PRESCIENT INFLUENCER Franco Maria Ricci is a, if not the, giant of art publishing and graphic design. Born outside of Parma, as a young graphic designer Ricci came across the typefaces of Giambattista Bodoni in the Palatina Library and felt an instant affinity with the seminal 18th-century Italian typographer and publisher from Parma. A year later, when Ricci set up his own publishing house, Franco Maria Ricci Editore, he used the elegant Bodoni typeface for his books.
Eventually, he launched his namesake magazine, FMR. Both his books and his magazine stood in contrast to the trend for small, inexpensively printed publications. Instead, Ricci fashioned a signature style that was sumptuously produced with superior photography. His books were instantly recognisable: shiny, black silk-bound covers with gold Bodoni lettering printed on precious paper.
But Ricci’s influence was not just his style; he placed a prescience, not on current trends but artists and thinkers like Antonio Canova, Umberto Eco, and Jorge Luis Borges. In many ways, the concept of the art book itself was born from Ricci’s inspiration. In the 1970s and 80s when most publishers were printing paperbacks, Ricci created a market for luxurious publications. As Ricci explains, “Sometimes the most difficult things can be done.”
When I visited Franco Maria Ricci in Parma, where he has created the largest bamboo labyrinth in the world, I was accompanied by the veteran old and modern masters art dealer Marco Voena. Voena recently launched Il Libro: The Magazine of Italian Art at Christie’s London. Il Libro provides distinct insights into the art of Italy, from its ancient infancy through to contemporary practitioners, highlighting new perspectives, forgotten masterpieces, and the wide-reaching influence of Italian art throughout history. Among his many talents, Ricci has formed a collection of paintings and sculptures which, together with his labyrinth, is open to the public.
When he was still running FMR, Ricci was recognisable for his personal Italian style, always clothed in double-breasted pinstriped suits, which were adorned with a red plastic rose on the lapel. Now that he has returned to living in the countryside of Parma, Ricci has exchanged his pinstriped suit for a loden-green jacket of Austrian style; however, the red plastic rose remains a permanent fixture on his lapel.
“I always asked the greatest writers of the 20th century to collaborate with us by writing original texts.”
What does being from Parma mean to you?
Parma inspired me enormously. My taste, which is fundamentally Neoclassical, comes from Parma.
When did you begin working as a publisher?
What was your first publication?
That year, I reprinted an edition of Giambattista Bodoni’s Manuele Tipografico from 1818. I originally wanted to be a geologist, and when that didn’t work out, I devoted myself to graphic design. Bodoni’s manual was impossible to find at that time, so I asked the Ministry of Publication for permission to reprint. Many thought I was insane for spending the money. I made other reprints, but I always tried to combine their publishing with a marketing concept. For example, in 1967 I made a reprint of Bodoni’s Oratio Dominica which includes the Lord’s Prayer in 155 different languages with 155 different characters marked by Bodoni and included a handcrafted book of the first speech that Pope Paul VI made in America in 1965. We sold it in New York City with the help of Jacqueline Onassis. Together we hosted a fundraiser at the Grolier Club—the volumes were sold to help restore the Library in Florence which had been badly damaged by the flood in 1966. Relationships such as these allowed me to become an international publisher.
“We printed more than 100,000 copies of each issue of FMR.”
What makes your books special?
I had a historical series, which were truly artisan publications. They were printed on handmade Fabriano paper, now unthinkable to do as the price would be exorbitant. And we had more normal publications, which were monographs on unpublished subjects or subjects that were long forgotten and we revived. I always asked the greatest writers of the 20th century to collaborate with us by writing original texts, which we combined with art historical essays.
When did you launch FMR?
FMR began with the April 1982 issue—there was a Medieval reliquary on the cover and inside an article about the fashion of the early 1920s and another on Turkish miniatures. It was released every month for the first year. We then realised that one a month was not enough, so it became bi-monthly.
You have a specific style, don’t you?
Yes, it always remained the same. My publishing house was founded in my being a voracious reader; there can be no publishing of this type without culture. I have an Italian and French taste, mixed with graphics, which I developed and maintained in FMR and my books. The recognisability facilitated their international appeal and enabled them to be exported throughout the world.
Did you view them as a mass luxury product?
The books were not, but FMR was definitely a mass product by its very nature. By 1985, FMR was distributed in America, England, and France. We printed more than 100,000 copies of each issue.
Adolfo Wildt, Vir Temporis Acti, 1912–13, white marble, 100 x 75 x 65 cm, Collection of Franco Maria Ricci, Parma. © The Franco Maria Ricci Photo Archive.
IL LIBRO, the new bi-annual magazine of Italian art from veteran old and modern masters dealer Marco Voena, will indulge the tastes of art-lovers at all levels, from scholars to casual gallery-goers alike. Led by editor in chief Carolyn H. Miner, Il Libro features essays, interviews, and narratives written by leading Italian and Italophile scholars, artists, and writers. Former art director of Vogue Italia, Luca Stoppini, heads the design team.
“The idea was that even those who couldn’t afford expensive books could own quality books.”
Do you believe that your advertisers played a role in your success?
The magazine had existed for two years in Italy, and I wanted to publish it in English by launching it first in America and then in the United Kingdom. But I needed advertisers to do this, so I sought Italian businesses who were seeking to launch internationally—and found them initially in Alitalia and the chemical company Montedison.
How many copies of the magazine were distributed by the New York Times?
Not only the New York Times but also the Sunday edition of the Washington Post and other western newspapers. In the end, millions of copies were distributed. The last issue included articles on the room of King Ruggiero in Palermo, the Imperial Villa of Pesaro, and the watercolours of Siam from the time of the Sun King.
Were you trying to make luxury publications accessible?
Yes, the idea was that even those who couldn’t afford expensive books could own quality books.
Are your books now collected objects?
Yes. The magazines too. I only own five complete collections. Many people collected them all and still have them. I try to buy complete sets when I can find them as I have so few.
What do you think of today’s publishing? Is there someone like you? Are you a unicorn or are people inspired by you?
They get inspired, of course, when we still had FMR I would receive letters from people apologising for making covers like ours, in fact, they had the black background, but there was always something unbalanced. Taschen makes beautiful books, beautiful covers, they, like mine, are true art books and very sought-after.
Portrait of Franco Maria Ricci in New York in 1984, for the launch of FMR U.S.A. © The Franco Maria Ricci Photo Archive.
ALAIN ELKANN INTERVIEWS THANKS ANDERSON & SHEPPARD FOR GENEROUSLY SPONSORING THE DISTRIBUTION OF THIS INTERVIEW.
ENJOY THIS INTERVIEW? SHARE IT WITH A FRIEND.