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
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
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
"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
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."
- 30 -
from the Sunday, October 31, 1991 issue of The Syracuse
Herald American of Syracuse, New York, pages G1 and G5.