The Estiennes are justly famous for their editions of Latin and Greek texts. Their firm was underpinned by Renaissance ideals and was very much influenced by the humanist Aldine press of Venice. This can be seen not only in their choice of texts, but also in their choice of type.

De arte supputandi libri quatuor, Cutheberti Tonstalli (Paris, 1538), title page : an example of the ‘Estienne’ Two-line Double Pica Roman or Gros canon.

We know that Henri I Estienne preferred the use of roman types for his publications, rather than the heavy blackletter used by other printers and Robert I inherited these roman fonts from his father. However, as Hendrik D. L. Vervliet makes clear in his magisterial examination of Robert Estienne’s printing types, in the early 1530s Robert I invested in eight new fonts, five roman and one each in italic, Greek and Hebrew.[1] His roman fonts were heavily influenced by the fonts used by the Aldine press and his italic type likewise owed much to the Aldine italic.[2] It is likely that his adoption of these Aldine models was influenced by his step-father, Simon de Colines (d. 1546). As Updike states, ‘It is to De Colines, to Robert Estienne, and to Vascosan that the Parisian press of that period owed the introduction of the chief reforms which the Aldine press had already adopted, namely, disuse of gothic types, adoption of handy formats, and cheap books for students’.[3] Some of the elements identified by Updike are present in Worth’s copy of Cuthbert Tunstall’s, mathematical textbook which Robert I  published  in 1538 in one of these new roman fonts. Here we see him using the ‘Estienne’ Two-line Double Pica Roman or Gros canon on the title page.

Iohannis Despauteriii Niniuitae Commentarii grammatici. Eorum, quae in commentariis sparsim annotata sunt, index amplissimus (Paris, 1537-8), fol. 69r: an example of the ‘Estienne’ Small Pica Roman.

An example of another of Robert I’s roman fonts, in this case the smaller ‘Estienne’ Small Pica Roman, may be found in Worth’s copy of Johannes de Spauter’s commentary on Latin grammar. Armstrong estimates that Latin texts accounted for at least 30% of Robert I Estienne’s output and, if his commentaries, translations and such grammatical works such as this book are added, the figure goes up to half of his global publication.[4] She argues that, even during the Renaissance, a period which witnessed a return to ancient sources, this level of commitment to production of texts in Latin, was unusual. Robert Estienne was clearly less interested in the production of legal texts than his fellow printers and instead concentrated on philological aids and compilations of Latin and Greek texts, such as his Dictionarium, seu Latinæ linguæ Thesaurus (Paris, 1543), which clearly inspired his son Henri II’s famous [Thesauros tes Ellenikes glosses]. Thesavrvs Græcæ linguæ, ab Henrico Stephano constructus (Geneva, 1572).

Such works, though of major importance in themselves, were not the only impressive Latin texts produced by Robert I. His Latin Bibles were, if anything, more influential. The reason for this was because of the scholarly commitment evident in them – Robert I travelled across Europe in order to find the clearest manuscript versions of the holy text, the best translations. Worth was lucky enough to own the illustrated edition of 1540. To the text Robert I added a critical apparatus which was second to none and which made his Bibles even more useful to their readers. Scholarly aids such as the addition of a full index and accompanying commentaries ensured that his Bibles became essential items for biblical scholars across Europe.

The Estiennes, though an obviously erudite family, did not work alone. Just as Aldus Manutius had created a scholarly editorial network around his press, so too did the Estiennes. Armstrong identifies several editorial assistants in her biography of Robert I : the names of Andréas Gruntleus, Gerardus Clericus and Adam Nodius may be found in various prefaces, where they are thanked for their help and for the correctness of their translations.[5]

Another area the Estienne press had in common with other presses was in their focus on the production of textbooks for students. During the sixteenth century, Latin was the language of instruction in universities across Europe and, though the Estiennes were never official university printers, they clearly had their eye on this already crammed market. This was apparent in the career of Henri I who produced cheap and yet very detailed texts for students and who clearly sought to ally himself with the university. It was common at the time for a printer’s output to be fully focussed on the needs and demands of a nearby university. The partnership was symbiotic, assuring the printer economic security and protection by the authorities in return for printing officially sanctioned texts. Robert I’s altercations with the Sorbonne complicated matters but, despite this, the Estiennes managed to make a name for themselves in this already crowded market. They achieved this thanks to the quality of their translations, the clarity of their texts and, obviously, the lower price of some of their publications.

This was just as well because the production of some texts such as Robert I’s Dictionarium, seu Latinæ linguæ Thesaurus (Paris, 1543) and his son Henri II’s Dictionarivm medicum (Geneva, 1543), though of immense interest to scholars, were large works, costly to produce. Indeed, some of the  major Estienne philological projects mirrored the fate of similar Aldine projects, such as the incredibly impressive multi-volume Aldine Aristotle, which was the first  Greek edition of Aristotle’s works. It too was of major interest to scholars but was extremely costly to produce and proved too expensive for most readers.

The Estiennes’ drive for perfection, though laudable, held other inherent dangers. Henri II Estienne, whose magnum opus [Thesauros tes Ellenikes glosses]. Thesavrvs Græcæ linguæ, ab Henrico Stephano constructus (Geneva, 1572) was decades in the making, demonstrates his awareness of some of the dangers in his L’Anthologie des textes médicaux 1567:[6] ‘Pour dire le vrai, les critiques qui vont passer aux mêmes imprimeurs des centaines d’erreurs ne me pardonneraient pas les même fautes. […] Ils accordent même leur pardon aux erreurs qui le méritent le moins […]; mais moi je laisse seulement échapper une coquille, […] on m’accuse impitoyablement comme si j’étais non seulement responsable de mes erreurs mais aussi de celles des autres. […] Pourquoi crois-tu, cher P., que je repousse, que je redoute sans cesse ?’[7] In this short quotation we can see the weight of such expectations on the Estienne press – not only the high standards others expected of them but also the high standards they demanded of themselves. This drive towards perfection clearly inspired them but it also slowed down their production.[8] Yet, posterity has rewarded their efforts and they are remembered today for the quality of their translations and the beauty of their publications.


Armstrong, Elizabeth, Robert Estienne, Royal printer (Cambridge, 1954).

Kecskeméti, Judith, Boudou, Bénédicte & Cazes, Hélène, La France des Humanistes: Henri II estienne, éditeur et écrivain (Brepols, 2003).

Updike, Daniel B, Printing Types. Their history, forms and use, 2 vols (Harvard, 1966).

Vervliet, Hendrik D. L., ‘Robert Estienne’s Printing Types’, The Library, 2, issue 2 (2004), 107-74.



[1] Vervliet, Hendrik D. L., ‘Robert Estienne’s Printing Types’ The Library, 2, issue 2 (2004), 112.

[2] Armstrong, Elizabeth, Robert Estienne, Royal printer (Cambridge, 1954), p. 48.

[3] Updike, Daniel B, Printing Types. Their history, forms and use, 2 vols (Harvard, 1966), i, p. 191.

[4] Armstrong, Robert Estienne, pp 98-99.

[5] Armstrong, Robert Estienne, Royal printer, p. 59

[6] This work is not in the Edward Worth Library.

[7] Which may be translated as: ‘To tell the truth, critics who will pass hundreds of errors by the same printers would not forgive me for the same mistakes. […] They even forgive the mistakes that least deserve it […]; but I only let out a shell, […] I am mercilessly accused as if I was not only responsible for my mistakes but also those of others. […] Why do you think, my dear P., that I keep on postponing, that I dread constantly?’.

[8] Kecskeméti, Judith, Boudou, Bénédicte & Cazes, Hélène, La France des Humanistes: Henri II estienne, éditeur et écrivain (Brepols, 2003), p. XXIV