Typography and world conquest

 

The Grolier Club at 47 East 60th Street is one of those social gathering places for like-minded souls — in this case, bibliophiles and printmaking aficionados — where, one suspects, the general flow of conversation among its members is quite a bit more interesting than in the city at large.  The club walls are lined with old maps of New York, its shelves decorated with lavishly bound books, and its galleries filled with the occasional exhibition, including one on now called Printing for Kingdom, Empire & Republic (until 4 February 2012) that should be seen at all costs.

I went because I knew the typefaces, punches, and matrices on exhibit were drawn from the 500-year old archives of the Imprimerie Nationale in France, which does not often lend out its treasures, but I should have taken the exhibit title at its word.  The conquest of empire was, also, the age of knowledge, when the expansion of European colonial administration into every corner of the globe led, as well, to the study and systematic organization of the world’s cultures.  It is those centuries of cultural exchange and engagement, forged in metal, that are on display at the Grolier in the form of type crafted in the world’s languages: Mayan, Tibetan, Gujarati, Cambodian, Manchurian, Memphis Coptic, Ninevite Cuneiform, Aldine Arabic, Classic Phoenician, and on and on.  The punches themselves are aesthetically exquisite and, in many cases, these were the first-ever typefaces created in those languages, marking the very moment when the Gutenberg revolution was extended throughout the world.  To take one example, the Frenchman Jean-François Champollion deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1822 and there in the Grolier is the book (from 1827-28) in which he lays out his findings and the type engraved by Delafond and Ramé fils (in 1842-52, after designs by Devéria and Dubois) that made it possible to mechanically print hieroglyphics.

So go to the Grolier: absent a trip to Paris, you’ll never see these treasures again.

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This last, about Champollion, is a particularly poignant example because on 17 December the Institut d’Egypte on Tahrir Square in Cairo was destroyed by a fire during the ongoing army crackdown on protesters.  The Institut d’Egypte was formed at the time of Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign at the end of the 18th century, closed after his defeat by the British in 1801, but was reconstituted in 1836.  It was a priceless repository of books, maps, and scholarship on Egypt, which one has to assume now has been almost entirely lost.

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