Biographical and bibliographical information on the book trades
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13 April 2014

Lyon. Musee d'imprimerie

Musée d’imprimerie de Lyon

The museum is housed in a handsome Renaissance building located on the peninsula between the rivers Saône and Rhône in the quarter of the city, which has been frequented by printers and booksellers since the 15th century. Lyon was not only on a crossroads of trade, with four fairs a year, but also on a crossroads of ideas. Although it had no university it attracted scholars and printers in large numbers and by the end of the 15th century it had become the third printing centre of Europe, after Venice and Paris.

Renaissance court yard or traboule. Musée d’imprimerie de Lyon

The first printers arrived from Germany and Italy in 1473, among them Guillaume Le Roy, whose house we found in Vieux Lyon. They were responsible for some of the earliest illustrated books in France, including the earliest woodcut depiction of a printing press in an edition of the La grant danse macabre, printed by Matthieu Husz in 1499. The European invention is also put into perspective by the display of examples of printing from moveable types from China, Korea and Japan, which predated Gutenberg.

House of Guillaume Le Roy, the first printer in Lyon, now appropriately a medieval shop (closed the day we visited). Lyon

Tzu-chih T’ung-chien (Mirror for government) A fragment of a history of China from 403 BC to 960 AD printed in bronze moveable types known as Kyonjaja in 1422. These types were first cast in 1420, 30 years before Gutenberg perfected his invention. Musée d’imprimerie de Lyon

The tales of Ise, by Ariwara no Narihira. One of the oldest surviving Japanese illustrated books, printed in moveable wooden type with 49 woodcut illustrations. Musée d’imprimerie de Lyon

De la ruyne des nobles homes et femmes, by Boccaccio, printed by Mathieu Husz in 1483. A French translation of the Italian original, one of the earliest illustrated books printed in Lyon. Musée d’imprimerie de Lyon

In the sixteenth century there was a cluster of printers wedded to the ideas of humanism, attracting as authors and even as correctors to the press scholars such as Erasmus and Rabelais. Starting life as a monk, Rabelais went on to study medicine at Montpellier and stayed for some time in Lyon between 1532 and 1548. In his time he was renowned for his medical works but his best-known works Pantagruel with its attacks on the theologians of the Sorbonne, followed by Gargantua were published in Lyon by François Juste. Another of the scholars, Etienne Dolet, worked as a corrector with the humanist printer Sebastien Gryphe before setting up as printer himself. He was imprisoned more than once for the ideas he expressed and ended his life in Paris under the executioner’s axe in 1546. All these printers were represented in the Museum by original examples of their works, many of them illustrated by the wonderful woodcuts of Bernard Salomon or Pierre Vase and printed in the types of Granjon. They were among the most elegant books ever printed.
Emblemata, by Andrea Alciati, printed by Guillaume Rouillé in 1548 with woodcuts ascribed to Pierre Vase (two are signed PV). The 128 emblems are enclosed in a variety of woodcut frames. Musée d’imprimerie de Lyon

Quadrins historiques de la Bible revues et augmentées d’un grand nombre de figures. by Claude Paradin, printed by Jean de Tournes in 1583 with woodcuts by Bernard Salomon. This work was first issued in 1553. Musée d’imprimerie de Lyon

Alexandreidos, by Philippus Galtherus. Printed by Robert Granjon in 1558, using a cursive face known as civilité which he had designed and cut himself. The printer’s device is a play on his name “grand jonc” – a large bulrush, round which a snake is entwined. Musée d’imprimerie de Lyon

Lyon printers became embroiled in the religious controversies that shook the 16th century. A key document displayed in this section is the placard against the mass printed by Pierre de Vingle across the border in Switzerland in 1534, which was at the origin of the “affaire des placards” which was a key factor in starting the wars of religion in France. Written by Antoine Marcourt, at one time a citizen of Lyon who became a Protestant minister in Neuchâtel, the following extract gives a flavour of his style: “In the Mass, all knowledge of Jesus Christ is suppressed, the preaching of the Gospel is rejected and prevented, the time is filled with bells, yells, chants, ceremonial, candles, incense, fancy dress, and all kinds of monkey business, in such a way that the poor people are miserably kept and led about, like ewes or sheep, and eaten, gnawed and devoured by those ravening wolves.”

Articles veritables sur les horribles grands & importables abus de la Messe papalle, by Antoine Marcourt. Printed in Neuchâtel by Pierre de Vingle in rotunda type in 1534 it was widely distributed in Paris and elsewhere in France, allegedly even being posted on François I’s bedroom door in the royal residence in Amboise. Musée d’imprimerie de Lyon

The story of printing is continued by coverage of the regulation of the press, something of considerable relevance to my work on the 18th century book trade in Normandy. The numbers of printers and booksellers continued to be regulated into the 19th century, apart from of brief period during the French Revolution, and works had to be individually licensed by the authorities. Remote from Paris, printers in places like Rouen and Lyon were prepared to risk printing unlicensed books and forbidden items, and pirate editions were produced on clandestine presses, which often worked alongside the officially licensed workshops operated by the printer. Books were also secretly imported from across the border in Protestant Switzerland where the Geneva Bible was published. Among the items on display were edicts banning the works of the Enlightenment including authors such as Voltaire and Rousseau.

Reglement pour la librairie et imprimerie de Paris. Issued as a decree of the King’s Privy Council in 1723, this edition was printed in Aix when it was extended to the rest of the kingdom in 1744. Musée d’imprimerie de Lyon

Arrêt du conseil d’état du Roy. A proclamation of 1785 ordering the suppression of the first thirty volumes of the works of Voltaire which had been published in 1784. Musée d’imprimerie de Lyon

Manuel typographique, by Fournier le jeune, printed by him in 1764, this important manual is also an illustration of the excellent quality of printing possible even amidst the official stranglehold on the press. Musée d’imprimerie de Lyon

In the period of the French Revolution printers were called on to produce the assignats, paper money supposedly linked to the value of land and property, but which soon became worthless.

Domaines nationaux. Assignat de quinze sols. Musée d’imprimerie de Lyon

L’ami du peuple. No. 243, 7 October 1790. One of the many revolutionary periodicals, this one produced by Marat, who was assassinated by Charlotte Corday of Caen. Musée d’imprimerie de Lyon

The last chapter in the story is the demise of the metal type introduced to Europe by Gutenberg, which is in part due to a couple of printers in Lyon, René Higonnet and Louis Moyroud, who in the 1940s devised the Lumitype-Photon machine which used a rapidly revolving disc with images of letters which were exposed photographically onto a plate which was used for offset printing. The invention was perfected in the United States with the support of William W. Garth Jr. The first machine was installed in Massachussets in 1954 and it became the basis of much of the early computer typesetting in the 1960s and 1970s – perhaps including the system which rather messed up my London book trades in 1977!

Lumitype-Photon machine. Musée d’imprimerie de Lyon

The museum also had sections on the development of book illustration, including early experiments with colour printing and the introduction of photography.

Observations sur l’histoire naturelle, sur la physique et sur la peinture, avec des planches imprimées en couleurs, printed by Delaguette in 1752. The work is illustrated by plates printed in three colours, by Jacques Gautier-Dagoty (1716-1785) using the technique developed by the Frankfurt painter Jacob Christoph Le Blon who had invented it in 1719, using Newton’s theory of colours. Musée d’imprimerie de Lyon

Traité des maladies vermineuses dans les animaux by Chabert. Printed by the Imprimerie Royale in 1782 this is illustrated by plates by Édouard Gautier-Dagoty printed in four colours, learned by his father. Musée d’imprimerie de Lyon

The Museum has a very busy programme of activities and events – the programme for 2012-2013 runs to more than forty pages. When we visited, a most attractive exhibition had just opened on the printing and graphic design connected with the transatlantic passenger liners, from menus, programmes of entertainment offered to passengers, on-board newspapers and above all the publicity with the massive posters depicting the magnificent vessels that carried people to America in such style.

Transatlantiques, les imprimés des paquebots de légende. Poster for the exhibition, 19 April-1 September 2013. Musée d’imprimerie de Lyon

Transatlantiques, les imprimés des paquebots de légende. A selection of the exhibits. Musée d’imprimerie de Lyon

In the area around the rue Mercière many of the early printers had their workshops, including the Passage des Imprimeurs, which housed the workshop of Etienne Dolet. Printers trained in Lyon spread to all parts of Europe and beyond. The house of Fleury Mesplet, who was the first printer in Canada, has a plaque.

Passsage des Imprimeurs. On the left of the entrance a plaque commemorating Étienne Dolet (1509-1546), Lyon

Rue Merciére, plaque commemorating Fleury Mesplet, the first French printer in Canada, Lyon

Not far from Lyon is Trévoux, the capital of the semi-independent principality of Dombes, the printing press set up in the 17th century to print the works of the Counter-Reformation under the protection of the Duc de Maine. These included the influential Dictionnaire universel of Trévoux (1721), and the Journal de Trévoux, published from 1701 to 1762, which conducted polemics against Boileau, Voltaire and the collaborators on the Encyclopédie. The press was run by the Jesuits and fell into decline after the society was banned in France in 1762, but printing continued there until 1781.

The second printing office at Trévoux, built in 1724. The sign over the door reads: Imprimerie de S. A. S.

Copyright © Ian Maxted 2012
This page last updated 13 April 2014