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The pot cassé logo of Geoffroy Tory

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Geoffroy Tory Logo

As a long-time admirer of 16th-C French typographers, I have often wondered about the signification of Geoffroy Tory’s logo. He is said to have described the broken urn (pot cassé) as representing himself after the death of his young daughter (the urn is sometimes interpreted as that containing his daughter’s ashes, of doubtful symbolism given the obvious spillage and Tory’s sense of accuracy).

However, as often with Tory, perverse punsmith and wreaker of rebuses, there may be another side to the story. Tory was writing at an exciting time in western history, a period as creative, innovative and transformative – relatively – as today’s computer revolution. The Western discovery of printing and resulting bandwagon of type-casters and publishing was as anarchic as the Gatesian first-to-market rush. Tory’s sense of style and order, setting the stage for a future standard in which he, as printer, would also hold pole position with all its financial rewards, was not without commercial intent.

In his Champ Fleury (1529), Tiers Livre, folio XLIII, Tory gives part of the explanation…

The motto (the others need not concern us here), NON PLUS (observed interestingly by Tory as being both French and Latin), he quotes as Pittacus, but is apparently from an inscription at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Μηδὲν ἄγαν, and means “nothing in excess”, perhaps reflecting his usually simple typographical stylistics. So far so good.

The urn he describes as the bodily vessel of life, the rod or spindle is a toret, or a drill or device for piercing (the skull among other things) and since he designates it as Fatŭ which my very shaky Latin suggests might be a supine form of the obscure verb for, to speak or say, it could be another rebus reference to the word of God penetrating the human frame (or skull), or just as likely dog Latin for fate which, as he says, passes through strong and weak alike, and indeed perhaps knocking out his daughter and leaving a fractured Tory behind. A pot cassé also designates the bill one pays for damage caused by someone else; in this instance his suffering due to God’s cruelty? The flowers and sunlight represent the virtues and good deeds inspired by the warming rays of God’s good sun. Perhaps (and without any clear-cut evidence at all, I strongly suspect Tory of being a closet atheist), but toret is too close to Tory for things to be that simple.

Beneath, the book of life, closed and chained down by two ordinary padlocks and one combination lock, which is tantalizingly described in two ways: one hinting that the metaphorical book of life (experience, intelligence, learning?...) can only be opened by he who can work out the combination, in other words who can read (and what more important to a printer of books?); the other more mundane reader being God, whose legitimacy must have been sorely tested by his murdering Tory’s daughter. The chains and locks are the three Fates, or goddesses of death, in Greek Μοῖραι, the apportioners, with later Latin moira meaning a part or portion. Tory, a pedant like myself, liked to pile complications on top of red herrings and multilingual puns.

So my interpretation is this: I, Geoffroy Tory, hereby pierce (I couldn’t really get away with “shaft”) the printing profession by punching through the pot / vessel / collective wisdom and knocking a part or portion out, a worthless sherd, the dross. In Ancient Greece, an ostracon, or potsherd, was a broken piece of pottery upon which a name (usually the “bad guy”) was written to ballot the person off the island, to ostracize him, leaving the remaining body, despite the missing part, as that which is “whole” and good.

In other words, this (Champ Fleury) is how you do it (typography) and I’m the man.

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Guest Saturday, 07 December 2019
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