The Mardersteig New Testament
Modernism, as least where typography and design were concerned, seemed to consist of a sort of aesthetic idealism. Beauty possessed immutable forms and subtle proportions. Artifice could, at its best, become a transparent pane of glass, revealing content without calling attention to itself, while at the same time bearing certain hallmarks of good taste readily apparent to those in the know. While it's commonplace these days to assume that anything with a post- in front of it must be better than what went before, I'll take modern typography over postmodern any day of the week. The moderns didn't just resurrect the classic forms, they refined them. Thus the method of modern typography seems particularly appropriate to me when it comes to rendering weighty, important texts.
And is there any weightier, more important test than this one?
People ask what my favorite Bible is, or what a Bible would look like if I could dictate every aspect of its production. (Some day!) The answer would look a lot like this New Testament, designed by Hans Mardersteig of Officina Bodoni fame, printed in 1958. Admittedly, I've always had a thing for red Bibles. Looking at this one, it's easy to see why.
This is the leather hardback that inspired me to want all my Bibles bound the same way. If I could find the stamps used for decorating this volume — or a rough approximation — I would copy it slavishly. The balance between austerity and ornamentation strikes me as perfect. The cross on the front cover marks the purpose of the book, the words on the spine send chills through me. It all looks so right.
The Mardersteig New Testament includes the text of the King James Version, studiously referred to within the volume as the Authorized Version to keep the tone elevated. For this edition, the colophon reports that an Oxford theologian (unnamed) was recruited to specially paragraph the text. This alleviates somewhat the KJV's tendency when paragraphed to resemble the novels of Jose Saramago. Not to mention the fact that phases like "specially paragraphed by an Oxford theologian" function like catnip at Bible Design Blog.
In addition to the text, there are twenty-one plates reproduced from the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry, the most famous medieval book of hours. The illustrates were printed in France by Draeger Frères, which was based in Grand-Montrouge. A note on the Très Riches Heures by Jean Lorgnon, curator of the Musée Condé in Chantilly, is included in the back of the volume.
Above: The list of plates.
The illustrated plates are gorgeous, delicately tipped in. They seem to have been glued at three points — top left, top right, and bottom left — leaving them free on one corner to be lifted.
Ordinarily, I'm not a fan of illustrated Bibles. In this case, I'll make an exception. Like the book's other subtle embellishment, the plates speak to the level of craft and care that went into making this edition. It is an objet d'art in the fine press tradition. By virtue of that pedigree, it is also a pleasure to read.
There are no verse numbers. The text flows sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph. Verse is indented and italicized. Chapter numbers are given in small caps, using roman numerals. The running headers cite the book, chapter number(s) and verse range.
The layout offers a perfect example of the classic proportion which has been discussed here before. The outer and lower margins are larger than the inner and upper ones, which means your fingers never overlap the text while reading. There is plenty of room near the gutter to ensure that the no text disappears into the crevice. Because this is a New Testament, it has the luxury of not needing to pack each line with words. The text has room to breathe, which makes reading a delight. If there is a better way to experience the text of this or any other translation, I don't know it.
These New Testaments were printed in March 1958 by the Veronese firm Stamperia Valdonega. Most of them were sold in cloth editions bound in the Netherlands by Van Rijmenam N.V., but a limited edition of 375 volumes went to Torriani & C. in Milan, where they were specially bound in red leather. These volumes also feature red initials at the beginning of chapters, not a feature of the main edition. The one pictured here is #172 out of 375.
Above: Note the red initial. Below: The colophon.
Perhaps the thing that impressed me most about this New Testament is how many different disciplines are brought to bear. The design and typography are impeccable, the print quality superb, the paper excellent, the reproduction of the artwork precise and elegant, producing a veritable cathedral of a book, the excellence of its various parts a testament to the regard the craftsmen had for its content.