Michael Bixler operates the casting machine at his company, Bixler Letterpress & Foundry, which recently did work on a contemporary book on Michelangelo's restored work in the Sistine Chapel.

Their Mark on History
by Mario Rossi
photography by David Wilkins

Area printing firm is called into action to add Old World touch to book on Michelangelo's restored Sistine Chapel



That's the magic word linking the Vatican and Skaneateles, Michelangelo and a local couple.

It's also the catalyst in a series of developments involving Italy, the United States, Switzerland and Japan in a venture culminating in the publication of a limited edition book with a four-foot centerfold.

A circuitous route through history which ultimately had implications for our corner of the universe began in 1495 when an Italian cardinal, Pietro Bembo, wrote a book and decided he'd like it printed in a type designed especially for him.

The good cardinal is long since forgotten and so is his book, but Bembo type lives on, and when the puclishers of a contemporary book Michelangelo's restored work in the Sistine Chapel decided to print it in Bembo, they gravitated to the Letterpress & Foundry operated by Michael and Winifred Bixler. They knew that was one of the few places, if not the only, in the world where they could find the type originally used, which is to say, cast in a lead alloy, as opposed to computer replication.

The Foundry is a shop situated in the old Skaneateles Handicrafters Building, Mottville, at the outlet of Skaneateles Lake, town of Skaneateles. The Bixlers, both of them youthfully 44 and graduates of the Rochester Institute of Technology, have been there eight years, though they've been jointly practicing their profession, an anachronisitc, high art form of typesetting, for going on two decades.

But to get back to the beginning:

"The Sistine Chapel: Michelangelo's Masterpiece," is the title of a two-volume limited edition book of 740 pages of detailed illustrations of the restoration of the chapel. The book is published by Alfred A. Knopf of New York, in association with Nippon Television Corporation, sponsor of the multi-million-dollar restoration project started in 1980 and due to be completed in 1993. It's a limited edition with only 2,500 copies available for all of North America, and the price is $1,000 a set.

There are more than 600 photographs and the gatefold (or centerfold) of the 12-by 17-inch book opens to nearly 48 inches in length. The authors are Frederick Hartt, Fabrizio Mancinelli and Gianluigi Colalucci, with photos by Takashi Okamura. Color printing done in Switzerland.

Susan Blakney, president of the Skaneateles Arts Association, said her group heard about the book and decided it would be an exciting centerpiece for the Skaneateles Art Expo, Oct. 18 to 27, especially in light of the fact that the type had been set by the Bixlers.

"We have been promised they (the two-volume set) will arrive in time for our event, although they won't be released to the public by that time. After the event, the Skaneateles Art Association will donate them to the Skaneateles Library, for the enjoyment of all.

The Bixlers' shop is a small letterpress operation, letterpress as opposed to offset, and it specializes in private printings and special projects. It is one of the shops setting type by Monotype instead of a computer, and it uses classic type faces provided by the Monotype Corp. in England, from whom it purchased typesetting machinery. The Monotype firm, in business since about 1900, is in the process of phasing out.

"Our system is technologically obsolete but still valued aesthetically," Michael Bixler said. Asked what the sistine Chapel assignment involved, he said, "Some of it was set by hand just as the Gutenberg Bible was, especially italic passages, but most of it was done on two machines, one of which has a keyboard that perforates rolls of paper, about three inches wide. Much in the manner of a player piano, the tapes are then run through a second machine which produces cast characters of type."

Michael Bixler, left, Winifred Bixler, Adam Panek, pressman/compositor, and Annie Wooster, keyboard operator, show off some of the work – including an Ansel Adams calendar – done at the Letterpress & Foundry in Mottville.

Printing firm puts mark on history

While it is possible to get Bembo on a computer, it apparently lacks the sharp definition and artistic feel that the same type has when cast in a lead alooy, Bixler explained

The Bixlers' is the only Monotype shop left in the United States where Bembo can be set in 18-point, which was the required size for the Sistine Chapel book. Body type, that is, the type used in newspapers, periodicals and books for general texts, usually runs nine or 10 points.

Winifred and Michael Bixler worked on the project over a period of a year and a half, though not continuously.

In addition to books, pamphlets, certificates and monographs, they also set Monotype for the annual Ansel Adams calendars published by Little, Brown & Co.

I'm glad that when the publishers of the Sistine Chapel book decided to go ahead with it, they followed the tradition of Michelangelo himself, who did not choose the fastest, easiest and simplest way of painting the chapel, but the way that was the best as far as quality was concerned," Bixler pointed out. "This meant that he spent years in tortuous, arduous work using methods that would ensure the permanence of his work.

The Skaneateles Arts Expo is billed as a "celebration of visual and performing arts" and will include: Juried fine arts exhibitions at Dobson Hall, First Presbyterian Church, and the parish hall of St. James Episcopal Church; a junior division art exhibition; an exhibition of floral designs, "Concepts of Time," sponsored by the Skaneateles Garden Club, and a series of concerts, drama, lectures and demonstrations.

"We attracted 218 regional artists who submitted over 600 art works for the fine art competition of the Arts Expo," Blakney said. The two church halls will exhibit 115 works by 59 artists selected by the juror Peter Doroshenko. The awards will be selected by Dr. Thomas Leavitt.

"Additional works will be displayed in retail locations throughout town, and children's work from the Skaneateles School District will be displayed in the Creamery, home of the Skaneatels Historical Society."

As for the chance to view the two-volume book on the Sistine Chapel, Blakney commented, "If you can't go to Italy, come to Skaneateles."

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from the Sunday, October 31, 1991 issue of The Syracuse Herald American of Syracuse, New York, pages G1 and G5.

Copyright © 2003 Michael & Winifred Bixler
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