Friday, April 11, 2014

Antwerp and the printed page

I returned to N.B. last week after a trip to the Netherlands and Belgium.  Our stay in the city of Antwerp was a high point of the holiday, and not just for the pleasures of dark chocolate and Trappist beer. The real treat was a visit to the Plantin-Moretus Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Facade of the Plantin-Moretus Museum

Plantin-Moretus courtyard
In 1576 Christophe Plantin, an immigrant from France, set up his printing business and residence in a large building on the Vrijdag Markt.   He employed over 70 workers in the firm, producing books, music and maps of the highest quality.  At a time when political upheaval and religious conflict interfered with trade and censorship was strictly enforced, Plantin built a solid reputation as Europe`s finest printer.   Above the door to the museum an inscription in stone spells out his ranking: "First printer to the king, and the king of printers."

It was not an easy climb to success. Spanish forces raided Antwerp in November of 1576, (Sack of Antwerp, or the Spanish Fury) just when Plantin was establishing his business.  The violent attack claimed over 7000 lives and destroyed the Antwerp cloth trade.   "Nine times did I have to pay ransom to save my property from destruction," Plantin wrote.  "It would have been cheaper to have abandoned it."

He persevered, expanded distribution and produced editions of Latin classics, botanical studies, anatomy charts, dictionaries and textbooks.  Though he was not a Catholic, Plantin managed to secure an exclusive contract for printing all liturgical books for Spain and its colonies.  His greatest achievement was the printing of the Antwerp Polyglot Bible, an eight-volume work translated into five languages: Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac.  The project was partially financed by King Philip II of Spain, but in the end almost drove Plantin to bankruptcy.

"Biblia Polyglotta" printed by Plantin Press 1568-1573

The extensive collection includes printing presses, engraved copper plates and typefaces dating from the late 16th to early 19th century, artifacts of a family business that operated for 200 years. In addition to preserving much of the original equipment, the  museum holds an archive of meticulous accounting books, correspondence and inventory records.   When Plantin died in 1589 leaving five daughters but no male heir, his estate was willed to his son-in-law, Jan Moretus.   An injunction specified that Moretus, in turn, would leave the business to one of his sons chosen as the most capable manager.  The clause was followed by successive generations, until the last book was printed at Plantin Press in 1866.  A decade later, Eduardus Josephus Moretus sold the house and its contents to the city of Antwerp for use as a museum.  

Printing presses
A frotton made from dove skin, a leather which did not absorb ink
An engraving showing how the frotton was used to apply ink

Musical notation for printing scores
Botanical illustrations printed from woodcuts

Case of movable type

A page of poetry printed on an old press - crisp and flawless

Cases of type, many sets still in the original packages

Touring the dining room, bookstore, library and proof-reading chamber, one has the sense that connections with influential people, the leading artists, scholars, theologians, philosophers, translators and collectors from all across Europe, were made at Plantin Press. Artist Peter Paul Rubens, a good friend of Balthasar I Moretus, bought books here, accepted commissions to paint the Moretus family portraits and collaborated in the creation of several illustrated texts.

A rich resource for any historian, the Plantin-Moretus Museum details the technology and the beauty of  a dying art.  Kindle may be very efficient, but text on screen is no match for the perfectly printed page.

Plantin's extensive library
" I have more hope in posterity than in the current world population"  
- Christophe Plantin