Not quite a Proustian moment, as no madeleines were dunked in lime-flower tea, but the other day a friend with unexpected time on his hands in Belgium enquired of the world via Twitter what was interesting in Antwerp. Immediately, I was assailed by memory, and tweeted back ‘Plantin-Moretus house’ (which the spell-checker helpfully turned into ‘Planting Moretus house’).
Rather more than thirty years ago, we went en famille from Brussels to Antwerp – slightly apprehensively, as the car had refused to start a couple of days previously, and had been expensively towed to a garage and fixed. As we headed north on the A1 Snelweg (Fastroad = motorway), we became convinced that something was very wrong – the steering wheel had become completely unresponsive, and I was torn between begging Him Indoors to just stop (one couldn’t pull off) and yelling at the children in the back to get into the brace position. It turned out that the problem was not with the car but with the road – the surface of the inside lane was so deeply rutted by heavy lorry wheels, that once in, one couldn’t get out. Eventually, by a heroic effort, Him Indoors wrenched us out and into the middle lane, where all was smooth and calm.
Anyway, having got to Antwerp without further trauma, we parked and set off, our strategy being to see Rubens’ house, the Plantin-Moretus house, and the cathedral (the latter if time allowed, which sadly it didn’t). The accompanying tactics (well tried) consisted of frequent breaks for ice cream and/or waflen to keep the younger members of the party quiet.
I have long been ambivalent about the works of Sir Peter Paul Rubens, diplomat and painter, but I would have had no trouble at all living in his house, with its lovely garden. He began building it after his first marriage to Isabella Brant in 1609, and the courtyard style was apparently based on Italian models, though the façade facing the street, with its stepped gables, is unequivocally Flemish.
Interestingly, after Rubens’ death, his second, much-painted, wife, Helena Fourment (whose portrait in a wide black hat probably inspired Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun) rented the house to the exiled William Cavendish, duke of Newcastle and his wife Margaret, writer, philosopher and natural scientist, until they returned to England at the Restoration. In 1937 the city bought the house, and after extensive refurbishing, and interruptions by war, it was opened as a museum in 1946.
Similarly, but earlier, in 1876, a descendant of the Moretus family sold the Plantin-Moretus building, encompassing the family home and the world-famous printing works, to the city: it was opened to the public a year later, and since 2005 has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the features that makes the place a Mecca for scholars of typography is that, possibly out of family piety, the firm kept its ancient stocks of type while other printers discarded theirs as fashions changed in later centuries. Catalogued by the great Oxford typographer Harry Carter, the fonts (and punches and matrices) provide a unique resource for anyone interested in the history of printing.
Christophe Plantin (c. 1520–89) was French, probably born in the village of St-Avertin, near Tours. He was apprenticed as a bookbinder in Caen, Normandy, and married there, but in 1548 he left his shop in Paris for Antwerp, possibly because of an accusation of heresy (though fleeing to the Spanish Netherlands in such circumstances seems a frying-pan/fire solution?). He apparently flourished there, becoming a citizen and member of the Guild of St Luke, but he received an injury to his arm (he was attacked in the street, an unfortunate case of mistaken identity) which limited his scope as a bookbinder, for which you needed (and still need) to be very strong.
He turned to a (slightly) less muscular aspect of the book trade: typesetting and printing. He imported type from Paris, and published many books in Latin, French and Italian as well as Dutch, with a strong humanist list and the additional attraction of illustrations by Dutch engravers. His masterpiece was undoubtedly the Polyglot Bible, produced with the financial backing of Philip II of Spain, and overseen by the Spanish theologian Benito Arias-Montano.
This work in eight volumes, published between 1568 and 1573, used Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac and Greek fonts, and each version of each book of the Bible has its own individual translation into Latin. (The Hebrew fonts were provided by descendants of the famous Antwerp-born printer Daniel Bomberg, who made his home in Venice and printed, inter alia, the Baylonian Talmud.) The project nearly bankrupted Plantin, in spite of the notoriously parsimonious king’s support, but was a good move politically, as there had been renewed rumours about his heretical tendencies. However, it did not save him when the Spanish sacked Antwerp in 1576 (it was called the Spaanse Furie, ‘Spanish Fury’), and his presses and fonts had to be ransomed back at ruinous expense.
Plantin moved to Leiden in 1583 at the invitation of the rectors of the newly founded university; by this time he also had an office in Paris. He left the Antwerp business to his two sons-in-law, Johann Moerentorf and Frans van Ravelingen (Latinised as Moretus and Raphelengius respectively). Two years later, as a element of political stability returned to the Low Countries, he swopped places with Raphelengius (who also became professor of Hebrew at Leiden), and continued to work in Antwerp until his death in 1589, at which point Moretus took over the business, which remained in his family’s hands, with all the archives, the presses, the punches, matrices and fonts, until 1876.
The museum, at the sign of the Golden Compasses on the Vrijdagmarkt (Friday market) street, is quite wonderful. A combination of factory, bookshop and middle-class family home, with a courtyard in the traditional Flemish style, it contains not only the presses and the fonts, but also the books: not just the house’s own publications, including the Polyglot Bible, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum of Ortelius, and Rembert Dodoens’ Cruydeboeck (Herbarium),
but also other great printing achievements of the period including Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica, as well as paintings and engravings (it has one of the best print collections in the world) by Plantin’s friends and contemporaries, and members of the later family circle, including Rubens).
I’m not in general much of a moocher round antique shops, charity shops and car boots, but the Arthur Rank Hospice Shop on Regent Street, Cambridge, is a good source of wool, and while stocking up there one day I was thrilled to see these four prints of the Plantin-Moretus House, which I instantly bought, and eventually got around to having re-framed. I can’t entangle the engraver’s initials/colophon – a C and perhaps an E are involved…?
But if you find yourself with a few hours to spare in Belgium, you now know what to do!