The theft of the grecs du roi

As guardian of the matrices of the grecs du roi, Robert Estienne took a complete set with him to Geneva. In 1569, Estienne's son Robert II, in recompense for his return to Paris and his rejection of the Protestant faith, was given the task of guarding the matrices. But they were soon lost in the upheavals of the Wars of Religion. Meanwhile in Geneva, Henri II, Estienne's other son, heavily in debt, pledged the matrices in his possession against 400 gold ecus.

Louis XIII, who was committed to restoring the royal authority, took a personal interest in the royal typefaces. His envoys negotiated the purchase of the matrices with Paul Estienne, Henri II's son, but a better offer from the British ambassador caused the initial negotiation to fall through. A royal order of 27 March 1619, at the request of the French clergy, solemnly called for the return of the matrices to France. Louis XIII sent a letter to the consul of the Republic of Geneva in support of his request. Finally, after a series of setbacks, the Greek matrices were returned to the Imprimerie Royale sometime after 1640.

Looking for the grecs du roi testifies to the throne's desire to have absolute control over how information and knowledge were distributed.

The discovery of the original punches appears to have taken place around the same time – they had been forgotten in a wooden "layette" in the Chambre des Comptes – and they too were handed over to the Imprimerie royale. This extraordinary series of events reveals the importance placed on the country's typographic heritage under the monarchy, as well as the chaos of the Wars of Religion and the scope of the conflict between Catholics and Protestants throughout the 17th century.

The project of the Romain du Roi under Louis XIV also represented a way of restoring the royal authority and pre-eminence in terms of printing. The cutting of a new set of Greek punches to accompany the romain du roi testifies to the throne's desire to have absolute control over how information and knowledge was distributed, in order to avoid, among other things, a repetition of the unfortunate episode of the grecs du roi. Even though his fonts were eclipsed by the romain du roi, the name of Garamond continued on. That of Robert Estienne, denounced as the "thief of the grecs", was permanently banned.

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