The Plantin Library

R. De Belser

Christopher Plantin was undoubtedly the greatest printer of his time and in the history of printing ranks among the few giant figures who have stamped the craft with the mark of their genius. When Plantin began his work in 1549, Antwerp held a place of honour in the history of printing in the Netherlands. The metropolis on the Scheldt had always been the intellectual capital of the Netherlands, and more than half of the books published in the Low Countries between 1500 and 1540 had been produced by Antwerp presses. Among the different styles of hooks handed down to us by the Flemish Renaissance, the works leaving the presses of Plantin bore the touch of typographical perfection. In theology nothing surpasses his Polyglot Bible; no work on geography is more beautiful than the atlas of Ortelius; in matters relating to botany nothing can be compared with Plantin’s herbals of Dodoens, Lobelius and Clusius; no work on philology excels his edition of Kilianus’ dictionary; no treatise on chorography could be edited in a fashion more luxurious than the historical-geographical description of the Netherlands by Guicciardini.

The greater number of these magnificent hooks, witnesses to the titanic scientific effort of that time, whether printed by Plantin or by bis contemporaries, are preserved in the richly stocked library of the founder of the Golden Compasses, and his successors, the Moretuses, added to the legacy of their great ancestor nearly the whole production of their time in the sphere of letters, art and science. Besides the numerous treatises on popular piety and the ascetic writings that were a speciality of Antwerp up to the beginning of the nineteenth century, most of the works written by such scholars as Lipsius, Baronius, Lessius and Cordelius during the reign of Albert and Isabella are found in the library. Moreover, a great number of hooks, printed between 1608 and 1645, show highly elaborate frontispieces designed by Rubens, who was the intimate friend of Balthasar Moretus I. Thus, the Plantin library, with its 20,000 volumes, became a storehouse of writings on the arts and sciences of past centuries. After all, Plantin’s famous printer’s device Labore et Constantia (By work and constancy) could as well have been Abundance and Quality.

Features of the collection

Among the hooks issued from the Plantin press one cannot pass over in silence the Biblia Regia or Biblia Polyglotta, as it is not only Plantin’s masterpiece, but at the same time the most important work ever produced in the Netherlands by one printer. This monumental theological work in eight large folio volumes comprises the complete Holy Writ in five languages (Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac and Chaldaic) with detailed and precious appendices (Hebrew, Chaldaic, Syrian, Greek grammars and vocabularies; studies on the measures, costumes and habits of the old Hebrews, etc.). Plantin undertook this work by order of Philip II who sent the celebrated Spanish theologian and orientalist, Arias Montanus, to Antwerp to superintend and direct the work that lasted four years, from 1568 to 1572. In the meantime, several other ecclesiastical works were made ready for the press, for in this field Plantin did not leave it at the edition of the Polyglot Bible. His relations with Philip II had procured him the monopoly for the sale of certain liturgical works in Spain and its colonies, and from 1572 onwards the newly appointed ‘King’s Proto-typographer’ sent tens of thousands of missals, breviaries, diurnals, psalters, antiphoners to Philip II, who busied himself with their distribution and sale in his territories. All of them were masterpieces of their kind and were widely sold outside Spain and her colonies.

But even the abundant production of these liturgical works and of many other bibles in various languages did not absorb Plantin’s energy completely. He still found the time, opportunity and capital necessary for the publication of a few of the best scientific and learned works of his time. His handbooks on botany became highly successful. In 1565 he reprinted Dodoens’s Historia frumentorum, which had previously been published by Jan van der Loe at Antwerp. The collaboration between Plantin and the celebrated Belgian botanist proved to be very fruitful: the Historia frumentorum was followed by the publication of several other works, the culmination of which was the Latin edition of Dodoens’s Herbal, brought out in 1583 under the title of Stirpiu Historiae Pemptades Sex. A great number of the 1,305 wood-engravings in this work, showing plants and herbs, appeared for the first time; yet another part had been used before in the editions of Van der Loe and was bought by Plantin in 1581 from the widow of Dodoens’s former printer. To the name of Dodoens should be added those of two other important botanists: Charles de l’Escluse or Clusius, whose collected works were published by the Plantin Press in 1601 under the title Rariorum Plantarum Historia, and Mathias de l’Obel or Lobelius, who spent a large part of his life in England before making Plantin’s acquaintance and entrusting him with the publication of his Plantarum seu stirpium historia (1576) and of a Flemish edition of this work, which appeared in 1581 under the title of Kruydtboeck.

The Plantin Press also played a distinguished part in the field of geography and cartography by supplying numerous maps and atlases not only for the local market, but also to customers abroad. About 1540 the Southern Netherlands overtook Italy and Germany in this line and maintained an international reputation through scholars such as Gemma Frisius, Mercator and Ortelius until 1590. Abraham Ortelius, one of the principal founders of modem geographical science, was an intimate friend of Plantin and of Jan Moretus. From the year 1558 his business connections with them were continuous, and, beginning in 1577, the Officina Plantiniana published a great number of atlases and other geographical works of the great cosmographer. His greatest work, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1579), went through many editions in different languages, as did the Epitomes that alternated with this impressive atlas.

Gerard Mercator, the greatest name in geographical science since Ptolemy, is represented in the collection of the Museum by, among other things, the only copy known of his Map of Flanders (1540) and by his famous map-collection in three volumes, the Tabulae geographicae, the first part of which was published in 1585, the second one in 1590, both in Duisburg. In this work, that rejoiced in no less than forty-six editions, the denomination ‘atlas’ was used for the first time. Plantin himself never published any of Mercator’s atlases; as a matter of fact the collaboration between the master-printer and the celebrated cartographer confined itself to the sale of globes and to the edition of Mercator’s map of Europe of 1572.

Among other interesting features of the geographical collection in the Plantin House the Speculum Orbis Terrarum (1578) by Gerard de Jode, the publication of which the author took into his own hands, especially deserves our attention. Although it was a remarkable and fine atlas, in some instances even superior to those of Ortelius, it was obviously boycotted by the latter and his powerful friends.

For the sake of completeness we cannot omit mentioning cither Haeyen’s very rare Amstelredamsche Zee-caerten, which Plantin brought out in Leiden in the year 1585, or the 17th-century Dutch atlases by Blaeu and Jansson.

In the lexicographical field Plantin was once more privileged to have at hand a first-rate philologist in the person of his principal corrector Cornelis Kiel, or Kilianus. The Plantin Library possesses a copy of the second augmented edition of Kilianus’ Dictionarium teutonico-latinum (1st ed., 1574; 2nd ed., 1588) that shows marginal annotations and corrections made by the author for a third edition. In 1572 Plantin had already given evidence of his special interest in philological science by publishing his well-known Thesaurus Teutonicae linguae. This work, being the first dictionary of the Dutch language, was compiled on the typographer’s own initiative. ‘This dictionary,’ he said, ‘will reveal to everyone the riches of this language, hitherto looked upon as poor.’

The Belgian surgeon André Vesal or Andreas Vesalius wrote the explanatory text to the magnificent series of anatomical plates engraved on copper by Pierre Huys, after Juan de Valverda, and published by Plantin in 1566 under the title Vivae Imagines Partium Corporis Humani. This Latin edition of the most important anatomical work of the Renaissance was followed in 1568 by a Flemish translation: Anatomie, of levende beelden van de deelen des menschelicken lichaems. The manuscript of a Spanish edition, planned but never printed, is also preserved in the Plantin-Moretus Museum. It is to the Vivae Imagines that David van Mauden, reader in anatomy at Antwerp, subjoined the first scientific work on anatomy written in Flemish: the Bedieninghe der Anatomien (Plantin, 1583).

Between 1576 and 1582, in spite of the difficult years of war, important works still left Plantin’s presses. Among these, mention should be made of several notable music-hooks, the cream of which were the monumental Masses of Georges de la Hèle, published in 1578 under the title VII Missae, quinque, sex et septum vocum. These masses were composed from the leading motives of Orlando Lassus, C. de Rore, Th. Crequillon and Josquin des Prés. The woodcuts of the beautiful capital letters which Antoon van Leest engraved for this work still form a part of the collections of the Museum. During the same period appeared the interesting historico-geographical description of the Netherlands by Guicciardini (1581), numerous studies by the great humanist and Plantin’s intimate friend Justus Lipsius, new editions of the emblem-books of Alciati, and scores of other hooks of this kind.

The Plantin Library contains not only Plantin and Antwerp works, but also a good deal of foreign printing. Visitors of the museum can admire in one of the showcases the pearl of a collection of about 150 incunables: the only copy known in Belgium of the 36-line Gutenberg Bible. The Elsevier Press is also well represented, with some 100 titles, not to forget about fifty works issued from the Manutius Press at Venice, more than sixty printings of the Estienne family, and beautiful editions by Bodoni, Didot, Jenson, Koberger, Zell and others. The Plantin House also acquired, in 1953, a unique collection of French literature of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries: 1,050 hooks in all, most of them being original or rare editions, bound in equally rare and precious de luxe bindings by renowned modern bookbinders such as A. Bauzonnct, F. Cuzin, Ch. De Samblanx, M. Lortic, A. Simier, G. Trautz and J. Weckesser. It was Max Horn, a Belgian bibliophile, who bequeathed this marvellous collection to the Plantin-Moretus Museum.

To conclude this survey, a few words about the department of manuscripts, composed of some 500 volumes. In order to edit the classical authors and the liturgical works as correctly as possible, Plantin and his successors, and in particular Balthasar Moretus I, spared no time, trouble or money to procure the old manuscripts dealing with these subjects. That is the reason why the visitor to the museum can today be shown a magnificent series of manuscripts, extending from the ninth to the sixteenth century. These are interesting for the history and development of script, as well as for the study of manuscript illumination. Many of these manuscripts have, moreover, an indisputable intrinsic value for the textual study of old authors. An incomparably rich manuscript is the Bible of King Wenceslas of Bohemia, dating from 1401-1402 and representing one of the most striking specimens of the art of the Czech miniature-schools in their most glorious period. The illumination of this superb Latin Bible was ordered by Conrad de Vechta, mint-master at Kuttenberg (Kutná Hora) in Bohemia, and was intended for the Emperor-King Wenceslas, whose insignia, the halcyon, appears on the first page. Of equal importance is the Chronicle of Froissart in three volumes, the frontispieces of which show wonderful examples of the Flemish fifteenth-century miniature-art. Apart from a less spectacular series of books of hours and examples of Gothic writing, the Museum glories in two early, well-preserved manuscripts: Boethius’ De·consolatione philosophiae and Sedulius’ Carmen Paschale, both dating from the ninth century and showing very good examples of the Carolingian script; and a fifteenth-century copy of De la Vraye Amitié, de la Veillesse et ses Offices by Cicero, translated into French by the monk Laurent de Premierfaict for the Duke Jean de Berry, son of the King of France (1340-1416), and for Louis, Duke of Burgundy, uncle of the king.

The last part of the library is occupied by the rich record collection. These records have proved themselves to be an inexhaustible mine of information for the history of the- Plantin printing-house, of the art of printing in general, and even of the economic, social and cultural life of the Low Countries.

This summary and incomplete survey can of course give but a poor idea of all the treasures to be found in the Plantin Library at Antwerp. Nevertheless, we hope that it will induce the booklover to concern himself more closely with the history and collections of the Plantin­ Moretus Museum, this ‘monument to the erudition and taste of generations of craftsmen’ as Colin Clair paraphrases it in the epilogue to his excellent book on Christopher Plantin.

The Plantin Library is housed in the Plantin-Moretus Museum, Vrijdagmarkt 22, Antwerp, and is administered by the City of Antwerp. We are grateful to the Museum authorities for permission to reproduce the photograph of the Great Library shown in this issue.

Quarterly Journal of the Private Libraries Association, London, 1963.