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A Long Journey or False Imprint?

By Alba Malcangi |

The title of this blog was the first question that arose while analyzing a particular edition of Petronius’ classical work of fiction, the Satyricon. This edition came to my attention while enriching the USTC with links to recently digitized items from ProQuest’s Early European Books, as part of my summer internship. According to the title page, this octavo edition was published in 1610 by ‘Iohannes Bringerus’ for ‘Ioan. Theobaldi’ and printed in an uncommon place: Helenopoli (an ancient town located on the Gulf of Nicomedia, in Asia Minor).

I immediately questioned the imprint: surely this was not an edition from Helenopoli, so where did it come from?

USTC 2106709
Title page of USTC 2106709. Image courtesy of Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze (CFMAGL.03.03.128) via ProQuest.

A first clue was found in the metadata provided by ProQuest, where Trento was indicated as a possible place of printing. However, none of the printers’ names were listed in the Trento bibliography, Editori e Stampatori di Trento e Rovereto (ESTeR). Using the book’s title to search for the edition, I discovered that it was mentioned in the Dictionarium editionum tum selectarum tum optimarum auctorum classicorum et graecorum et romanorum. According to the Dictionarium, the Helenopoli edition was printed in Frankfurt and a reprint in octavo was released on the book market in 1621 with the actual printing place, by the very same printer, Johann Bringer. Bringer took over the print shop that belonged to Johannes Saur, whose business went bankrupt in 1608. After that, Bringer also acquired Hans Hendel’s workshop in 1611. When Bringer died in 1621 his widow carried on the business.

So, the actual printing place was found, but this discovery prompted a new question. Why did a printer in Frankfurt forge the printing place?

Today, the most famous episode from Petronius’ Satyricon is the Cena Trimalchionis (Trimalchio’s dinner) but this was found only in the mid-seventeenth century. Moreover, the Cena Trimalchionis was included in the revised editions of the Satyricon only after 1669. Nevertheless, we know that Petronius’ work enjoyed great popularity between 1596 and 1654 when seven original editions and fifteen reprints published in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland. The ancient author was highly appreciated in the early modern period not only for his capacity to create a subversive and innovative book but also because of the theatricality and the humour that made the Satyricon a unicum in the history of literature. On the other hand, because of its irreverent tone, Petronius’ work was severely criticized. The Helenopoli edition was even listed in Novuus Librorum Prohibitorum et Expurgatorum Index, published in Spain during the reign of Philip IV, in 1632.

Given the Satyricon’s controversial status, one might assume that Bringer used a false imprint to create ambiguity surrounding the production of his edition and minimize his share of possible consequences. Or perhaps, a foreign imprint opened his work to a broader market, including Catholic countries where this work was forbidden (even if some were sold under the counter). However, Helenopoli was a little known alternative place name for centuries before Bringer printed his Satyricon. Most cite medieval scholar Johannes Trithemius as the first to propose that the name ‘Frankfurt’ was not the accepted etymology based on the Germanic tribe of the Franks, but was given after the city was taken by a Duke named Franc c.130 CE, replacing the older name Helenopolis. According to Trithemius’ myth, the city was initially named Helenopolis because it was founded by a refugee from the Trojan War. Unlike Rome’s origin myth, Trithemius claims that Helenopolis’ foundational refugee was Helenus, son of King Priam and twin brother of Cassandra. In other visions of this false etymology, the city was named for Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great and historian Ernst Erich Metzner suggests that name might be a misunderstanding of the German term ‘elenstat’ (old city). Regardless of the accuracy of these etymologies, etiological myths influence cultural and personal identities. It is fascinating that in bringing to market an edition of this contentious work of classic literature, Bringer employed an imprint that despite being lesser-known, tied his city to the most famous classical epic. When historians encounter false imprints, it is natural to assume that there is some amount of deception at hand, but for Bringer’s Satyricon, it seems more likely that he was trying to bring this ancient Mediterranean story closer to home.  


Alba Malcangi is a historical and philological undergraduate student at the University of Trento. She contributed to the digitization project “Del Concilio. Progetto di valorizzazione di fondi antichi delle biblioteche trentine”, about the enhancement of books from the Council of Trento. This summer she attended the USTC summer programme at the University of St Andrews.


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Featured image from Federico Fellini’s 1969 film adaptation of the Satyricon, via IMDB.