Simon de Colines (1480?-1546)

‘Hanc aciem sola retundit virtus’
‘Only virtue blunts this blade.’

The rabbit in the Estiennes’ hat,
and the great punchcutter of early sixteenth-century France.

Paolo Cerrato, Pauli Cerrati Albensis Pompeiani, de virginitate libri III (Paris, 1528), title page device of Simon de Colines.

This famous printer’s device, of Time with his scythe, is taken from the title page of the first edition of Albensis Pompeiani, de virginitate libri III, written by Paolo Cerrato (1485-1541), and printed in 1528 by Simon de Colines (1480?-1546). Simon de Colines, latinised as ‘Simon Colinaeus’, has left very little trace of his life before his entry into the printing world. He was probably born between 1480 and 1490 and his family, especially his sister, her husband and his brother, owned and operated a farm. That gave him an opportunity to study at the University of Paris.[1] After that, he began to work as a young man for the successful Parisian publishing firm operated by Henri I Estienne (1460?-1520).[2]

When Henri I died, in his fifties, in 1520, Colines succeeded him as director of the press. Colines was supposedly then in his mid-thirties and he married Henri I’s widow, Guyonne Viart following her husband’s death. Guyonne would have been well versed in the printing trade – prior to marrying Henri I Estienne she had been married to Jean Higman (d. 1500), with whom Henri I had trained. Just as Henri I succeeded Higman as master of the press, on his marriage to Guyonne, so too did Colines. In doing so they acquired not only the press but also an excellent printer’s wife!

Colines became the step-father of Robert I Estienne (1503?-1559), the second son of Henri I. They had a good relationship, which was surely beyond a work connection. As underlined by Kay Amert, a meticulous typographic historian, the output of both demonstrates a full sharing of fonts, in particular, those cut by Colines: three sizes of roman, one Greek and some titling capitals.[3] This may seem like a detail, especially in a printer’s dynasty, but when Robert I made it clear that he wanted to take control of his father’s legacy, Colines and Guyonne, did not stand in his way, and handed over to him half of the printing house: including the printing equipment, type, and paper supplies. Colines simply moved his workshop down the street, from the old Estienne press, naming his new shop the ‘Soleil d’Or’ (the Golden Sun). This moment could have seen a loosening of family ties, yet, Colines continued to provide Robert I with duplicate matrices so he could cast fresh type for himself when required. As Amert points out, ‘for a couple of years, the two also shared a single set of matrices for a larger, older roman type that had been in use in Paris since the 1490s’.[4]

Colines’ range of abilities was often touted by himself as follows: ‘Pressit suis typis nitidissimis Simon Colinaeus in officina sua.’ His contemporaries agreed and in fact three words reflect the threefold aspects of his career: ‘Typus, Officina, Praelum’. It is important to highlight his career as a punchcutter, which is a significant part of his renown. The evolution of the typographical quality of his work has been meticulously detailed by Kay Amert and Hendrik D. L. Vervliet. The latter, a specialist in Renaissance books and typography, has organised Colines’ typographical evolution into four main periods: first, a learning period from 1518 to 1522; then, from 1523 to 1531, a mature period; third, from 1531 to 1536, years of challenge and confrontation with the Aldine typographic revolution in Paris; and finally, a time of resting and harvesting, until 1546, the year of his death.[5]

Sophocles, Sophokleos Tragōdiai hepta (Paris, 1528), Sig. αiiv and Sig. αiiir.

The element that comes up most often when describing the fonts created by Colines is legibility, as shown on the two pages above. The lettering still has a handwritten feel, but it is lighter, longer, and moves away from the early, very ‘romanised’ typefaces. This search for a new and more meaningful Greek font was reinforced by the fact that Colines created one font a year during the first period of his career (1518-23): five Romans and this Greek font. The famous Sophocles Greek of 1528 was ‘the first decent Greek cursive to be cut in France’ during this period, and the durability of this font is shown by its use – indeed some of Colines’ contemporary Roman and Greek fonts continued to be used well into the 1530s.[6] He is also credited with the design of italic and Greek fonts and a Roman one for St Augustine’s Sylvius (1531), from which the Garamond font was derived.[7]

Colines began resolutely to Italianize his typography from 1528 onwards: an italic (I 90) appeared, influenced by the calligraphic models of Ludovico degli Arrighi (c. 1475-1527) and Giovanni Antonio Tagliente (c. 1465-1528).[8] Edward Worth’s copy of Albensis Pompeiani, de virginitate libri III, by Paolo Cerrato, was the first book Colines printed with this new font and he used it in a collection of octavo editions of Latin and neo-Latin poets: Horace (65-8 B.C.), Juvenal (d. 128), Lucan (39-65), Persius (34-62), Martial (between 38 and 41 – between 102 and 104), and, finally, a work of Claudius Claudianus (c. 370-c. 404), printed in 1530. The last work, an edition of Latin poetry, seems to have been edited by Colines himself, as the preface testifies, ‘summa cura & vigilantia a nobis expolitum … non sine veterum codicum collatione, qui plurimum ad emendationem iuverunt’. This was the only edition he produced of the last of the great Latin classical poets.

 Alexander of Aphrodisias, Alexandri Aphrodisiei Commentaria in duodecim Aristotelis libros de prima Philosophia,  interprete Ioa[n]ne Genesio Sepulueda Cordubensi … Quibus acceseru[n]t, primùm index alphabeticus præcipua quæq[ue] in commentarijs co[n]tenta complectens: deinde ad margine[m] passim scholia breuissima, enarrationu[m] summa[m] paucis elucidantia .. (Paris, 1536), title page device.

Colines’s first independent printer’s device showed a family of rabbits near the base of a small tree. Soon after his move to the ‘Soleil d’Or’ or Golden Sun, he abandoned this rabbit device, but he did not abandon the rabbits. Why rabbits? Sound and wordplay! As Amert notes, ‘The modern French for rabbit is ‘lapin’, but the old word is ‘conil’, an acoustic anagram for Colines. ‘Bouquin’, a good French farmer’s word for a male hare or rabbit, is also urban slang for book, especially a book that is old and worn. The book-hawkers of Paris are bouginistes, jack-rabbit dealers’.[9]

One might also ask why Time, who appears in so many of Colines’ books, is always depicted as a satyr? Again, Amert solves the problem: ‘The old French slang for satyr is again ‘bouquin’ – in this case the diminutive of ‘bouc’, which is a good French word for billy goat. Time can soar like a bird and run like a goat; a goat is a book; a book is a rabbit; the rabbits are code for Colines’.[10] However, from 1527 onwards, Time became his primary emblem.[11]

The first years of his career display an ambiguous attitude to the diffusion of the religious ideas of his time: on the one hand he published Erasmus’ religious works such as the Enchiridion (1523), and the Colloquia (1527), while on the other he produced Propugnaculum Ecclesiae adversus Lutheranos (1526), a treatise composed by Josse Clichtove (c. 1470-1543), challenging Erasmus’ work. It might therefore seem difficult to determine his religious editorial policy and affiliation. However, a quick overview of Colines’ output reveals that he produced numerous works by reform minded scholars such as Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples (d. 1536), Guillaume Briçonnet (1470?-1534), Erasmus (d. 1536) and even Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560), Luther’s colleague.

Colines’ use of a 24o format for his 1527 edition of Erasmus’ Colloquia is particularly noteworthy when one considers that this much smaller format represented less than 1% of his total output (the USTC lists only 5 of his 730 works in 24o). In fact, 4 out of these 5 works are editions of Erasmus’ Colloquia (1527, 1532, 1532, 1534). As a small and easily transportable format, it was a favourite for pedlars and students. When viewed through the lens of Colines’ entire corpus it was a digression from his editorial line which favoured larger formats, but its very size commended it to the printer for such smaller books were much more easily hidden  – a distinct advantage when the work in question was the subject of a condemnation by the Sorbonne in 1526!

The Worth Library’s edition of Colloquiorum familiarum incerto autore libellus Græce & Latine was printed by Colines in 1528, two years after the university’s censorship and one year after his own 24º edition of Erasmus’ Colloquia, which itself had closely followed Johann Froben’s Basle edition of June 1526. The 1528 Colloquiorum familiarum incerto autore followed the numerous condemnations of Erasmus’ Colloquia by the Sorbonne, despite an intervention of the king, François I (1494-1547). By publishing the Colloquia as if it was by an ‘uncertain author’, Colines hoped to skilfully circumvent the censorship of the Sorbonne.[12] This time he issued the Colloquia in a quarto format (a format which accounted for a little less than a quarter of his output). This format was much more convenient for students and intellectuals as it left room for annotations in the margins. The numerous reprints by Colines show that this work was a commercial success: the ban by the university only multiplied the curiosity of potential readers. At the same time, the resistance of the presses encouraged its dissemination throughout Europe. In Paris, this was theoretically more difficult for Parisian printers and booksellers during the 1530s were under the full force of the University’s increased surveillance, which was persistent and extended to censorship. However, in practice threats and censorship were weapons that carried little weight against the economic power of early sixteenth-century Parisian printers.

Colines demonstrated a particular affection for the sciences. Whether it was for economic or personal reasons he published numerous folios of arithmetic, geometry and cosmography. Editions of works by Juan Martínez Silíceo (1486-1557) edited by Thomas Rhaetus, Francisco Sarzosa (d. 1556), and Jean Fernel (1497-1558), appeared between 1526 and 1528. His chief focus was undoubtedly on medicine; a happy coincidence for the bibliophile and doctor, Edward Worth (1676-1733). Thus, Colines displayed a fascination with Galen’s treatises, producing different translations by Guilielmus Copus (d. 1532?), Thomas Linacre (c. 1460-1524), Johann Guenther (1505-74), and Niccolò Leonico Tomeo (1456?-1531?).

Jakob Omphalius, Nomologia, qua eloquendi ac disserendi ratio ad usum forensem … accommodatur. Autore Iacobo Omphalio iureconsulto (Paris, 1536), fols 5r and 16r.

Finally, it is important to consider how the printer conceived his layout. In the above example, Colines opted for a complex structure, the result of the use of several languages (Latin and Greek), of different sizes and in an ornate arrangement, which is all the more striking in a small format, an octavo. This was not, however, unusual for a printer who had become a master of the art of enriching the octavo format, which accounts for more than half of his output.

With his stepson, Robert I Estienne, he was one the foremost Parisian printers of the 1520-40s. Responsible for more than 700 titles, he was one of the most productive printers and publishers of his time. It is also important to remember that Simon de Colines was famous among his contemporaries for the quality of his fonts, for their elegance and readability – his colleagues viewed him as one of the greatest typographers of the age. He practiced and created a ‘savoir-faire’. Moreover, he cut types at a crucial moment: when the Latin and Greek alphabets were still engaged in their historic metamorphosis, from manuscript to print. Colines took seriously his role into this transition: the letterform designs of his works are still readable today.


Amert, Kay, The scythe and the rabbit: Simon de Colines and the culture of the book in Renaissance Paris, (New York, 2012).

Guignard, Jacques, ‘Imprimeurs et libraires parisiens 1525-1536’, Bulletin de l’Association Guillaume Budé, 2 (1953), 43-73.

Renouard, Philippe, Jeanne Veyrin-Forrer & Birgitte Moreau (eds), Répertoire des imprimeurs parisiens: libraires, fondeurs de caractères et correcteurs d’imprimerie: depuis l’introduction de l’imprimerie à Paris (1470) jusqu’à la fin du seizième siècle … (Paris, 1965).

Schreiber, Fred, Simon de Colines: an annotated catalogue of 230 examples of his press, 1520-1546 (Provo, Utah, 1995).

Vervliet, Hendrik D. L., ‘Simon de Colines, punchcutter, 1518-1546’, De Gulden Passer: driemaandelijksch bulletijn van de Vereeniging der Antwerpsche Bibliophielen, 81 (2003), 115-169.


[1] Amert, Kay, The scythe and the rabbit: Simon de Colines and the culture of the book in Renaissance Paris (New York, 2012), p. 12.

[2] Renouard, Philippe, Jeanne Veyrin-Forrer & Birgitte Moreau (eds), Répertoire des imprimeurs parisiens: libraires, fondeurs de caractères et correcteurs d’imprimerie: depuis l’introduction de l’imprimerie à Paris (1470) jusqu’à la fin du seizième siècle … (Paris, 1965), pp 88-89.

[3] Amert, The scythe and the rabbit, pp 11-34.

[4] Ibid., p. 14.

[5] Vervliet, Hendrik D. L., ‘Simon de Colines, punchcutter, 1518-1546’, De Gulden Passer: driemaandelijksch bulletijn van de Vereeniging der Antwerpsche Bibliophielen, 81 (2003), 115-117.

[6] Ibid., 119.

[7] Ibid., 117-119.

[8] Getty Research Institute, ‘Tagliente, Giovanni Antonio (Italian calligrapher and woodcutter, ca. 1465-1528)’, Getty Vocabulary, Union List of Artist Names Online (ULAN).

[9] Amert, The scythe and the rabbit, p. 17.

[10] Ibid., p. 19.

[11] Ibid., pp 11-34.

[12] Guignard, Jacques, ‘Imprimeurs et libraires parisiens 1525-1536’, Bulletin de l’Association Guillaume Budé, 2 (1953), 60-64.

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