A Nose By Any Other Name…

By | August 5, 2016

Last month, the Saratoga Shakespeare Company kicked off its annual “Shakespeare in the Park” performances up here in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. They are doing Romeo and Juliet in August, but the July performance was actually “Rostand in the Park,” a production—and a highly enjoyable one—of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, the 1897 play about the proboscally prodigious swordsman and the odd love triangle he finds himself in. (Steve Martin fans may be familiar with the 1987 film Roxanne, which was a modern adaptation of Cyrano.) To my shame, I had never read nor seen a production of the original play before, so I ordered a “pocket edition” of the play. Aldus Manutius would have been pleased.


Aldus Manutius (1449–1515) was one of the most important and seminal figures in early book printing and publishing. In his youth, while studying at the University of Rome in the 1460s and 70s, he developed a passion for the classics of Greek and Roman literature. He learned Greek and kicked around Italy for a bit, working as a tutor to the children of various royal families (nice work if you can get it). Later, a friend introduced him to the Prince of Carpi, who gave him the funds to set up a printing press for the purposes of promoting Greek scholarship.

In 1489, Manutius gave up teaching and went into publishing full time, moving to Venice and setting up the Aldine Press as a partnership with printer Andrea Torresano. The Aldine Press was staffed with the usual contingent of compositors and printers—and, yes, probably someone who would might have been referred to as an “Aldus pagemaker” (sorry)—as well as a team of Greek scholars. Manutius did most of the work, but technically only owned about 10 percent of the business, although his situation improved when he married Maria Torresano, his partner’s daughter (no fool he).

Manutius’ goal was to preserve the Greek and Roman texts he so loved, since there were few editions of the classics in print at the time—not surprising given that printing was less than 50 years old. Manutius pioneered many printing and publishing innovations. First, he invented the first “pocket editions,” or small-format books that could be easily carried around. His books came in three sizes: folio, quarto, and octavo, each term referring to how many times a sheet of paper was folded to produce a given number of pages. His innovation, the octavo, folded each sheet three times to produce 16 pages (or eight leaves), and as you would expect these pages were pretty small.

The problem, as you can imagine, was how to fit all the text he wanted into such a small format without having the book end up being prohibitively thick. He then created (or, rather, hired Venetian type designer Francesco Griffo to create) a new kind of typeface which he called “italic,” a reference to classical Italy. Manutius italic, which he used for all the text, not just emphasized words or phrases, was based on the cursive handwriting style used in Italian government offices for—yes—the “fine print” of official documents. His first octavo edition—Virgil’s Opera—appeared in 1501, and the editions would prove to be wildly successful. Aldine’s became the definitive editions for scholars and were largely responsible for kicking off the Renaissance interest in all things ancient.

Manutius also was the first printer to use the semicolon, which would greatly inspire the works of Virginia Woolf. (That’s an obscure joke unless you’ve read To the Lighthouse.) He also developed the modern look of the comma. He was punctual, you have to give him that.

Manutius had tried to patent his italic typeface, but nevertheless various copies of it began to spread inside and outside Italy. In France, a German-born printer, publisher, and bookseller—and popularizer of the Aldine editions—named Sébastien Gryphe (aka Sebastian Gryphius) had set up shop in Lyons circa 1520, initially publishing law books. He was also a big fan of the classics, and began printing his own editions of the Greek and Latin texts. In 1536, he founded l’Atelier du Griffon, and by the 1540s he was the “Prince of Lyons booksellers” (Febvre and Martin, 1976) and was turning out Aldine-esque editions.

One of Gryphe’s Latin text editors was a young former Franciscan monk and medical student named François Rabelais, who had originally come to Gryphe to publish his own translations of works by ancient physicians such as Hippocrates and Galen. In the 1540s, Rabelais juggled his job as a physician with editing Gryphe’s Latin texts, and in his spare time he wrote humorous pamphlets and other works. In 1532, he had published, using the anagrammatic pseudonym Alcofribas Nasier, a book called Pantagruel, which would become the first in a highly successful series, and the reason we know of Rabelais today: The Lives of Gargantua and Pantagruel, a pentalogy published between 1532 and 1564. The books were crude, bawdy, vulgar, scatological, yet funny tales about the two titular father-and-son giants and their adventures. The Sorbonne deemed the book(s) obscene, and the Roman Catholic Church were also not fans, as the tales poked a bit of fun at religion. He did have some heresy scares. Despite all this, the series was phenomenally popular.

Gargantua also inspired some writers who did have subversive intentions. In 1533, only a year after Rabelais’ first volume appeared, a French Protestant pastor named Antoine Marcourt published a satire of the Catholic Church called Le Livre des Marchans, very much in the style of Pantagruel (he also included references to Rabelais’ book in the text). (Le Livre des Marchans was published by Pierre de Vingle, who would, two years later, print the first Bible in French.)

Marcourt is perhaps most infamous for instigating what has become known as “The Affair of the Placards.” During the evening of October 17, 1534, anti-Catholic posters mysteriously appeared around several cities in France. One even appeared on the bedroom door of King François I, which was a pretty cheeky breach of security and scared the bejesus out of him. It also ended whatever tolerance the king had for the Protestants. He closed bookstores and publishing houses, and went on to lead a grand procession that ended in the execution of six Protestants implicated in the Affair.

One of those executed was Audebert Valeton, a Nantes property tax collector whose daughter Catherine was the maternal grandmother of a colorful character named Cyrano de Bergerac (1619–1655). A novelist, playwright, soldier, and duelist, de Bergerac was an actual historical figure, although very little is known about his life. Two of his novels were The Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon and The Comical History of the States and the Empires of the Sun and, published posthumously, were some of the earliest works of science-fiction; he is perhaps the first person to describe a rocket leaving the Earth.

De Bergerac was the inspiration for Rostand’s fictional Cyrano, and from the one engraving that has been made of the real Cyrano, he did seem to have a bit of a schnozz. (The plot involving him ghostwriting Christian’s love letters to Roxane was completely Rostand’s invention.) The real de Bergerac died at age 35, although no one is entirely certain how. Some speculate he was mortally wounded in an accident, some claim he was assassinated (he had some pretty bitter enemies).

Rostand’s Cyrano was an immediate hit. The original Cyrano, Constant Coquelin, performed it 410 times in France before taking it to North America. It has been performed, adapted, and film many many times ever since, and the basic plot has recycled in countless rom-coms and sitcoms.

And Aldus Manutius would not have been pleased by the poor quality of the pocket edition of the play that arrived in my mailbox.

If you enjoy these historical digressions, 21 of my Digital Nirvana posts from last year have been collected into a new book called Printing Links, available in paperback from Amazon.



Etudes rabelaisiennes, Volume 11, Librairie Droz, 1974, p. 117n.

“1535: Six Protestants for the Affair of the Placards,” ExecutedToday.com, January 21, 2013, http://www.executedtoday.com/tag/affair-of-the-placards/.

Frank Romano and Richard Romano, The GATF Encyclopedia of Graphic Communication, Sewickley, Pa.: GATF Press, 1997.

Lynn Truss, Eats, Shoot & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, New York: Gotham Books, 2004.

Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing, 1450-1800, London: Verso, 1976, Page 149.

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