Firmin Didot, French Master of the modern type -- by Nicholas Fabian.
French Master of the modern type
Firmin Didot

by Nicholas Fabian

Firmin DIDOT was born on April 14, 1764 in Paris, France. He was most fortunate to be born into the illustrious Didot family of printers, type-founders and publishers, an organization founded by his grandfather, François Didot, in 1713 in Paris. By 1789 seven members of the Didot family were engaged in the family business. His father, François Amproise Didot was a creative technical innovator and a sound business manager who held several high appointments, including being printer to Comte d'Artois and later Charles IX.

In 1783-84 the Didot Foundry produced the first modern typeface and used it to print Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata in 1784. This was not the light transitional roman that François Amproise Didot used in 1782 and 1783 to print several large works. This typeface was new, easy to read, and it was a robust and healthy roman with un-bracketed thin flat serifs and pronounced vertical shading.

Type specimen 1
Text fragment set in Firmin Didot's "Modern Face" of 1784, which was
14 years before Bodoni designed his modern book face.

It is uncertain whether Firmin Didot actually cut the first two original sizes of this new typeface ¹, but there is positive proof that he did produce the next two smaller sizes of the same design. Based on his brother's written records, Firmin Didot also cut an italic in 1783 when he was only 19 years old.

Type specimen 5
Text fragment set in Firmin Didot's italic from 1783, which he
produced at the ripe old age of 19!

Partly what made the new type a success was Pierre Didot's introduction of the wove paper (papier-vélin) that was developed and used by John Baskerville in England as early as 1757 to print his Virgil. Wove paper provided a much better printing surface for the finely cut serifs of Firmin Didot's new modern typeface. When the new type and paper were combined with the improved "one pull" printing press ², the results were very impressive. The new type was used to publish a Latin Bible in 1785 and Bossuet's Discours in 1786. For the next decade Firmin became more and more daring and cut several increasingly higher contrast "modern" fonts. Firmin Didot was such an exceptionally skilled engraver that he is the only person in the history of typography who designed and cut a family of fonts in half point increments. (10 pt, 10½ pt, 11 pt, 11½ pt, etc.)

Type specimen 2
Text fragment set in Firmin Didot's "Modern Face" of 1798, which
became the de facto French national typeface for most publications.

But, Firmin Didot's typographical virtuosity probably reached its pinnacle in 1798 when he cut a new font which was used for the Virgil of 1798 and the legendary Louvre editions. This new modern look established him as the typographical authority in France, and as a result, in 1814 Napoleon Bonaparte appointed him director of the imperial foundry, a position he held until his death. Firmin Didot's 1798 Modern Face, with very little opposition, became the de facto typeface of France, and the national standard for French publishing. This acceptance was not totally universal, but the fact is that most publications, even today, follow the Didot model. C'est formidable!

Most large European foundries of the period had either purchased original Didot types or created a variation of Didot's modern typeface because there was a ready market for stylish high-class publications, as was shown by the fame and great financial success of Bodoni's printing office. At this point of the analysis the most obvious question is the comparison of Giambattista Bodoni's modern roman to Firmin Didot's typographical masterpiece. The historical fact is that both studied the works of Nicholas Jenson, Erhard Ratdolt, William Caslon, John Baskerville and other early masters, and both had drawn similar conclusions from their observations. There is no question about the historical fact that Firmin Didot had created the first modern typeface. It is also true that Bodoni had used the Didot model, among other refrences, to create a modern typeface of his own. If text is set in both fonts in identical point size, weight, and leading and are placed side by side, the startling observation is that they look and feel different! Even at a casual glance, the Dido type suggests greater warmth and elegance while the Bodoni is crisper and more robust. Vive le différence! Firmin Didot was a creative typographic virtuoso of his era and his style remains a major influence in European type design. Firmin Didot died in 1836 at age 72.

Type specimen 3
Comparison of greatly enlarged (600%) original text from Firmin Didot's typeface of 1798 (above), and Giambattista Bodoni's sparkling modern book face (below). It is obvious the character shapes are quite different, in spite of the variations in edge-resolution.

A brief family history.

For nearly two centuries the Didot family had a profound influence on French typography, type-founding, printing, publishing and paper-making. The great French dynasty of type-founders had started with François Didot (1689-1757), in 1713 in Paris, where he began operations as a printer and bookseller.

François-Ambroise (1730-1804), Didot's eldest son was a creative multi-talented innovator. He modified existing type design standards by allowing greater contrast between the thick and thin parts of letters, which became the seed for the design of "modern" typefaces. He changed Fournier's point system, and introduced his 72 points to the French inch as a standardized typographic measurement. He also introduced the identification of font sizes by their point value, (10 point, 12 point, etc.) instead of using obscure arbitrary names ( "parisienne", "petit romain", etc.). He also pioneered the use of high quality wove paper in France, emulating the quality of John Baskerville's works in England. Amazingly, it was François-Ambroise Didot who was one of the first influential printer-publishers to discard the use of the "long s" (the one that looks like an "f" with a descender) from his publications³. One of François-Ambroise Didot's son, Pierre, managed the printing and publishing side of the business while his brother, Firmin, took over the type-foundry. Pierre published some of the most highly acclaimed editions of Virgi, Horace, La Fontaine, and Racine.¹¹ It was Firmin who designed the Didot typeface¹ and he also invented stereotyping, a process of making duplicate plates from relief printing surfaces using a mould, which provided the basis for the publishing of low cost books.

During the eighteen and nineteenth centuries the successive Didot generations all contributed significantly to their chosen professions in the graphic arts. In the second part of nineteenth century, Firmin Didot's sons, Ambroise-Firmin and Hyacinthe-Firmin, published some of the most important books of European culture. These included the nine volume Greek Language Thesaurus, compiled by Henri Estienne; the Library of Greek Authors; the Latin Library; and the French Library, 200 volumes in total. The Didot family had performed an inestimable service not only to France, but to all of western civilization. Through their long term dedication and professional excellence the Didot family became one of the dominant forces in European type-founding, printing and publishing.

¹ There are some unsubstantiated claims about a Pierre Louis Vaflard, having cut the new typeface, apparently he was a type-founder and a pupil of Gando. The problem is that there are no corroborative documents of him engraving any font, anytime. The quality of both the design and the engraving of the new typeface is such that it had required a significant amount of technical expertise. While not absolutely certain, it is most likely that Firmin Didot cut the first two sizes of the new typeface. After all, how many people at the Didot firm had the required skills to accomplish such a task? (And the latter sizes were definitely cut by Firmin.)

² The new platen was as large as the full sized form, so in one impression, (one pull), they could print the entire form. Previous presses required two pulls, because the platen was half the size of the form.

³ The "long s" was first formally discarded by Joseph Ames (1689-1759), and later by the noted printer-publisher, John Bell (1745-1831).

¹¹ Racine is a full colour illustrated encyclopaedia of costumes, fashions, and cultural curiosities from every part of the world; it was first published between 1801 and1805 in 12 excuisite volumes and was awarded a prize in 1806. The logistics of editing and producing Racine required a monumental publishing effort, and, rightfully so, the final results had brought great honour to the Didot family. In 1851, a copy of Racine was entered into the World Exposition contest at the Crystal Palace, in London, England where it won the Gold Medal for being the "Best Book in the World!" ever printed! (It is most likely that members of the selection committee had consumed considerable amount of French Cognac before they reached this stunning conclusion!)

A historical anecdote.

"Interesting to read about a family/its descendants I knew pretty well. My father and 4 of his ancestors (father/grandfather/ggf/gggf) were all directors of the same Imprimerie Firmin Didot & Cie at Mesnil sur l'Estree (Eure) in Normandy. The FD family patronized that small village for the longest time and we were all part of a large family, gathering for picnics, being invited in their rural chateau, etc.. they were very generous and were much liked by the workers. My gggf was Theotiste Lefevre and he wrote a book about the ABC of the printing method, maybe you have heard of it.

I enjoyed the reading, took me back years into my youth, I have been in the USA for 20 years and return frequently to my birthplace around the corner from the large factory that we knew so well. Lots of good memories."

Odile Pryor (Lefevre)

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