Giovanni Mardersteig and the Officina Bodoni

Officina Bodoni Giovanni Mardersteig Alexander Turnbull

Late last year I viewed the Alexander Turnbull Library‘s copy of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili . This is Aldus Manutius’ most famous and most technically difficult book. Spanning three languages (sometimes on the same page), extensive woodcut illustrations (every one worth a day’s looking) and interesting typographic layouts, the book is often thought to be one of the most beautiful ever printed. But its real achievement is only understood when we realise that every page was hand-printed, making the typographic challenges immense.

The Hypnerotomachia is fascinating, even exciting, to see (and to read, thanks to a recent Phaidon-published translation, and with the wonderful descriptions and discussion in Andrew Hui’s The Poetics of Ruins). But as a book I felt about it the way one generally feels when seeing Manet’s Olympia, or any other artwork that has become a stand-in for an artistic period. It represents something important, but its own impact has been dulled through its ubiquity.

Last week, again at the Turnbull Library, I saw some books by another printer-publisher who has been called “The last of the great classic printers.” These books, unlike the Hypnerotomachia, left me thrilled. Far from being solely historically interesting, these books were contemporary, emphatically modern and of the twentieth century. They spoke directly rather than through the lens of history. And yet everything about them demonstrated that they are a continuation of Aldus Manutius’ printing tradition. Everything about them represented Aldus’ motto of “Festina lente”, or “make haste, slowly”—or to use a New Zealand poetic analogy, these books knew that “One foot is for holding on, and one is for letting go.”

The books I saw were all printed by Giovanni Mardersteig at his Officina Bodoni. Born “Hans”, Mardersteig founded his hand press in Switzerland in 1922, moved it to Verona in 1927, and ran it from there until his death in 1977. The move to Italy came about when Mardersteig won the Italian government’s commission to print the entire works of Gabriele D’Annunzio.

The Officina Bodoni printed books both under its own imprint, and for other publishers. Faber&Faber, for instance, had Mardersteig print a small edition of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. He also printed a run of Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party, illustrated by Marie Laurencin. Later, around 1950, Mardersteig also set up a mechanical press called the Stamperia Valdonega to publish more books that did not aspire to the art of his hand press.

Just slipping Mardersteig’s The Tempest out of its custom-made box says so much about the classical modernity of his books. It’s bound in vellum, that remnant of medieval manuscripts, yet is coloured in an almost outrageously modern lime green (see image at top). The colour is straight from an abstract painter’s palette (though anachronistic, I think of Imi Knoebel’s colours). And the vellum marbles it, gives it a depth and variety that glows.

Mardersteig King Lear Officina Bodoni
The Turnbull Library’s copy of Mardersteig’s The Tempest is one of the 224 paper copies, but bound in vellum.

Mardersteig’s printers’ device itself is classical, but with a flourish—he changed the orb to horns. Looking briefly, it’s unnoticeable, but the more you look and compare it to classical devices it even elicits a laugh.

If anyone is interested in learning more, I’ve particularly enjoyed the 1980 The Officina Bodoni: An Account of the Work of a Hand Press published under the Stamperia Valdonega imprint after Mardersteig’s death. The Officina’s typography deserves an essay on its own, and this book includes examples of almost all the printers’ types.

If I could have just one of the Officina Bodoni books to own? It would have to be the 1969 De Aetna, his version of Pietro Bembo’s account of the ascent of Mt Etna with his father. The original edition was published in 1495 by Aldus Manutius himself, and was the first time Aldus used the Roman type crafted by Francesco Griffo. For this book, published in separate English, German and Italian translations of the Latin original (each in an edition of 125), Mardersteig revived the “Bembo” type that Stanley Morison had worked on. It’s a wonderful book speaking across countries, across traditions, and across time from early modernity to perhaps its last great flourishing.

Pietro Bembo De Aetna Officina Bodoni
Alexander Turnbull Library’s copy of the Officina Bodoni Aesop, which is beautifully illustrated and might be Mardersteig’s most lavish book (in fact two volumes).

Libraries & Humility

Some great passages in this Los Angeles Review of Books essay on Umberto Eco and “dietrologia — literally, “behindology,” the art of deciphering the hidden meanings of things.” I thought the following passage worth quoting in full, on the relationship between libraries and epistemic humility:

Humility is often thought of as a behavioral virtue — a matter of how we relate to God or to our neighbor. But it should also be an epistemic virtue — about how we relate to what we can — and cannot — know about the world, ourselves, and others. Any self-reflecting scholar sooner or later reaches a point where, for all her knowledge and understanding, she realizes the immensity of that which she can neither know nor understand. Indeed, the more insightful she is as a scholar, the more terrifying the dimensions of all that ignorance and incomprehension. Dwarfism is the natural condition of the scholar honest with herself.

This revelation is often prompted by a very specific space: the library. Surrounded by shelf after heavy shelf of “giants,” we may feel crushed. Gradually, however, we become used to our crushed condition, and even attracted to the place; in time, our fascination with it grows and so does our compulsion to linger. We end up making the library our home, taking leave of the world. And before we know it, we end up in a seriously perverse relationship with the library.

Umberto Eco knew the situation only too well. He was enthralled with libraries, their sworn devotee and happy slave. Libraries fill his books. The best part of The Name of the Rose takes place in one, “the greatest library in Christendom,” whose absolute ruler, appropriately enough, is a monster and a deranged mind: Jorge de Burgos (Eco’s tender gesture toward Jorge Luis Borges, whom he greatly admired). Eco’s personal libraries were the stuff of legend; the one in Milan alone allegedly had around 30,000 volumes.

But the numbers, however big, are not the point. For what the library tells you is not that there is that much to read, but that there are no limits as to how much there is to know. The essence of the library is its limitlessness. The more time you spend in it, the more you realize that no time could ever be enough; no matter how hard you strive, you will never know it all. The revelation of your finitude comes with embarrassing pain. And when you have realized that you cannot live without that pain, your perverse relationship with the library has reached its climax. A “normal” relationship with a library would be no relationship at all.

To say, then, that Eco — or, for that matter, anyone like him — was a “voracious reader” would be to miss the point. If anything, he didn’t devour books, he was devoured by them. What a library primarily offers is not learning (you can get that online), but a sense of profound existential disorientation. The function of the library is not to give you answers, but to overwhelm you with ever more questions. You may go to the library for enlightenment, but all you do is get lost. “The library is a great labyrinth, sign of the labyrinth of the world,” Brother William of Baskerville observes in The Name of the Rose. “You enter and you do not know whether you will come out.” You walk in glowing with self-confidence, enamored of books, and you come out — if you ever do — all in shatters, the shadow of your former self.

And that’s the best part of it. For being shattered may be the finest thing to happen to you if you are on a quest for meaning, as Eco always was.

An Elegant Shed in Marlborough: The Axe House by Stuart Gardyne

Axe House Stuart Gardyne Architecture Plus Moore-Jones
House by Stuart Gardyne, Architecture+. Photography by Thomas Seear-Budd.

An essay commissioned by HOME Magazine New Zealand, published in print Feb/March 2020 issue.

“A paddock with grapevines on it” is Stuart Gardyne’s description of the site in Marlborough’s Omaka Valley in which this refined yet unpretentious house is found. There are views of the mountains, and neat, regular rows of vines. A few olive trees dot the site, as if to emphasise the many subtle shades of green and grey. For an architect the choices would have been almost limitless: the house could be placed anywhere on the site, and without any close neighbours there are no immediate other buildings or forms to respond to. Modernist glasshouse, or a sprawling estate? Both have been done before on New Zealand’s vineyards. Many now sit uncomfortably and feel out of place. What works on the coast doesn’t work on the farm.

When asked about the freedom that a site like this affords, Gardyne, who was approached by the owners of the land seven years ago, recounts a comment he once heard attributed Mark Mack, a postmodern American architect: “Sometimes you can have too much freedom.” And in many ways the house that now stands is a subtle, careful musing on that idea, for architect and client alike. What should you really do, when you can do anything? And what’s most important, when the choices are limitless?

Gardyne is perhaps the only architect to have a letterbox featured in architectural publications in this country. Known for his meticulous attention to detail and a love for materiality and tactility, he speaks with fondness for David Chipperfield’s work—specifically of the way that for all its marbles and patinated bronzes, his work still manages to get out of the way, pushing to centre stage the objects in a museum or the lives within a house. And in this house in Marlborough, that’s exactly what has been achieved, and without making any kind of fuss.

“If you’re striving for simplicity,” Gardyne says, “then the architecture has to have a level of perfection in the way it’s composed and in the spatial qualities of the rooms.” This is a simple house in its basic form, looking to the barns and sheds of the rural New Zealand vernacular, and to the long, repeated rows of vines of its immediate environment. At 41 metres long, the house is an elongated, extruded shed broken only by cut-outs that form decks. From this perspective it mimics the length of the vines. Yet the house is also just five metres wide, so that from the other angle it sits small and modestly, reminiscent of the idealised house forms of Stephen Bambury’s small sculptures and prints, or the cubist barns of Rita Angus’ paintings.

Located at the end of a driveway, you first drive past the vines and down the length of the house before arriving. Enter the front door and turn right, and you’re in a self-contained bedsit intended for use by one of the owners’ parents. Turn left and you are in the main space of the house, a large living-dining-kitchen area with a deck off one side. The main bedroom is located at the very end of the house, and to get there you walk through other rooms: a study, a multi-purpose room (or spare bedroom), past the bathroom and wardrobe. This arrangement of spaces, with a central corridor connecting the entire house, is economical despite the house being located on an expansive site. It implies a more thoughtful, time-honoured way of inhabiting space, rather than our modern, disconnected rooms in large multi-storey homes.

Gardyne explains that one of the critical design decisions was what pitch the gable should have. Too steep, and it could be evocative of a cathedral rather than a vernacular shed, looking foreign among vines and paddocks. Yet too low and it could look squat or stout, as though pushed a bit too firmly from the top into the ground. The 35 degrees finally settled on feels right in an inexplicable way, to the extent that there’s almost nothing to comment on. It’s “super normal”, in Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison’s formulation: design that distils and refines everyday objects to produce a new version that is instantly familiar, correct and comforting.

Axe House Stuart Gardyne HOME Magazine

When a house is to be inhabited lightly, as this one is, filled with very few but very beautiful possessions, the architecture has to do extra work—it can’t hide behind paintings or bookshelves or rugs, and must provide texture and personality that those furnishings usually offer. “I think it does place a larger demand on the architecture to actually be part of that aesthetic,” Gardyne explains, “because it’s not going to be shrouded or masked by the normal clothes of life, the things and objects of inhabitation that people bring.”

Looking at this house in our age of easy Instagram minimalism it becomes necessary to think a little harder about what complex and simple, more and less, really mean. For many, moving away from urban life and to the countryside is itself a response to those thoughts. Yet in its considered, refined interior, and with its beautiful realisation of the most basic shapes and forms, this house says that a simple life in the country doesn’t at all mean a life with less thought.

Raised half a metre above the grass and vines, the vistas out through the windows and from the decks are connected to the landscape, but from an architectural vantage point. There’s a play of connection and disconnection, closeness and distance, as you look out across the top of the vines to the hills beyond. 

But the real pleasures of this house are probably a treat only the owners will ever know: the serenity of moving through passages and spaces in which every doorjamb has been laboured over; the ease of pushing on the large black D-handles on the doors rather than turning a handle to enter another space; following the day’s light around the grapevines on each of the decks. This house has none of the pretension of an urban dwelling, but it didn’t get rid of refinement along with it. It might be minimalist in aesthetic, yes, but it’s a house emphatically maximalist in thought.

Stuart Gardyne NZ House

Culture and Wellbeing: Towards a Humanistic Public Policy?

McCahon Elias, New Zealand Culture and Wellbeing Moore-Jones
Colin McCahon, Elias (1959). Private collection.

The search for a language of human value in public policy has been ongoing for some time, especially in New Zealand, with many shuffling towards it and trying to speak about it directly. Max Harris’ “politics of love” in his The New Zealand Project (BWB, 2016) is one attempt at this. Treasury’s Living Standards Framework is another. Robert Gregory and Kristen Maynards’ argument in Policy Quarterly that the Māori idea of wairua can enable a “more humane public service” is one more. The theme was dealt with by Minister of Finance Bill English in his social investment budgets, and it is being dealt with now by Minister of Finance Grant Robertson in his wellbeing budgets. Are we all grasping towards a humanistic public policy?

The language of policy as it has developed as a social science from Weber onwards is generally positivist to the extreme: footnotes aplenty, no first-person, and certainly no place for art, culture or literature. But if we’re looking for a “humane” public service, might these things be a way of communicating directly? Perhaps the era of positivist public policy is drawing to a close—and what we need more than ever is a new language of policy that puts human values at its very centre.

Here I want to say that culture is itself a language of humanity—something we sorely need when concerned with living standards and human wellbeing.

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The Labour Government’s Wellbeing Budget had this to say about wellbeing: “Wellbeing is when people are able to lead fulfilling lives with purpose, balance and meaning to them. Giving more New Zealanders capabilities to enjoy good wellbeing requires tackling the long-term challenges we face as a country, like the mental health crisis, child poverty and domestic violence. It means improving the state of our environment, the strength of our communities and the performance of our economy.”

The problem is that wellbeing is ephemeral, as indicated by phrases like “purpose, balance and meaning.” American political commentator David Brooks once wrote that “meaning” as it is used in public today is “flabby and vacuous, the product of a culture that has grown inarticulate about inner life… Meaningfulness is pure and self-regarding feeling, the Nutrasweet of the inner life”—giving a sense of its ephemerality and intangibility, to put it mildly.

What is of interest is that government has mentioned “meaning” in the first place, something that indicates the search for a language of human value. The problem is it also indicates public policy’s general muteness when it comes to explaining what those human values are, or how they might be achieved.

At the same time as the “humanities” have been maligned and neglected in our universities and culture at large, they’ve never been more needed in public life. The term itself gives a sense of their significance—the humanities being those things that deal with our humanity, with what makes our societies unique. They give depth and meaning to the concept of wellbeing. One book alone won’t do it, but the collective knowledge of and education in the humanities gives a literal common language of humanity.

The most common arguments given for why nations should care about the humanities are (and I adapt these from Helen Small’s wonderful book The Value of the Humanities):

1. The argument for economic growth (national culture becomes one of the greatest tourism drawcards, and can be a significant export industry—imagine Book of Kells and James Joyce tours in Dublin)

2. The argument for intrinsic value (culture is valuable for its own sake, and to justify it is to reduce it)

3. The argument for democracy (culture teaches us empathy and allows us to see different perspectives; it also teaches skills like critical thinking, which are essential to a functioning democracy)

4. The argument for individual happiness (culture embeds us in layers of meaning and significance that are essential to happiness)

5. The argument for non-economic values (after neoliberalism, culture alone gives society a way to see values that do not have numbers before them)

Arguments one and two appear significant, and correct, but ultimately they get caught in their own logical knots—or at the very least undermine the other arguments. Instead, I think arguments 3, 4 and 5 above present an overwhelmingly strong case for why we today need culture and the humanities to re-enter the language of public policy. Culture alone teaches us about human values, and about what’s worth valuing in life; culture strengthens democracy, by teaching us about perspectives and conditions we may otherwise never understand; and culture increases happiness by embedding citizens in history and networks of meaning.

These arguments are not unique. They’re as old, in many ways, as culture itself. But what is unique is making them in this particular combination at a time when New Zealand, and many countries in the developed world, grasp for a new, human-centric way of conducting public policy. In Aotearoa, the emphasis on wellbeing seems an attempt to acknowledge that human life and happiness are at the ends of policy—things we’ve grown unaccustomed to talking about, seeing them fluffy and imprecise.

— — — —

What does this mean, practically speaking? These thoughts still need to be explored and developed, but some early suggestions:

  • Politicians and public policy practitioners must learn to be more comfortable with speaking in metaphor and cultural example—with letting go of certainty, in other words, because certainties are impossible in our age of complexity.
  • There must be increased funding of culture and of cultural education. As a language for governments and citizens to communicate with one another about the most important things, it deserves emphasis. (It is a central irony that cultural services are being cut and abolished at precisely the point that they’ve never been more urgent).
  • Businesses, too, should emphasise cultural education as a way to begin speaking about human values. Culture is a way for businesses to become truly human-centric, serving humans everywhere.
  • When politics is being fractured by a regression into unchangeable identity characteristics, emphasising human values is one way of bridging divides and creating cohesiveness.

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The painting at the top of this essay is by New Zealand’s great painter Colin McCahon. His paintings are often difficult to understand at the best of times, but his Elias series, of which this is one, are perhaps most difficult of all. Some canvases are large, others small; some dark, some light, and some nearing apocalyptic; what they share in common is the word “Elias” scrawled and etched across their surface. “ELIAS will he come, come to save him?” “Will ELIAS save him?” “ELIAS cannot save him.”

McCahon struggled his whole life with the public incomprehension and derision of his art. His Elias paintings were an attempt to communicate about human comprehension itself, to struggle through the incomprehension and find a way to mutual understanding. They abstractly depict—in words, because these paintings are about language itself—a moment when Jesus, crucified on the cross, calls out to “Eli”, his God, to come to help him. Bystanders, however, mishear him in his moment of need. They hear him calling for “Elias”. In misunderstanding they call out, again and again and again across McCahon’s many paintings. Elias, Elias, ELIAS—but it is too late. Words and communication failed to reach across the void.

At a time when the public understanding of and trust in government is at an all-time low in many nations around the world, now seems a time for us to think like McCahon. How can governments communicate with citizens to increase belief and trust? How can government departments talk about humanity itself? How can we re-think our tools, just as McCahon re-thought the nature of painting itself, to say what we need to say?

In this task, culture offers governments a language with which to make wellbeing mean something.