Robert Estienne

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Robert Estienne


French Printer and Scholar

Born to a family of printers, Robert Estienne made his mark not only by printing the first editions of many Greek and Roman works but by using the distinct symbol of the olive tree to represent his enterprises. An outspoken humanist, hostility from the theologians of the University of Paris ultimately drove him out of his native France.

Estienne's father Henri founded a printing firm in Paris around 1502. During his reign, the firm produced more than 100 books. Upon his death, Foreman Simon de Colines not only succeeded him but married his widow. At the age of 23, Robert took over the family business from his stepfather.

In 1526 Robert began running the firm and devoted himself to more scholarly pursuits. His focus included his first achievement, a Latin Bible issued in 1527-1528 as well as his most influential work, Dictionarium sue linguae latinae thesaurus (1531), a Latin dictionary. He was also responsible for preparing the first printed editions of several Greek and Roman classics, many of which he edited himself. In 1539 Francis I of France appointed him the king's printer for Hebrew and Latin works. A year later he took on the responsibility of printing Greek texts for the royal library.

Estienne paid special attention to the quality of his printing, not only by using the olive tree insignia designed by Proofreader Geogroy Tory but with types designed by Claude Garamond specifically for the printing house. It was Robert's attention to typography during this time that was unparalleled by his successors. Estienne embraced humanism, which focused on the importance of reason as opposed to faith. It was the antithesis of theology during the Renaissance. These beliefs were what made him a target of Sorbonne faculty. In 1550 he fled to Geneva, Switzerland to escape increasing pressures. It was here that he set up a press and produced a Greek New Testament (1551) that revealed the division of the text into verses for the first time in history.

His brother, Charles, took over the Parisian establishment that same year. Charles, a writer himself, chose to move his attentions toward medical and agricultural subjects, which were more in line with his own interests. However, some of his works were given to Robert to print.

Robert's son, named for Henri Estienne, eventually inherited his father's press under the condition that it would not be moved from Geneva. Following in Robert's footsteps, the second Henri was the family's greatest scholar and a humanist as well. His incumbency marks the height of the family's prowess. His accomplishments include many editions of Greek and Latin works, known for their accuracy and textural criticism. Some of his most well known pursuits are Thesaurus Graecae linguae (1572) and La Precellence du language françois (1579), arguably his most important work. His outspoken Apologie pour Herodote (1566) caused trouble with the Consistory of Geneva. Consequently, Henri fled to France to escape punishment. Upon his return to Geneva he was briefly imprisoned and afterward became a wandering scholar. The family's printing firm survived five generations, maintaining its prominent status until the late seventeenth century.