The Dying Typographic Art of Cutting Letters into Steel

Still from “The Last Punchcutter” (2016) (screenshots by the author via Vimeo)

In a smoky atelier in Torino, Italy, Giuseppe Branchino works as one of the world’s last punch cutters. Cutting punches, the first step in traditional typesetting, is the meticulous craft of carving letterforms into small steel billets. Branchino was the former head of the engraving department of type foundry and printing press manufacturer Nebiolo, founded in Turin in 1852. Along with a few others scattered across the globe, he carries on a centuries-old practice that’s becoming obsolete in the age of digital type.

In the meditative short film “The Last Punchcutter,” by Giorgio Affanni and Gabriele Chiapparini, we watch Branchino create a punch. Drinking espresso and smoking a cigarette, he works silently and slowly, carving the letter “G” into a thin block of steel with awls and chisels, peering through a magnifying glass to inspect his handiwork. He spends nearly seven minutes on a single letter.

The film was created as part of “Griffo, the Great Gala of Letters,” a multidisciplinary project focusing on the life of Francesco Griffo, a 15th-century Venetian punch cutter and type designer. Born circa 1450 near Bologna, the son of the goldsmith and engraver Cesare Griffo, he went on to work for the house of Aldus Manutius of Venice, the most important publisher of the day. In 1501, for an edition of Virgil (the “Aldine Virgil”), he created what’s regarded as the first italic typeface. Though his typefaces are still widely used and inspire most contemporary type designers, details of his biography are murky and, as Joseph Blumenthal put it in The Art of the Printed Book 1455–1955, “Griffo has never received adequate recognition for his enormous contribution to type design.” Through videos, texts, and an upcoming exhibition, the “Great Gala of Letters” project aims to bring Griffo some long overdue recognition on the the 500th anniversary of his death.

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Still from “The Last Punchcutter” (2016)
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