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June 27, 2007

Philosopher Vico spotlighted in exhibit of prints and photographs

By Cynthia Haven

In his own time, the Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) was an inconnu—so poor he had to sell a family diamond ring to cover the costs of publishing his landmark La Scienza Nuova. But after his death, he became something of a vogue, influencing and inspiring a host of luminaries: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Benedetto Croce, James Joyce, Bertrand Russell, Samuel Beckett, Isaiah Berlin, Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom, Edward Said, Marshall McLuhan and even Karl Marx, among others.

Never heard of him? Try dropping into the Peterson Gallery of the Green Library, sometime between July 2 and Oct. 14.

The library exhibit will focus on works of two modern-day Vico devotees: San Francisco printer and designer Jack Stauffacher and photographer Dennis Letbetter. "The Vico Collaborations: 1972 | 2003 | 2006" riffs on themes of the maestro's work and life through a series of broadsides and photographs.

Stauffacher composes beautifully balanced collages with wood and lead type. He uses letterforms as abstract shapes to set off Vico's corollaries (example: "Imagination is more robust in proportion as reasoning power is weak"); Letbetter uses the camera's lens to focus attention on the type, paper, vellum and ink in the early Vico editions.

Stauffacher is a preeminent figure in the fields of fine book design and letterpress printing. For more than 40 years, he has engaged in a series of typographic experiments using wooden letters, which were the subject of a solo exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Stauffacher launched the Greenwood Press in 1936, naming it for the San Mateo street where he and his father built it, behind the family home. In 1955 he received a Fulbright scholarship to study in Italy; later, he held an academic post at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon), and served as typographic director at Stanford University Press. The Greenwood Press was reopened in 1966 in San Francisco.

Letbetter is a self-taught free-lance photographer—akin to Vico, who considered himself the "teacher of himself." Letbetter has held 50 international shows since he launched his career in the late 1970s.

"How could I create images about an 18th-century philosopher?" he asks in text accompanying the exhibit. The collaboration "resulted for me in a permanently revealing and culturally civilizing recognition of the beauty of letter form, the importance of line length, page size, and a purity of intent embracing a constant engagement with historical antecedents."

La Scienza Nuova, now considered an astonishingly ambitious attempt to decode the history, mythology and law of the ancient world, was largely ignored when it was first published. Vico had to issue the book in a budget edition printed in tiny 7-point type in a pocket-sized format known as duodecimo for its first two printings in 1725 and 1730. The library will display an enlarged facsimile of the 1730 edition as well as an original of the 1744 edition of the book, published posthumously in the year of Vico's death.

In the book, Vico challenges the traditional notion that philosophy can be independent of its historical context, and argues that to understand human history, we must recognize that the customs and emotional lives of the Greeks and Romans, Egyptians, Jews and Babylonians differed radically from ours.

The exhibit is free and open to the public. The Peterson Gallery, located on the second floor of the west wing of the library (Bing Wing), is accessible whenever Green Library is open. Hours vary with the academic schedule. For library hours, call (650) 723-0931. Visitors will be directed to register at the library's east wing entrance before entering the building.



Cynthia Haven, News Service: (650) 724-6184,

Becky Fischbach, Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries: (650) 725-1020,


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