?
Certainly, an interest, curiosity and passion for letters in all its forms is a good starting requirement. The purpose of the workshop is precisely to initiate curious and passionate people into the study of letters. There will also be a way to gain some experience with letterpress printing. The fact that the workshop connects the tradition and history of Italian typography with the digital present may reveal stimulating approaches, precisely because the whole thing takes place in the country where these forms of letters took shape and were in use. Bill Moran’s experience as a typographer on the one hand, and Riccardo Olocco’s historical expertise on the other, are a formidable stimulus to research and to the acquisition of new ways of using the past in our present.

Posted inThe Daily Heller Typography