Antwerp: A Must for Book Lovers!

Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau

If Gutenberg invented printing in 1450, it is Christophe Plantin (1520-1589) who set up the first industrial printing facility in 1555: the Officina Plantiniana in Antwerp. Autodidact, printer, publisher, manager, businessman, humanist, the Frenchman established a renowned publishing house that grew fast into a multinational with subsidiaries in Leiden and Paris. For about 300 years, the Plantin-Moretus’ had been on the forefront of publishing, and the family house has since then been turned into a wonderful museum where one can understand the process of printing, follow in the footsteps of the humanists, admire world’s oldest printing presses, marvel at Rubens’ portraits and at some precious books such as the Biblia Regia by Plantin and one of the few remaining Gutenberg Bibles in this UNESCO World Heritage Site, world’s first museum being awarded this status.

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Christophe Plantin arrived in Antwerp from Tours, France when he was 30. He selected the city for its trade predominance, availability of the needed materials for printing and excellent craftmanship. Plantin selected religious texts of reference that were very much sought after in the northernmost Catholic city of the time. In the sixteenth century, publishing bibles was highly lucrative: Catholic theologians were constantly revising the text in the light of new scholarship. Whoever could print the most recently approved version first would make the most profit, and Plantin dominated the Bible market, printing in various book sizes and languages on high quality paper in his busy workshop with 16 printing machines and no less than 50 employees!

The book design of the Officina Plantiniana was unrivalled, and high-quality books were sent throughout Europe.

One of the differentiators of the printing house was its fonts: Plantin bought his letter sets from the best designers of the day, such as Robert Granjon (who set the bases for the modern Times New Roman), Claude Garamond and Hendrick van den Kreere. At the end of his life, he possessed 90 different fonts: completely unheard of at the time! And to prevent other printers from using his exclusive letter types, Plantin bought the punches and matrices too, making it the wealth of his company.

Beyond the religious publications, the activities of the Officina Plantiniana coincided with a period during which scholars of the Low Countries played a significant role in the development of Western thinking. Always with an eye on the list of books forbidden by the Catholic Church, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the publishing house was paramount in spreading these ideas. As a humanist believing in the social relevance of books and the importance of education (his daughters were versed in reading and writing, and involved in the family business), Plantin chose his authors carefully, and his successors kept doing so. With no heir, his employee and son-in-law Jan Moretus (1543-1610) took over: the Plantin-Moretus family was established.

It is only the third generation, the one of Balthazar Moretus that invested in something else than the printing business, and gentrified the house: childhood friend of Rubens, he commissioned many family portraits to the master of Antwerp, establishing an elegant mansion of wealthy Antwerp citizens with 30 rooms and a lovely courtyard. Tapestries, dark and sturdy wood beams and precious carvings, luxurious furniture, paintings above richly decorated chimneys in every room, globes, musical instruments are still showcased today in the museum.

The printing process

If today editing a typo, changing a letter type or adapting its size is a matter of seconds, the printing process used to be a lot more cumbersome!

Once the book was selected and the agreement struck with its author, it all started by choosing the letter type and size (of course, every letter was first carved by hand and polished nicely in order to create a mould to be able to create new letter blocks). Then, the letters were arranged in mirror image by the typesetters, well-aligned and secured on the printing plate. The printer put ink on the printing plate, inserted the paper on top and rolled it into the press. This could be repeated about 2,500 times a day, democratizing books hence knowledge. Bibles were definitely the best sellers, and song books, almanacs and travel stories became popular to read at home.

However, before the actual printing could start, proof-readers studied the templates. Often mastering five languages or more (Dutch and French, often Spanish, Italian, Greek and Latin, and sometimes Hebrew and Aramaic), they would carefully read every word to catch any potential mistake and correct it before pressing.

On the other hand, book illustrations required a whole different skillset. They were often carved out in wood, or sometimes etched or engraved – a more expensive process that produced finer lines and slighter black and white nuances – that Plantin, by his search for perfection pushed the whole profession to use.

“With hard work, perseverance and patience, one is able to surmount any hardship.”

Christophe Plantin

Insider’s tip!

If the Plantin Moretus Museum is definitely a must, every book lover should also visit the The Nottebohm Room while in Antwerp. Part of the Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library, it is one of the most beautiful and oldest libraries in Belgium.

It all started back in 1481 as one of the first libraries for civil servants, gathering mostly law books. This initial collection of 41 books however was burnt down during the Spanish fury, but the city of Antwerp decided to continue the library. A collaboration with the Plantin-Moretus publishing house became paramount to the project: a copy of every book published there was given to the library to form an eclectic collection.

The Nottebohm Room dates back to 1881. As it was impossible for the library to keep gathering volumes of books, it specialized in unique books. To honour the intellectual heritage of Hendrik Conscience who advocated for Dutch in French-language-dominated-nineteenth-century Belgium, the library focuses on:

  1. Dutch and Flemish literature inc. Afrikaans,
  2. history of Antwerp, Flanders and the Netherlands,
  3. book printing history,
  4. cultural topics.

The first 140,000 books of today’s collection of more than 1.5 million (!) are still carefully kept in this atmospheric room, along with majestic celestial and terrestrial globes and a precious 3,500-year-old Egyptian scroll.

Travel tips:

  • The Plantin Moretus Museum is not only the first museum to be awarded the UNESCO World Heritage Site status, it is also one of the only places in the world being a World Heritage Site as well as being recognized by the UNESCO as “Memory of the World”. Needless to say: a must-visit!
  • The Nottebohm Room can only be visited during exhibitions.
  • To ease your trip, Visit Antwerp sells an Antwerp City Card that includes entrance to the Platin Moretus Museum, as well as public transport.
  • For a great location and comfortable stay, the 4-star Hotel Rubens Grote Markt is ideal to explore Antwerp!
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!

For more highlights of Antwerp & Belgium, click on the images below:

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