29 July, 2012

Caractères de l’Université

This type on a body of about 18 points appears in the big type specimen book of the Imprimerie Royale, Paris, 1845. It is the first known published reappearance of the type by Jean Jannon of Sedan for which matrices had been acquired by the Imprimerie Royale in 1641, and the first text to link it to the name of Garamont.

It is a detail of a table headed Spécimen des caractères romains employés par l’Imprimerie Royale, de 1640 à 1846 – yes, ‘1846’, although the title page of the book has the date 1845. The table, showing roman and italic types of three centuries, is spread across facing pages.

It appears, paradoxically, in a long preliminary section on non-Latin types, not on romans and italics, headed ‘Notice sur les types étrangers du spécimen de l’Imprimerie royale’. The text and the table were reprinted from the same types as a book with this title in 1847, making a volume that is easier to find in libraries. The table from this reprint is familiar to readers of Updike’s Printing types, where it appears as his fig. 327. But as Updike reproduced it both the heading and a final panel on the right with descriptive notes on the types were omitted. Updike’s caption is ‘Comparative table of types used by the French National Printing House from its foundation to 1825’, a date that was derived from the heading to the last column, ‘Types gravés par M. Marcellin Legrand. 1825’.

The present post is not much more than a footnote, albeit a rather long and involved one, to one or two others in this blog that have been dedicated during the last year in different ways to Claude Garamont (d. 1561) and to some of the types that have borne his name. I have repeated one or two images from them, together with some passages that I have already quoted in the earliest and longest post, but which may be difficult to find, in an attempt to offer some explanation for one of the remaining unsolved puzzles connected to them: the types of Jean Jannon are often referred to as if their original and proper title was caractères de l’Université. Was this true? And what did the phrase mean?

The description of the type in the specimen of 1845, omitted from Updike’s illustration, is linked to the note reference (1), and it runs as follows:

(1) L’existence de ces types, qu’on désignait sous le nom de caractères de l’Université, remonte aux premières années du XVIe siècle. La date que l’on donne ici est celle de l’établissement de l’Imprimerie royale, qui fit usage de ces caractères jusqu’à l’époque où ils purent être remplacés par les types de Louis XIV.

(These types, which were known by the name ‘types of the University’, date from the first years of the 16th century. The date given here [1640] is that of the establishment of the Imprimerie royale, which used these types until the time when they could be replaced by the types of Louis XIV [the romain du roi].)

This is the beginning of a long and confused story.

As I have noted elsewhere, a set of matrices for three sizes of roman and italic types, for the modern bodies of 18, 24 and 36 points, was bought by Cramoisy, the director of the Imprimerie royale, from Jean Jannon in March 1641. This purchase, which was unknown to Beatrice Warde (and which makes nonsense of a part of her narrative of 1926) was first reported in the catalogue of an exhibition, L’art du livre à l’Imprimerie nationale, held at the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, in 1951. The catalogue entry did not give the cote or call number of the document in the Archives nationales in Paris relating to the purchase, but it was supplied by H.-J. Martin in his study of printing in Paris in the 17th century published in 1969: it is Ét. XLIII, liasse 32.

The document names Six frappes de matrice assauoir gros et petitz canons, gros parangons, et leurs istalicques, auecq trois moulles pour fondre les caracteres desdictes six frappes (six sets of matrices for Gros and Petit Canon, Gros Parangon, and their italics, with three moulds to cast types from these six sets of matrices).

The term caractères de l’Université does not appear in this document, nor has it been found in any other of this period. In the inventory of the materials of the Imprimerie royale made in 1691 (BnF, MS nouv. acq. fr. 2511) the matrices are listed correctly by their sizes, but the term caractères de l’Université does not appear. As I have noted in a previous post, only the two smaller italic types of Jannon, for Petit Canon and Gros Parangon, appear ever to have been used by the Imprimerie royale, and I have found no use during the 17th century of either the roman or the italic of Gros Canon, nor of the two smaller romans.

In 1828, the Imprimerie royale having accumulated some very mixed materials including some imported from England, an inventory was drawn up under the authority of its director, the Baron de Villebois. It is in a series of volumes with the printed title Recueil des empreintes des poinçons et des matrices des caractères français et exotiques … existans à l’Imprimerie royale, which are kept with the original punches and matrices in the Cabinet des Poinçons at the Atelier du livre d’art et de l’estampe, the ‘craft division’ of the Imprimerie nationale de France that was set up in 2005 at at Ivry-sur-Seine. For types for which there were no punches, like those of Jannon, impressions from cast types appear to have been made in ink, by hand.

Volume I of the inventory begins with an account of les caractères dits de l’Université (‘the types known as those of the University’) and those of Luce, with a note that both types were hors de service (not in current use). This is the reference at the foot of the title page:

This is the first known use of this term caractères de l’Université in connection with the type of Jannon. It is also the first known modern showing of these types.

Apart from those for non-Latin types like Garamont’s greeks, these matrices from Jannon were the only old materials in the collection of the Imprimerie royale. According to the author of the section on roman types in the specimen of the Imprimerie royale, 1845 (who was apparently F. A. Duprat, the chef du service in charge of its type foundry), ‘when the royal printing-office was set up, it had been furnished with types that were cut for the use of the printers of Paris’, types of which the origin dated back to King François I (reigned 1515–47), and which were ‘attributed to Garamont’. These were used until new types (the romain du roi) were made to the order of Louis XIV especially for the use of his printing-office. This is the passage:

Lorsqu’en 1640 Louis XIII, agissant sous l’inspiration du Cardinal Richelieu, fit établir une imprimerie dans le palais du Louvre, on l’approvisionna de caractères gravés pour les imprimeurs de Paris. On continua de se servir de ces caractères, dont l’origine remontait à François Ier, et qu’on attribuait à Garamont, jusqu’à la fin du XVIIe siècle, époque à laquelle Louis XIV ordonna qu’une typographie spéciale serait gravée pour le service de son imprimerie.

An early specimen of the types of the Imprimerie royale dated 1643 (of which a facsimile was published in 1958) shows that this was a fair summary: the types used at the Imprimerie royale were those of Garamont, Granjon and other punchcutters of the 16th century that were still in common use in Paris, and which were available, newly cast from old matrices, from several typefounders. Only the two smaller italics cast from the matrices of Jannon were added to this material and used occasionally.

Duprat’s contemporary and a rival historian of the royal printing office, Auguste Bernard (1811–68), a printer’s son with some experience of work with Firmin Didot and as a proof-reader at the Imprimerie royale, was less careful in his wording. He wrote in his history of the Imprimerie royale (1867),

Les premieres caractères dont se servit l’Imprimerie royale, et dont on conserve les matrices, sont attribués à Garamond, célèbre graveur du seizième siècle, auquel on doit les types grecs de François Ier. Ils sont connus sous le nom de caractères de l’université. Leur forme est très gracieuse.

(‘The first types that the Imprimerie royale used, and of which the matrices are preserved, are attributed to Garamond, the celebrated punchcutter of the 16th century to whom we owe the greek types of François I. They are known by the name of caractères de l’université. Their forms are very elegant.’)

Here we see the old types still in regular use by printers in Paris being attributed to Garamont and also linked to the one set of surviving early matrices, those that we now know to be by Jannon, which had not been acquired until 1641, a year after the initiation of the Imprimerie royale, and which lay for many years, unused, in the stock of the typographic materials of the Imprimerie royale.

Now Duprat had not said anything as appreciative. Indeed in a little book that he wrote on the history of the royal printing office, published in 1848, he remarked,

... les types dont se servait alors l’Imprimerie royale, et dont elle continua de faire usage jusqu’aux premières années du xviiie siècle, manquaient de pureté et d’élegance. A cette époque, l’Imprimerie royale ne possédait pas de types spéciaux; elle employait les mêmes caractères que ceux dont se servaient les imprimeurs de Paris, et qu’on désignait sous le nom de caractères de l’Université.

(The types that were used at this time by the Imprimerie royale, and which it continued to use until the beginning of the 18th century, lacked purity and elegance. At this date the Imprimerie royale had no special types of its own, but employed those that were used by the Printers of Paris, and which were known as the caractères de l’Université.)

It should be noted that Duprat is saying here that the ordinary types used by the printers in Paris were those that were known as the caractères de l’Université.

We have other testimony that helps to confirm the remark. In 1756, in an anonymous letter, generally attributed to Fournier le jeune, in the Journal des Sçavans (Oct 1756, p. 660), it is said that from the time of Cramoisy to that of Rigault (its directors from the date of its foundation in 1640 until 1707), the Imprimerie royale used only the types that were in use in the University, which were cast for it by the ordinary typefounders at the same price that other printers paid. These foundries – wrote the author – were mostly those of Sanlecque, Le Bé and Cot. If they used matrices that were royal property (presumably a reference to the grec du roi by Garamont, the use of which was jealously protected) they made out a receipt for them.

(‘Depuis Cramoisi, premier directeur de cet Imprimerie jusqu’à M. Rigault, on n’employa point d’autre caractères que ceux qui étoient en usage dans l’Université; on les faisoit faire par les Fondeurs ordinaires & au même prix que les autres Imprimeurs. S’il arrivoient qu’on fournit les matrices qui appartenoient au Roy, le Fondeur en donnoit son recepissé. C’étoient ordinairement les Fonderies des Sanlecque, le Bé, & Cot, qui avoient cet pratique.’)

The foundry of Cot was acquired by Claude Lamesle, whose specimen of 1742 gives the most spectacular view that was published during the 18th century of the types of the 16th-century masters, newly cast from original matrices. (There is a facsimile reprint of the specimen and an online version, but neither of them quite conveys the stunning sharpness of the types shown in the real thing.)

‘In use at the University’. What does this mean? Since long before the use of printing, the University in Paris had a history of relationships with the makers of books, approving and controlling the quality of the texts that were made and their prices. The printers in Paris, whose numbers were strictly limited, were largely confined to the the district round the rue St. Jacques, which was also that of the complex of university buildings, and the connection yielded to them certain privileges. How this could extend to types is far from clear.

The same term was used by a contemporary of Fournier’s. In the ‘Avertissement’ to his Essai d’une nouvelle typographie (1771) Louis Luce, an independent typefounder who had deen designated graveur du roi (punchcutter to the king) in succession to his uncle Jean Alexandre, wrote,

Mes Caracteres différent aussi de ceux de l’Université & des Caracteres de Hollande, tant par la délicatesse de leurs empattemens que par l’harmonie qui regne dans leur forme.

(‘The features that differentiate my types from those of the University and from the types of Holland are the delicacy of their serifs and their overall harmony of form.’)

In both passages, by Fournier and Luce, it looks as if the term ‘types of the University’ is being used, as Duprat did, to mean simply the traditional types that were in common use. Perhaps the term means no more than the fact that they were used in academic publications. However, if ‘types of the University’ was a specialized term that conveys a precise meaning to historians of the Parisian book trade, and if a source can be cited, I shall be glad to be told of it, and I will publish it here.

The upheavals of the Revolution coincided with the major shift in the style of printing types that is associated with the family of Didot, and the stock of old materials abruptly lost its value, except as scrap. Punches rust, and the copper of matrices is recyclable. All traces of the early types that had been in the hands of the trade typefounders like Le Bé, Sanlecque and Lamesle in Paris vanished completely. No relics of them were saved anywhere, except in commercial centres that had become relative backwaters, like Antwerp, where the Plantin-Moretus printing office piously preserved the collection of its founder.

It is a maxim among the curators of museum collections that if an artefact has survived intact and unblemished, it can be presumed that either it never worked or that it was rarely used. This was true of Plantin’s collection of old matrices, and was also the case with those of Jannon, which (as I observed in an earlier post) had hardly ever been used by the Imprimerie royale, even in the 17th century, and which can be presumed to have been in excellent condition in the 19th, when they were proclaimed by historians – mistakenly, but for reasons that one can understand – to be authentic relics of the types of the 16th century, the heroic age of printing in Paris.

In other words, it was the miscellaneous collection of older types by Garamont, Granjon and others, that were in regular use by Parisian printers, to which the term of caractères de l’université was first applied in the 18th century, and not specifically to those of Jannon, the matrices of which had been a misguided purchase, hardly used, and the existence of which had long been forgotten. However, the phrase used by Bernard in 1867, leur forme est très gracieuse, echoes sentiments that had begun to be felt by English as well as French printers who had become aware of the charm of older types. Louis Perrin in Lyon lamented that the words of his beloved 16th-century poets no longer seemed the same when they were set in rigidly perfect contemporary types. And so where original matrices still survived, the types of Caslon and indeed those made at Oxford for John Fell were brought back into use for suitable texts, and new types – like the Basle roman of the Chiswick Press or the new caractères anciens of Jeannet in Paris – were cut in imitation of the old ones.

I might take the opportunity of ending this post with a passage written by Arthur Christian.

Lorsqu’en 1895 j’eus l’honneur d’être choisi ... pour diriger l’Imprimerie nationale. ... on parlait déjà de l’Exposition de 1900; j’avais donc à me préoccuper de faire un livre constituant à la fois et un effort de la typographie et une œuvre utile; je songeai à l’histoire de l’Imprimerie et m’en ouvris à M. Claudin. ... L’Histoire de l’Imprimerie en France a été composée en caractères Garamond, dont l’Imprimerie nationale possède les matrices. Je me félicite d’avoir fait ainsi revivre ces types admirables, qui ont servi pour l’impression de l’Imitation de Jésus-Christ, premiere volume que l’Imprimerie royale ait fait paraître en 1640.

(In 1895, when I had the honour to be chosen to direct the Imprimerie nationale, the Exhibition of 1900 was already under discussion. I needed to make a book that would be both useful and an outstanding production. The history of printing came to my mind and I talked to M. Claudin. His Histoire de l’Imprimerie en France was set in Garamond types, of which the Imprimerie nationale has the matrices. I am proud to have revived these splendid types, which were used to print the Imitatio Christi, the first volume produced by the royal printing-office in 1640.)

This text, from Christian’s lectures, Origines de l’imprimerie en France (1900), is quoted by Linda Ritson in her admirable study, ‘Arthur Christian, Director of the Imprimerie nationale, 1895–1906’ (Signature, n.s. 9, 1949, pp. 3–28). The passage catches Christian’s righteous pride in his part in making these types ‘live again’, but it is unreliable in two respects. The text of Claudin’s book and its title page were in fact set wholly in the ‘Grandjean’ type (the romain du roi); only the brief Avant-propos and Preface were set in the ‘Garamond’ types. The Imitatio Christi of 1640 was not set in the Jannon types for which the Imprimerie nationale did not yet have the matrices but in the Gros Canon of Garamont, with headings in an italic of the same size by Robert Granjon, both of which were types that appeared in the specimen of 1643 and which would be much used at the Imprimerie royale during the next few decades. These were presumably among the commonly available types that were known as caractères de l’Université.

The main point of this post is that, the original sixteenth-century matrices for roman and italic types in the possession of the founders in Paris having all been destroyed as a consequence of the revolution in typography associated with the family of Didot, the term caractères de l’Université became attached by default to the set of apparently early matrices that had survived, its provenance forgotten, in the mixed stock of materials of the national printing-office.


There is no single historical narrative relating to the Imprimerie nationale, listing all printed and manuscript sources. One of the nearest things to a published list of the earlier sources may possibly be, for all its limitations, the piece I published on ‘Type specimens of the Imprimerie royale 1643–1828’ (Bulletin du bibliophile, 1, 2002, pp. 70–99) in which I also did my best to list the various inventories.

The only formal histories are those of F. A. Duprat, Histoire de l’Imprimerie impériale de France, 1861, and of Auguste Bernard, Histoire de l’Imprimerie royale du Louvre, 1867, the narrative of which runs only to the end of the Ancien Régime. (A pdf version can be found online.) The catalogue of the exhibition, L’Art du livre à l’Imprimerie nationale (Bibliothèque nationale, Paris, 1951) is useful, though it has many omissions and errors. H.-J. Martin was among the compilers. A volume of collected essays with the same title, including some important contributions to its history by specialists, was issued in 1975.

The inventories that are most relevant to the subject of this post are the volumes mentioned above, made to the order of Villebois in 1827 and completed in 1828, which are kept at Ivry. There is a further inventory at Ivry which has a printed title: Inventaire du matériel de l’Imprimerie royale au 31 décembre 1838. (It has a spine label reading ‘Inventaire du matériel de l’Imprimerie royale au 1er janvier 1839, and a handwritten note on the printed title page, reading ‘Déposé aux Archives de la Chancellerie le 23 mars 1840’). This includes an account – shown below – of the materials for what had by now become known habitually, if misguidedly, as the caractères de l’Université. Neither of these inventories attributes the types to Garamont. The smallest size, the Gros Parangon, now cast on an 18-point body, is here labelled ‘Gros Romain’.

It should be kept in mind that the national printing office in France has not only had many different names but also several changes of address, having been established in the palace of the Louvre in 1640 but split into different divisions during the Revolution. These were brought together in the Marais district of Paris during the 19th century, set up in a new building in the 15th arondissement early in the 20th century, and the materials of the Cabinet des Poinçons, and the traditional ‘craft’ activities like punchcutting and letterpress printing, were moved in 2005 to the rented industrial premises shown below at Ivry-sur-Seine to become the Atelier du livre d’art et de l’estampe. At each move, some forgotten things were rediscovered and it is possible that others were discarded.

A further and perhaps final move of the whole establishment to a location in Normandy, to the site of the publishing archive IMEC (Institut Mémoires de l'édition contemporaine) near Caen, has been planned for some time and publicly discussed. A letter approving the project in principle has been published, addressed by President Sarkozy in 2008 to Jack Lang (Minister of Culture to President Mitterand, and the current head of IMEC). But Sarkozy is no longer president of France, and so far as I am aware details of the move have yet to be confirmed.

Update, September 2014. The materials and the operation of the Atelier du livre d’art were moved early in 2014 to a building that is the property of the Imprimerie nationale at Flers-en-Escrebieux on the outskirts of Douai, not far from Lille, in the department of Nord.