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May 18, 2012

Christopher Plantin of Antwerp

Ruebens Plantin Blog.jpg

The Department of Special Collections begins a series of postings highlighting the great printers and publishers with Christopher Plantin of Antwerp. Plantin turned Antwerp into the most important center for book production during the second half of the 16th century and he is one of the greatest names in the history of publishing. Born in France around 1520, he learned the printing trade in Paris at the time the work of the printers of France reigned supreme. He settled in Antwerp in 1549 and set up a business as a book binder and bookseller. Antwerp was an attractive location because of its prosperous printing trade known for producing quality work. Plantin's career as a book binder came to a premature end when his right arm was injured when he was attacked by a band of drunken men who mistook him for someone else.

The Plantin Press was established in 1555 and issued as its first work the Institution d'une Fille de Noble Maison. Soon after he established his printing establishment he surrounded himself with a group of scholars, linguists and engravers. By 1576 there were 22 presses in operation. This was production on a massive scale compared to the average printing shop of the day which employed two to six presses at most. The Biblia regia, a massive, eight volume polyglot Bible produced between 1568 and 1573 in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac and Aramaic, is considered to be Plantin's masterpiece. It was to be financed by King Philip II of Spain but he never supplied the funds he had promised and as a result Plantin was nearly financially ruined by the venture. This same Philip appointed Plantin court printer in 1570 and named him supervisor of all Dutch printing.

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During his lifetime Plantin produced nearly 2000 titles at the sign of the Golden Compass and published in a wide variety of subjects including the classics, Bibles, dictionaries, medical books and emblem books. He also advanced the process of music printing and published the work of contemporary Dutch and Flemish botanists, geographers and cartographers. Plantin's types were French and he purchased types and strikes at the sales of Simon Colines' and Garamond's material. He commissioned Robert Granjon to design several series of types and engaged Guillaume Le Bé for his Hebrew type. Plantin employed more type cutters in his foundry attached to the printing house. The works of the press influenced trends in book illustration of the time. Plantin's establishment was the one chiefly responsible for spurring the popularity of the extravagant engraved copper plate title pages that spread over Europe (For more on this subject see: Christopher Plantin and Engraved Book Illustrations in Sixteenth-Century Europe. Karen L. Bowne and Dirk Imhof. Cambridge ; New York, N.Y. : Cambridge University Press, 2008). The famous device used on his title pages after 1557 consists of a compass that is usually held by a disembodied hand in a circle which is accompanied by his personal motto "Labore et Contantia," By labor and constancy. The device also incorporated elaborate borders, foliage, human and animal figures, and architectural shapes which were subject to frequent change.


Plantin headed one of the most prosperous business
establishments of the time that stretched as far as north Africa where his agents sold his Hebrew Bibles to the Jewish congregations. However, his life was far from easy. Early on, in the year 1562, he escaped to Paris. It is thought he feared for his life because he was a member of a secret sect called "The Family of Love" and indeed, since three Antwerp printers had been executed for heresy his fears were not unfounded. While he was away his worldly possessions were dispersed and auctioned off including some of his printing presses, type and books. He was able to return two years later with his name cleared. For ten years the fate of the polyglot Bible, which nearly ruined him, languished as the theologians of Salamanca tried to have it placed on the Index librorum prohibitorum (List of Prohibited books). There was concern that problems would arise if the Bible fell into the hands of the lay people. After Antwerp was sacked by Spanish soldiers during the revolt of the Netherlands the resources of Plantin's establishment were severely diminished but he built up again during the ensuing period of peace and prospered. In 1583 he left Antwerp again and worked as printer to the university in Leiden until 1585. His sons-in-law Francis van Ravelingen (Raphelengius) and Jan Moerentorff (Moretus) kept the establishment operating in his absence.

Plantin died in 1589, the year after the defeat of the great Spanish Armada by the British, and was buried in Antwerp Cathedral. His printing establishment was carried on by his son-in-law Jan Moretus and his heirs until the nineteen century. In 1866 the press issued its last work and the business was shut down. The unique materials that had been accumulated over the centuries were kept and the building was made into the Plantin-Moretus Museum. The city of Antwerp acquired the museum in 1876 which remains a place of pilgrimage today.

Our featured work from the Plantin Press is a book of martyrs published in 1589, the second edition of Martyrology Romanum: ad novam Kalendarii rationem, et ecclesiasticae historiae veritatem restitutum / Gregorii XIII. Pont. Max. iussu editum. Accesserunt notationes atque tractatio de Martyrologio Romano: auctore Caesare Baronio Sorano. Below is the engraved frontispiece page and title page with Plantin's device.

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To view the latest list of Plantin titles identified in the Special Collections rare book holdings search author "Plantin, Christophe ca. 1520-1589" in Euclid Plus.

Image 1 above: Portrait of Plantin by Peter Paul Ruebens painted between 1612 and 1616 after a 1584 portrait from the Wikimedia Commons
Image 2 above: Plantin Device from the Pitts Theological Digital Image Archive
Image 3 above: Printing presses at the Plantin-Moretus Museum, World Heritage Sites web page

For more information contact the Department of Special Collections at the Kelvin Smith Library at 216-368-0189

Posted by mxb19 at May 18, 2012 07:15 PM

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