Plantin-Moretus Museum

I recently spent a great day at the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp, which I highly recommend if you ever have an opportunity to go there.

During our discussions at Warwick I began to think more about the editorial role of the printer/publisher, and my visit to this museum enhanced my understanding of it. Christophe Plantin was a good businessman living during a time of religious and political upheaval. He likely had Calvinist sympathies and even spent some time out of the country to avoid Spanish authorities. When he returned to Antwerp, he set to work building up his business by publishing an edition of the Bible in eight volumes and five languages — Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac:

It was financed by Philip II, with scholarly direction by Philip’s own chaplain. After this, Plantin was granted a monopoly to publish liturgical works, and his business took off. (All this information is from the museum’s written information and audio guide.)

Three things strike me in relation to this story: first, the skills and knowledge needed to print such a work at all. Plantin needed to make or otherwise acquire type in all the different alphabets used in this text. He also needed the help of scholars at all stages of the printing process, from writing out the text to correcting proofs. Plantin had an entire room dedicated to proofreading, with a large table (right) at which scholars sat all day, poring over proofs and inserting corrections:

These scholars were often established members of their field who had a strong background in the texts Plantin published and the languages in which he published them. The early modern printer’s establishment was therefore often a site of scholarly engagement.

Second, this story illustrates well the importance of books as material objects. Plantin started his career as a book binder, turning relatively undistinguished printed pages into objects that reflected the status of their owners. Books can be read, of course, but they also sit on shelves in a library to be admired by visitors, their cultural importance and signifying power resting not only in their content but also in their material presence in a physical space:

With regard to the Bible in five languages, it seems to me that the real importance of the book must have lain less in its content than in its physical presence, symbolic power, and royal patronage. Would many people have sat down to read it? Perhaps not. But anyone who came into contact with it would have been impressed by the skill of the printer and the political and cultural status conferred on it by its patron.

Finally, this story emphasizes the business aspect of printing: if a printer wanted to be successful, political and monetary considerations must be the overarching concern. Personal conviction, even in the area of religious belief, might have to be sacrificed. Another example of this: Plantin printed several books that ended up on the Index, the list of books prohibited by the Catholic Church. He also printed the Index itself:

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