Michel de Vascosan (d. c. 1577)

Without a printer’s mark,
he marked the humanist printing world.

In 1539, the Parisian printer Michel de Vacsosan stopped using a printer’s device on his title pages. His decision to no longer use the device of his father-in-law, the renowned printed Josse Badius (1462-1535), may well have been the result of a dispute with his relatives in the firm, but it was also a harbinger of a new approach to title pages. Vascosan’s decision flew in the face of the Parisian (and more generally European) book-trade, where printers’ devices had played a vital role in the identification and marketing of printers’ and booksellers’ output. He was trail-blazing a new method of promoting his works – a minimalist style which would challenge the use of ornate devices, so popular among the first generation of Parisian printers and booksellers. 

Paolo Emili, Pauli Aemylii Veronensis, historici clarissimi De rebus gestis Francorum, ad … Regem Eranciscum [sic] Valesium, eius nominis primum, libri decem, ex postrema authoris recognitione. Additum est de regibus item Francorum chronicon, ad haec usque tempora studiosissimè deductum, cum rerum maximè insignium indice copiosissimo (Paris, 1550), i, title page.

Coupled with his rejection of a printer’s device, was what one might call his ‘purification’ of the title page, for his title pages are incredibly simple in style, the whiteness of the paper dominating. Henri-Jean Martin wittily calls this ‘the graphic mode’ of ‘solemnization of the title page’, as opposed to the second ‘monumental mode’, which, by the end of the sixteenth century, became saturated with symbols and architectural motifs.[1] Worth’s copy of Paolo Emili’s De rebus gestis Francorum (Paris, 1550), is an excellent example of Vascosan’s radical new style. In contrast to previous printers and booksellers Vascosan’s approach marks a break with the earlier highly ornamental style, with its abundance of lettering and decoration, so reminiscent of the design elements in manuscripts. Paradoxically, the ‘Vascosan style’ is distinguished by its simplicity, with titles that derive their elegance from the spatial distribution of the characters, with an often bold use of central white, and with page layouts that are as sober as they are geometrically harmonious. This is the signature of the Vascosan printing house.

The life of Michel de Vascosan prior to his arrival in Paris, is still shrouded in mystery and even before 1539 relatively little is known about him. On his arrival in Paris, Vascosan found a friend and protector in Jacques de Varade (d. 1571), a councillor at the Parliament of Paris.[2] The latter belonged to a Milanese family which had settled in Paris at the end of the fifteenth century. Michel Magnien, a specialist of neo-Latin literature, draws attention to a dedicatory epistle in Vascosan’s 1552 folio edition of Livy’s Historiae Romanae Principis Decades tres cum dimidia in which Vascosan thanks Jacques de Varade for raising him like a son.[3] Clearly, de Varade, who was a ‘libraire juré’ (i.e. an affiliated bookseller of the University of Paris), was a major influence on the young printer.

We do not know where Vascosan did his apprenticeship or in which workshop he worked as a journeyman. The first trace of him is found in 1527, in a document which designates him as ‘libraire-juré de l’Université’, an official act which indicated that he had been previously admitted as a bookseller and that on that date he agreed to accept the rules governing the rights and duties of booksellers to the University. His name reappears five years later, in November 1532, this time on the title page of a book.[4]

It is likely that in the intervening period he was practising his trade and it is more than probable that his protector, Jacques de Varade (who was himself heir to his father’s office of ‘libraire-juré’), used his network to introduce Vascosan to the community of the Parisian book trade. Moreover, just before or after his beginning as a printer Vascosan got married. This proved to be a decisive union (not least from the point of view of his career), for he married Catherine Badius, one of the four daughters of the most prestigious Parisian humanist printer of the time: Josse Badius. This connected him not only to Josse but also his printer son Conrad Badius (d. 1562), as well as Jean de Roigny (fl. 1529-66), Jacques Du Puy (d. 1589?), and Robert I Estienne (1503?-59), important Parisian printers and booksellers who had married other daughters of Badius. His father-in-law died in December 1535 and between 1536 and 1539, Vascosan and his brother-in-law Jean de Roigny, printed at the address ‘in aedibus Ascensionis’ or ‘ad praelum Ascensianum’.[5]

Quintilian, M. Fabii Quintiliani, Oratoris eloquentissimi, De institutione oratoria libri XII, singulari cum studio tum iudicio doctissimorum virorum ad fidem vetustissimoru[m] codicum recogniti ac restituti: argumentísque doctissimi viri Petri Gallandii Latinarum literaru[m] professoris regii longè quàm antea castigatioribus & plenioribus ante singula omnium librorum capita præfixis elucidati. […] (Paris, 1543). title page and fol. 132r. This text was printed by Michel de Vascosan and sold by Oudin I Petit.

The period 1532 to 1542, the first decade of Vascosan’s activities, highlights his main themes and demonstrates his competence as a printer: he published a large number of ancient texts for school use, in particular numerous editions of Cicero. During this period Vascosan published only Latin and Greek texts, to the exclusion of any texts in vernacular languages. This predominance of Latin and Greek in Vascosan’s output is also reflected in the Worth Library, an example being Image 2, which is an edition in Latin of the rhetorical works of the famous first-century AD rhetorician Quintilian. It was printed in 1543 by Vascosan and Oudin I Petit (d. 1572) a bookseller in Paris who was the grandson of the renowned Parisian bookseller Jean I Petit (fl. 1492-1530), a leading member of the first generation of printer-booksellers in Paris.[6]

As we can see, the style of this title page has more in common with those of the printers and booksellers of the first generation than that of Vascosan’s new style. The reason for this is not hard to understand. The edition is a large folio which would have been costly to produce and it seems likely that it was for this reason that Vascosan combined forces with Oudin I Petit to finance it. Certainly the influence of the latter may be seen in the rather more decorative title page, which may be seen above. It is interesting to note that while Petit might have funded the project, for Worth, Vascosan was the more important printer, for it is Vascosan’s name which is tooled in gold on the early eighteenth-century spine of the volume in the Worth Library. Similarly, Worth’s copy of Vascosan’s and Oudin I Petit’s massive folio edition of the works of Livy has a rather more ornate title page – this time bearing the fleur-de-lis of the Petit firm – but it is Vascosan’s name which was immortalised by Worth’s binders on the heavily gold-tooled spine.

Hippocrates, Ippokratous Peri chumon, Hippocratis Coi liber. De humoribus. … Galeni in eundem librum commentarius Graecus nunc primùm in lucem editus, ídque cum Latina N. Vigoréi … interpretatione (Paris, 1555), title page and Sig. Aiir.

Worth’s copy of Vascosan’s 1555 edition of Hippocrates’ De humoribus is a return to his more minimalist form and is an excellent example of the typographical quality demanded by Vascosan for his Greek books. The printer had recourse to the best Hellenists to interpret not only Greek philosophy and this is exactly what he did for his 1566 edition of a commentary on Aristotelian botany by the Italian scholar Giulio Cesare Scaligero (1484-1558): Iulii Caesaris Scaligeri in libros duos, qui inscribuntur de plantis, Aristotele autore, libri duo (Paris, 1556) – a text which may also be found in the Edward Worth Library.

The following period, 1543-1557, marks a move to the production of vernacular texts. The first work in French printed by Vascosan was an elegant folio book published in 1543. It was a translation of Plutarch’s En ce present volume sont contenues les vyes de huict excellens & renommez personnaiges Grecs & Romains … by Georges de Selve (1508-41) – an indication that even Vascosan’s shift to vernacular publications had a strong humanist colouring.

The year 1548 was clearly an important one for Vascosan for it marked yet another evolution at his press for from 1548 onwards he suddenly began to print a large number of texts from the Aristotelian corpus. More generally, between 1549 to 1550, he published a large number of editions – either solely in Greek, or, with a Latin translation – a development particularly noticeable among Worth’s collections. Apart from the works already mentioned, Worth owned a 1549 edition of work of pharmacology printed in Greek and translated into Latin. This was the Alexipharmaca, a companion piece of ancient medicine, written by Nicander of Colophon, as an addition to his previous work Theriaca (a theriac is an antidote to poison).

As mentioned earlier, Vacsosan also printed Aristotelian commentaries, either by ancient or contemporary humanist commentators such as Jacques-Louis d’Estrebay (1481-1550?), Joachim Périon (1499?-1559) and Nicolas de Grouchy (1520-72), at the same rate at which he had previously published Cicero: five translations in 1549, eight Greek editions or Latin translations of Aristotle in 1550, as many in 1551, and up to fourteen in 1552.[7] He continued to follow his 1530s practice of mobilising the best contemporary philologists to present reliable scholarly editions – just as he had in his production of the Ciceronian corpus.[8]

The late 1540s also witnessed renewed energy in the Vascosan production of texts in vernacular languages: five works out of a total of twenty-two printed in 1547 were in French, including the first important poetic collection: Les oeuvres poetiques of Jacques Peletier (1517-82).[9] Michel de Vascosan had a late but very important role in the promotion of the French language. In this he could rely on the active participation of other printers such as Etienne Dolet (1509-46), who in 1540 in Lyon had printed La maniere de bien traduire d’une langue en aultre. The movement was continued later in the century by the renowned scion of the Estienne dynasty, Henri II Estienne (1528-98), who with Mamert Patisson (d. 1601/02), in 1579 printed Proiect du livre intitulé de la Precellence du langage François.[10] The movement was continued in 1587 by a member of the fourth generation, Abel l’Angelier (fl. 1572-1609), who printed Traicté des chiffres, ou secretes manieres descrire: par Blaise de Vigenere, Bourbonnois – another book collected by Worth.

At first sight it might seem to be a paradox – a moving away from the promotion of the texts of the classical world to the new world of the vernacular – but it should be remembered that many printers and humanists who had been at the forefront of publishing copious texts in Greek and Latin, also proved to be staunch defenders of their mother tongue. Certainly, for Vascosan, the scholar-printer of La Fontaine, 1559 was a seminal year, for during that year more works issued from his press in French than in Latin, and never again, until 1577, would the number of Latin texts exceed editions of vernacular texts.[11]

Giulio Cesare Scaligero, Iulii Caesaris Scaligeri Exotericarum exercitationum liber quintus decimus, de subtilitate, ad Hieronymum Cardanum: In extremo duo sunt indices: prior breuiusculus, continens sententias nobiliores: alter opulentissimus, penè omnia complectens … (Paris, 1557), fols 475v and 476r.

Thus, Vascosan’s impact on printing during the first half of the sixteenth century is infinitely more complex than it seems. His legacy was continued by his heirs, printers of the third generation such as Fédéric I Morel (1523-83), who married Vascosan’s daughter Jeanne. Vascosan, having trained Fédéric I Morel and worked with him for five years, decided in 1557 to install him in a shop a little further east, at the Clos Bruneau, in the house of the ‘Ciseaux d’Or’ or ‘Golden Scissors’. Morel’s apprenticeship with Vascosan was a major influence on the younger printer – indeed, in 1571, Morel printed a book on the rules which framed such apprenticeships. Morel, a pupil of Jacques Toussain (1499?-1547), was a distinguished young humanist in his own right.  When Vascosan ceased printing in Greek in 1557, Morel was evidently given his father-in-law’s Greek fonts, which he used from that date. A book in the Edward Worth Library marks the first co-production of Vascosan and his son-in-law. The book, Scaligero’s seminal Exotericarum exercitationum liber quintus decimus, de subtilitate (Paris, 1557), one of the most successful philosophical treatises of its time, and it attracted considerable attention from many intellectuals of different religious and philosophical backgrounds.[12]

Vascosan, unlike Robert I Estienne or Christophe Plantin (c. 1520-89), symbolises, even embodies, a movement which allowed France to pass in two generations from a book market mainly concerned with printing in Latin (especially for readers interested in science, history and theology), to a book market more open to the vernacular language (and hence more attractive to a wider audience). Magnien proves that Vascosan positively encouraged this movement: as a humanist scholar-printer, embedded in and emblematic of the cultural and intellectual evolution of his country.[13] In the 1530s and 1540s Vascosan had been one of the principal humanist printers of the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, who from 1550 onward launched a vast translation programme of famous ancient texts into French. He was also known for his important role as the printer of original vernacular works, by the most important figures of French humanism: Blaise de Vigenère (1523-96), Guillaume du Bellay (1491-1543), Jean Dorat (1508-88), Philibert de L’Orme (1515?-70), Michel de Montaigne (1533-92) and Estienne de La Boétie (1530-63).[14] Due to his longevity, his productivity (he was responsible for more than 640 editions or re-editions), his authority, and his interests, Michel de Vascosan thus played a vital role in the evolution of the Parisian book market during a pivotal period, 1530-70.[15] Unlike printers of the first generation, many of whom had concentrated on the construction of their corporate image and had chosen specialization as a strategy to survive, Vascosan devoted his energy to producing a large body of texts and to promoting the use of the French language. This was his true legacy.


Magnien, Michel, ‘Des presses humanistes au service du vernaculaire ? Le cas Vascosan (vers 1500-1577)’, in Christine Bénévent, Annie Charon, Isabelle Diu & Magali Vène (eds) Passeurs de textes: imprimeurs et libraires à l’âge de l’humanisme (Paris, 2012), pp 133-165.

Martin, Henri-Jean, La naissance du livre moderne (XIVe-XVIIe siècles): mise en page et mise en texte du livre français (Paris, 2000).

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).

Sakamoto, Kuni, Julius Caesar Scaliger, Renaissance reformer of Aristotelianism: a study of Exotericae Exercitationes (Leiden & Boston, 2016).


[1] Martin, Henri-Jean, La naissance du livre moderne (XIVe-XVIIe siècles): mise en page et mise en texte du livre français (Paris, 2000), pp 354-355.

[2] Institut de recherche et d’histoire des textes (IRHT-CNRS), ‘Varade (Jacques de)(+1571) (Personne)’, Bibale-IRHT/CNRS.

[3] Magnien, Michel, ‘Des presses humanistes au service du vernaculaire ? Le cas Vascosan (vers 1500-1577)’, in Christine Bénévent, Annie Charon, Isabelle Diu & Magali Vène (eds) Passeurs de textes: imprimeurs et libraires à l’âge de l’humanisme (Paris, 2012), pp 133-165.

[4] Ibid.

[5] 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 135; 421.

[6] The title page gives 1542 as the imprint date but a colophon mentions that it was printed in January 1543.

[7] Magnien, ‘Des presses humanistes au service du vernaculaire’, para. 38. On d’Estrebay’s dates see Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), ‘Jacques-Louis d’Estrebay, 1481-1550?’, Virtual International Authority File (VIAF).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., para. 40.

[10] The date of Henri II Estienne’s birth is unclear: the Library of Congress suggests 1531 and Renouard gives 1528: Renouard et al. (eds), Répertoire des imprimeurs parisiens, p. 143.

[11] On Vascosan’s publication figures see ibid., annexe.

[12] Sakamoto, Kuni, Julius Caesar Scaliger, Renaissance reformer of Aristotelianism: a study of Exotericae Exercitationes (Leiden & Boston, 2016), pp 116-118.

[13] On this see Magnien, ‘Des presses humanistes au service du vernaculaire’, pp 133-165.

[14] Ibid., Résumé.

[15] Ibid., para. 57.

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