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Words by Michel Wlassikoff

Firmin Didot: author, book printer, typefounder and punchcutter.

Very few type specimens by Didot are known, as he reserved his new types for family editions and prestigious works.
Very few type specimens by Didot are known, as he reserved his new types for family editions and prestigious works.
Few proofs or type specimens by Firmin Didot (1764-1836) are known. In fact, he reserved the use of his new types for family editions, which appeared in the compositions of prestige works that constituted their presentation specimens. This was the case for the first roman types for the Gerusalemme liberata, printed by François-Ambroise his father, engraved by Vafflard and to which Firmin contributed, particularly for the title capitals. The first italics engraved for his brother Pierre were delivered to mark the publication of his Epître sur les progrès de l’imprimerie. A single specimen sheet was published in 1790, bringing together the first series of roman and italics. This was followed by an Epreuve de l’Imprimerie impériale, for which Firmin became the official foundry from 1811 onwards, featuring his millimetric roman, his ronde, and anglaise. It wasn’t until 1820 that a new specimen appeared, shortly before Firmin sold his business — which then included a type foundry, a paper mill, a printing works and a bookshop — to his sons in 1827, to devote himself to politics. It features corresponding roman and italic in twelve sizes (5 to 16), three sizes of Greek, two of Russian and one of Gothic, as well as two large sizes of bâtarde and coulée (48 and 120). But half of the large folio plate is devoted to the ronde and anglaise, which Firmin considers his masterpieces, and which he has continued to perfect and complete since 1805.
In 1806, Firmin Didot published his first work, Les Bucoliques de Virgile, translated into French verse by himself. He dedicated it to his elder brother, Pierre. “Always united since childhood by a friendship as tender as it was unalterable,” he emphasized, “our tastes have always been the same for both Typography and Poetry. I therefore dedicate to you the first work I publish; I offer to the poet the translation of the pastorals sung by the swan of Mantua, and to the typographer the typefaces of this volume, and especially this one called Anglaise, a typeface which, tried without success in its native country, appears for the first time, with some distinction, under the auspices of French Typography.” Firmin recalls that, for a round script, he had already “engraved typefaces in such a way that it was difficult to see where the ends of each letter met. But there were still great difficulties to overcome in order to execute the typeface called Anglaise […] I have taken pleasure in letting you guess the means I took to succeed…”. This typeface, for which he filed a patent, was awarded the gold medal at the 1806 Exposition des Produits de l’Industrie Française. A proof of the types used at the Imprimerie Impériale, dated 1810, bears witness to the official use of a typeface (28 points). In 1811, Firmin Didot, appointed Head of the Imperial Foundry, began the production of thirteen Didot Millimétrique roman and italic, of which only two were cast and used in a single work: Les Cérémonies du Sacre de Napoléon. At the same time, he cut other sizes for Anglaise. In 1831, the government acquired all of Firmin Didot’s English and round script typefaces.
Works of Jean Racine. À Paris, de l’imprimerie de Pierre Didot l’aîné, au Palais national des sciences et arts, an IX-1801.
In 1805, Firmin Didot succeeded in engraving the typeface known in France as “Anglaise”, without interrupting the lines, for which he registered a patent. This typeface was first used in the preface to his verse translation of Virgil’s Bucolics, his first book, dedicated to his brother Pierre.

Firmin Didot was a Printer-librarian; printer for the Count of Artois; bookseller for artillery and engineers (1790); bookseller for military art, mathematics, sciences and arts, the Navy and hydraulic architecture, architecture and stereotype editions; printer for the Imperial Institute; printer for the King, the Institute and the Navy. - Second son of Parisian printer and bookseller François-Ambroise Didot. Succeeded bookseller Claude-Antoine Jombert. Also stationer (bought the Mesnil-sur-l’Estrée paper mills, near Évreux, in Nov. 1823), punchcutter and typefounder. Takes part in the invention of the stereotype in 1795 (patented in Dec. 1797). Patented printer on April 1, 1811 (patent renewed Oct. 15, 1816) and bookseller on Oct. 1, 1812 (patent renewed March 15, 1817). In charge of the Imprimerie Impériale foundry from 1811. In 1827, hands over management of his business to his three sons: Ambroise, Hyacinthe and Frédéric (commonly known as “Firmin Didot frères”) to devote himself to public affairs. Officially resigned in March 1829 in favor of his sons; Ambroise Firmin-Didot was appointed printer in his succession on March 17, 1829. Deputy for Eure-et-Loir from 1827 until his death (April 1836). Also a writer, poet and playwright. Often worked in partnership with his sons.
Firmin Didot, born in Paris in 1764, second son of François-Ambroise Didot, made a famous name for himself as a writer, printer, typecutter and typefounder, and paper manufacturer. In 1789, he succeeded his father in the foundry, which he had enriched with elegant types.
In 1795, he invented a stereotyping process, which he applied to Callet’s Tables of Logarithms. At the 1798 Exhibition of Industrial Products, he presented stereotype editions produced using his new process.
He was appointed printer to the Institut de France on October 16, 1811, and King’s printer on April 1, 1814; he won six gold medals at industrial exhibitions, both alone and with his sons.
He produced some very fine typefaces with uninterrupted handwriting, which had been tried in vain in England, and which enabled excellent writing models for children to be spread cheaply in France. The typefaces used to print Racine in-folio, published by his brother, were engraved and cast by him.
The finest works from his presses are nue Henriade, in-4°; a Camoëns, in Portuguese, in-4°; a Salluste, in-folio. He also published, in partnership with his sons: the Ruins of Pompeï, by Marois; the Antiquités de la Nubie, by Gau; the Panthéon égyptien, by Champollion; the Tournois du roi René, by M. Champollion-Figeac; the Contes du Gai savoir and the Historial du jongleur, printed in Gothic type, with vignettes and fleurons, like fifteenth-century editions.
The most distinguished men enjoyed visiting his establishment, where all the branches of typography were brought together. Emperor Alexander visited in 1814, and entrusted him with two young Russians to instruct them in the art of typography.
A number of printers from Paris and the surrounding départements were trained by him and apprenticed in his workshops. It is an honor for us, to which we attach the greatest value, to have been among his pupils. Several foreign printers have requested the same favor, and have been admitted with the same benevolence.
In 1827, Firmin Didot handed over his immense business, which included a type foundry, a paper mill, a printing works and a bookshop, to his sons. In the same year, he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies by the electors of the Eure département, where he sat among the members of the moderate opposition. In 1830, he was one of 221 members of the Chamber, and on several occasions defended the interests of press freedom. He died in 1836. A friend of Delille, and a distinguished poet himself, he had written several remarkable works, including two tragedies, one of which, the Reine de Portugal, has been performed several times; translations into French verse of Virgil’s Bucoliques, the Chants (le Tyrtée, les Idylles de Théocrite, and an interesting Notice sur les Estienne.
He dedicated the translation of Les Bucoliques (the Virgil), his first literary work, to his brother Pierre Didot. May our children,” he told him, “by their taste for study, and by an erudition as solid as it is profound, follow in the footsteps of the ancient printers of Paris! May they one day - and this is the goal of all my wishes and the ultimate goal of my ambition - recall the one who is indisputably at the head of printers of all countries and all ages, the famous Henri Estienne!”

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