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Tipografia Grifani Donati


The Tipografia Grifani Donati was set up in late 1799 in Città di Castello, an Italian city with a long typographic tradition, by the typographers Francesco Donati and Bartolomeo Carlucci. The site they chose for that purpose was the former one of the 13th church of S. Paolo, which after that was home to a convent and finally, before they moved in, it had been used as a prison.

Their studio soon became well known for producing books and publications of great artistical and cultural value, and orders came in from all the neighbouring cities and provinces. Upon the death of Carlucci, the business was continued by Donati, who in 1817 introduced the Bodoni typeface. Active for over two centuries, it is the only printing workshop in the world that has always been run (for seven generations by now) by the same family. Its works are held in museums, historical archives and libraries (e.g. from the numerous proclamations of the Imperial Government, religious pamphlets to posters on events in town; from calendars to collections of poetry and stories; from complicated railway timetable and number of periodicals of various leanings). Little has changed since then … the scents of the press, the light from the windows illuminating the dark machinery, the silence and the sight on the roofs of the city make it easy to imagine a jump in the past of more than 200 years.

The present owners Giovanni Ottaviani and his wife Adriana continue the family tradition. Giovanni has added lithography (using stone plates) to the repertoire, as well as etchings (on copperplates) and the binding and restoration of books. Today the workshop produces a wide range of printed matter such as lithographs, etchings, posters, letterheads, visiting cards, business cards, wedding invitations, wedding announcements, bookplates, ex libris and much more. Mostly traditional techniques and equipment are still used, such as the printing press Elia Dell’Orto from 1864, Platen Tiegeldruk from 1903, a star lithography press by Bollito & Torchio 1880, a copperplate printing press by Paolini from 1960, a cylinder transferring press from the Werk Augsburg from 1910, a printing press Kruse 1906 and more than 536 cases filled with typefaces, masterpieces, cliché, xylographs etc, all originals.

All of these serve to work with different types and motives, printing plates, woodcuts and galvanos. In the workshop art exhibitions, including those by artists who produced their own works in the Tipografia site with the original equipment, are often hosted. Besides being a real museum dedicated to the art of printing, the printing shop is a landmark for all those artists who still want to use the old techniques of engraving on wood blocks or copperplates and drawing on stone for making litographs. In 2005 the Umbria Region has recognized the Tipografia Grifani Donati as Museum of the living Graphic Arts. You will be accompanied directly by the owner on a guided visit during which you will discover the history and the secrets of the press, from Gutemberg to Aloisio Senefelder. You will see the composition with typefaces, how to make a chalk, and how to design lithographs on stone and much more.

Imagine we don’t’ know anything about it… can you describe your profession? 

I am a typographic, lithographic and chalcographic printer. Since 1799 my family is dedicated to this business. 

As typographer I use movable typefaces for printing various kinds of products: business cards, letterheads, wedding invitations, diplomas and all that the typographic printing technique allows to print.

With the chalcographic technique I print artistic images by using copper and zinc clichés that are realized by artists but also by private citizens who love to experiment this technique for printing images they like or that they themselves create.

The printing procedure I like most is the lithography that employs specifically made stones. This technique is mainly used for artistic images reproduction.

What materials do you use?

Pure cotton paper (Fabriano or Magnani) for art printings; paper and cardboards in cellulose for commercial printings. Other materials used in my profession are: inks, rosin, talc, carborundum, «fat pencils» and arabic gum.

Who is your “ideal” client’s profile?

Persons who know the Graphic Arts or are in some way interested in it, people who have awareness towards the printing techniques and art.

You chose to be a craftsman. How did this decision appear to be an evidence to you?

I represent the seventh generation of printers who have been working for over 200 years in an ancient palace (XI century) in Città di Castello, former monastery, which has become over the centuries also home of the family Grifani Donati and residence of the same Tipografia. My grandfather Alberto Ottaviani got married with a member of the Grifani family, from that moment the sons bearing the surname Ottaviani continued working in the Tipografia.  

I grew up in a family environment where all was permeated by the printing art, because quite all members of it were working in this sector and continuing the tradition of the family.

The choice of my school was something natural, in fact I attended the Institute for Graphic Arts that is also placed in Città di Castello and graduated in 1969. I initially worked as employee of a modern lithographic company, entering as expert of the printing press and coming out 12 years later as films expert having worked also into the dark room. At a certain moment I decided to leave the work in modern printing companies to return back to the Tipografia for avoiding its closure. I made a choice of life putting all my efforts in the restoring of old printing techniques and of the Tipografia itself and its history as a whole.

Would you define your job a passion? What is the best moment you had in your job?

Surely we can talk about passion. Indeed, I was introduced to this job thanks to the persons and the environment around me, I remember that the Tipografia was «home and shop».

My grandfather taught me when I was six years old to compose with movable typefaces. When I was ten I helped my father printing wall posters with the same technique. When I was 16 I started attending the Graphic Institute in my city. The choice was really obvious. Some say I have more ink than blood in my veins.

The best moments in my work, besides printing lithographs or chalcographies, is to lead the guided tours with person visiting the Tipografia (also children or youngs from the schools). This gives me the opportunity to interact with the visitors, explaining the various printing techniques and their developments over the centuries; during the tours it is possible to involve them in this fantastic world and exchange experiences, opinions. They always remain fascinated by our ancient spaces and by the works that can be realized with our original printing machines. History penetrates everything we are still today using, day after day. Their usual phrase is ‘it seems like being thrown in another epoch!’

What role do “talent”, “know-how” and “creativity” play in your profession?

Talent, know-how and creativity are fundamental in this profession.

Everything is realized manually, from the paper cut to the printing, so the know-how is basic to realize correctly the various products but also talent and creativity play a relevant role in the production of artistic pieces as well as in findings always different solutions useful to produce new products or alternative ways, when necessary, to meet the clients’ specific requests.

And what about innovation, what are the changes since you started? Do you use new materials, tools, processes, marketing. What’s the impact of innovation on your performances? How could your profession be more innovative?

For printing, as mentioned, I use all ancient equipment, in detail: a lithographic press ‘Bollito&Torchio’ from 1840, a printing press ‘Elia dell’Orto’ from 1864, a platinum 35×50 Victoria Original Tiegeldruk of 1903, a Paolini chalcographic press from the 1960s, a 1910 Werkaugsburg flat bed cylinder printing press.

So technical innovations for production are consequently few; the only one that can be mentioned is the last polymer used to make typographic clichés and the polycarbonate which, if engraved with bows or punches, can replace copper or zinc in the chalcographic printing.

Innovation is currently being done for example by my son Milos who likes to experiment printing on textile products, as t-shirts, bags, pillows, etc… Colourful products and modern patterns is the result, even by using ancient wooden matrices.

Innovation can be singled out in the use of online social channels and the official website for promoting the Tipografia’s initiatives (artistic exhibitions, etc) and products.

This profession could be more innovative trying to invest more and more on its promotion and diffusion, enhancing continuously the mixture with new online tools and by putting near modern printing techniques the knowledge and awareness that comes from the history of the printing.

Where and how long did you train before you were ready for creating your business? Imagine that you want to invite young generations to choose your profession, what would be your message to them?

My training was at school and by living since I was born in strict contact with the work environment of my family, then when I started working in other modern printing companies in my city. I always had passion and seriousness toward this job and the advices of my fellow colleagues have always been precious to me.

I also myself deliver training now by organizing courses for: composition in movable typefaces, chalcography, lithography and bindings – the latter is followed in particular by my wife Adriana, who is a bookbinder.

My sons who also work in the field of graphics, but not with me, give me a help sometimes and like to stay in the Tipografia sites because they also grew with passion toward this ‘world’. Their presence lets me go back with the thought and lets me remember when the father, son and grandson were working side by side in the lab. I think that one day this tradition will be resumed.

They are to me an example of how the young generations behave or are attracted by the spaces and the equipment we have here in the Tipografia. Here it is possible to experiment the creativity by using and mixing techniques, creating new things but using precious ancient techniques and historic machinery. With equipment from the XVIII and XIX centuries you can create interesting new modern products. It is unique the fact to be in a workshop with so much history, feeling all the culture, the life and the happenings of the past.

The traditional printing is returning to a new life today, more and more culturally prepared people require typographical printed products. A new interest has risen first in the U.S. and is spreading rapidly throughout Europe. In the framework of this perspective, young generations have all the potentialities to continue this wonderful job.

In Conclusion, describe a meaningful experience or a personal reflection that you would like to share with us and explain why

Maintain along the time these techniques risk to appear to someone as losing time in particular today when the world is dominated by the digital technique. I think it is not exactly like that, without memory of the past we will have a future without roots and these are fundamentals to let the tree grow.


To know more about this craftsman, see his profile

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