Christophe Plantin: the celebration of an Antwerp empire


Travel with us through the life of Christophe Plantin, who made Antwerp the hub of printing and left us the foremost museum on the subject in the world

500th birthday party

This weekend, the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp will celebrate the 500th anniversary of its founder’s birth. There’s free admission, activities for young and old, live performances and birthday cake.

It’s a festive tribute to one of the city’s most famous citizens and a key figure in the history of books and letters. Christophe Plantin was an influential bookseller and printer whose business instincts and political acumen resulted in a publishing empire that endured for centuries after his death. His legacy is the foremost museum of the printer’s art in the world.

Although the exact date is unknown, Plantin (pictured) is thought to have been born around 1520 in France, near Tours. He apprenticed to a bookseller in Paris and then trained as a bookbinder in Caen, where he met his wife. The couple later moved to Paris and started a business in 1545 selling books and lace.

Business savvy

Perhaps it was King Henry II’s persecution of booksellers suspected of distributing Protestant literature that inspired the young couple to move to the then relatively tolerant Low Countries. At that time, Antwerp was a prosperous commercial centre with an established printer’s trade and opportunities for ambitious entrepreneurs.

Religious conflicts would play a great role throughout Plantin’s career, shaping the political and economic landscape of the time and influencing the book market. It’s a hallmark of his business savvy that he was able to negotiate these dangerous currents and survive.

By 1550, Plantin was a poorter (free citizen) of Antwerp and part of the Guild of St Luke, whose members included bookbinders, printers and painters. Plantin started his printing business in 1555 after a serious injury prevented him from continuing his work as a bookbinder.

The initial capital investment probably came from a secret society with heterodox beliefs, the House of Love (Huys der Liefde), whose members espoused religious tolerance. Plantin would continue to tread a fine line between public adherence to Catholic orthodoxy and private Protestant sympathies throughout his life.

In 1562, while traveling on business, Plantin learned that some of his employees had run afoul of the authorities by printing a Calvinist pamphlet. He stayed in Paris for 18 months while the case was settled, and meanwhile his business holdings were sold at auction. Upon his return, he was able to buy back his presses and start again.

With the help of his new partners (most likely friends who had bought up his business interests in order to keep them safe), Plantin enjoyed his greatest success in the following years and expanded operations.

By 1575, Plantin had 20 presses, 80 employees and ran the largest printing operation in Europe

But again, politics intervened. In 1567, as the Dutch Revolt gathered steam and the Duke of Alva prepared to occupy Antwerp, his partners – all Calvinists – fled to the Netherlands.

Plantin could not afford to risk suspicion of Protestant sympathies. He came up with an ambitious plan to win favour with the staunchly Catholic Philip II, king of Spain and the Netherlands. He would print a scholarly edition of the Bible in five languages, the largest ever published.

Although Philip approved the undertaking, Plantin was forced to finance the print run himself when the king failed to make good on his promises.

His plan worked. By 1571, Plantin was architypographus (head printer) in Philip’s court and had an exclusive contract to print prayer books and other religious texts for Spain and all its colonies. By 1575, he had 20 presses and 80 employees and was running the largest printing operation in Europe.

Over the course of his 34-year career as printer, Plantin published about 2,450 titles. Of these, nearly 1,900 were books or other major publications, for an average of 55 per year.

That’s an impressive number even by today’s standards, and this was at a time when every letter had to be set by hand, every page printed one at a time. Most of his output consisted of religious and scholarly titles, as well as popular works like emblem books.

Then in 1576, disaster struck. Rioting Spanish troops swept through Antwerp, looting and destroying large parts of the city. Plantin’s presses only survived because he paid off the troops, but it was the start of Antwerp’s economic decline.

Antwerp joined the Dutch Revolt, and Plantin became the official printer to the States-General. But trade with Spain suffered, and the business never fully recovered.

Family run for three centuries

Still, by the time of Plantin’s death in 1589, his company had branches in Utrecht and Paris. They were run by family members, and the Officina Plantiniana in Antwerp was firmly in the hands of his daughter Martina and son-in-law Jan Moretus.

His descendants would continue to run the business clear until 1876, when the last owner sold the entire enterprise – with its buildings and all their contents – to the city of Antwerp.

The Plantin-Moretus Museum houses the oldest surviving printing presses in the world, as well as the company’s complete financial archive and an extensive library of manuscripts and early printed books. There is also an outstanding collection of original type as well as drawings, copperplates and woodblocks used for printing book illustrations.

As it was both their home and workplace, the complex also gives visitors a glimpse of what life was like for the prosperous Plantin-Moretus family in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Since 2001, the museum has been on the Unesco World Heritage List.

On 15 March, the museum will be free to visitors, with tours and workshops throughout the day. Outside the entrance to the museum, there will be musical stories, jazz, poetry readings, birthday cake and an evening lightshow projected onto the museum’s façade.

Special exhibitions

The celebrations continue throughout the year, with three exhibitions. Launching in April is Travelling with Plantin: En route in the 16th Century, in which visitors will follow in Plantin’s footsteps to Leiden, Paris and Frankfurt.

Then in October, an exhibition dedicated to the Nova Reperta opens. A fascinating series of 20 illustrations created by Bruges-born artist Johannes Stradanus, the Nova Reperta depicts industrial innovations and economic and social advancements that he clearly saw as being crucial to the period. The museum then explores the question of what we would present to the people of the 26th century as an example of what we found to be the most important advancement of our lifetimes.

A ‘mini-expo’ running at the same time peeks into Plantin’s personal letters to both friends and colleagues – the networking of the 16th century.

Photos, from top: Portrait of Christophe Plantin by Peter Paul Rubens (cropped), 1612-1616; Plantin and his descendants published some of the most significant books in European history, including the first Dutch-Latin dictionary, Etymologicum teutonicae linguae by Cornelis Kiliaan, 1599; the oldest printing presses in existence are at Plantin-Moretus Museum, photo by Ans Brys
©All images courtesy Plantin-Moretus Museum