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Plantin-Moretus Museum

Acceptance Remarks of Dr. Francine de Nave for the Plantin-Moretus Museum and the Municipal Printroom

“The Plantin-Moretus Museum: A Synthesis of its History, Treasures, Accomplishments, and Goals for the Future”

Ladies and Gentlemen:

As coordinating manager and director of the Plantin-Moretus Museum / Municipal Printroom, it is my pleasure to be with you this afternoon. I am very honored by your kind invitation to accept in person your highly esteemed Annual Award, which you have bestowed this year on the Plantin-Moretus Museum on the occasion of its 125th anniversary. I think that it is appropriate to mark this exceptional event by informing your very honorable company about the institution that you have distinguished, the Plantin-Moretus Museum, although many of you are probably familiar with it. Thus, in the following speech I will address three topics: 1) the museum’s history; 2) its treasures and collections; and 3) its significance, accomplishments, and goals for the future.

1. The Museum’s History
Around 1440, Johannes Gensfleisch, alias Gutenberg, devised the means of printing with movable type in the western world. This process resulted in the first technical revolution that would help define the modern world. Within fifty years, this revolution swept through Europe, completely changing the diffusion and development of learning, sciences, knowledge of the economy, and intellectual life. Thanks to the new fabrication of books, knowledge that had previously been handed down and distributed through manuscripts could now be recorded in printed form in much greater quantities and at a lower price, thereby allowing it to be disseminated throughout broader levels of society. The rise of Humanism, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and, two centuries later, the Enlightenment and the start of Democracy would not have been possible without the invention of printing. In other words, Gutenberg’s means of printing started the democratization of knowledge. His invention is, therefore, a milestone in history that changed the world. As one of the most important economic regions of Europe for typography, the practice was quickly taken up in the Low Countries by 1473. Eight years later, in 1481, Mathias van der Goes printed the first book in Antwerp.

By the mid-sixteenth century, Antwerp’s aura as a center for book production and the largest center for trade and the exchange of capital to the north of the Alps enticed the French bookbinder and leather craftsman, Christopher Plantin (Saint Avertin, near Tours, ca. 1520 – Antwerp, July 1st, 1589) to immigrate there from Paris. Registered as a citizen of the city on March 21st, 1550, Plantin wanted to establish himself as a printer. It took five years, however, before he gathered the necessary financial resources. The funds were probably provided by the heterodox sect “The House of Love”, which was interested in starting up a Press in the tolerant city of Antwerp for the distribution of the writings of its leader, Henrik Niclaes. Once he had the necessary capital, Plantin, who was then about thirty-five years old, started his printing and publishing career in 1555. Exceptionally intelligent and no less dynamic, as indicated by the motto he adopted in 1557, “Labore et Constantia”, Plantin developed an excellent reputation and created a modern integrated business, the “Golden Compass”, which, by ca. 1567, had become the most important Press in the world. Between 1568 and 1573, Plantin completed his masterpiece, the “Biblia Regia”, which was printed in five languages–Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Syrian, and Chaldean or Aramaic–in eight folio volumes and was also provided with extensive commentaries and dictionaries beyond the text editions themselves. It was the largest polyglot bible produced in the sixteenth century and the biggest typographical undertaking by a single printer in the Low Countries. With this project, Plantin achieved the pinnacle of his career and his workshop flourished as never before, not only as a printing house, but also as a major humanist center in the western world.

With no less than 16 printing presses and 80 employees (20 typesetters, 32 printers and 3 proofreaders, in addition to domestic personnel and sales staff) the Officina Plantiniana was the biggest printing–publishing business and bookshop of its time and had an international clientele.

Through its internationally distributed production, which was superior visually and in terms of the quality of its contents, the Officina Plantinianacame to dominate the trade of books as far away as the Americas, North-Africa, and even in the Far East. The financial backbone of this capitalistic undertaking was the highly lucrative monopoly on the production and sale of liturgical and religious works for Spain and the Spanish colonies overseas, which Plantin, who had been named the royal printer on June 10th, 1570, had been granted by the Spanish king Philip II on February 1st, 1571. This trade with Spain declined after the Spanish Fury (Antwerp, December 4th-6th, 1576) and financial difficulties forced Plantin to begin working for those opposed to Spanish rule. In 1582, with the advance of Farnese and the impending siege of Antwerp, Plantin established another Press in Leiden. At the end of April 1583, as academic printer to the university (which he became on May 1st, 1583), he laid the foundations for academic publishing and book trade in the Dutch Republic. Nevertheless, he returned to Antwerp immediately after the capitulation of the city (on August 17th, 1585). Together with his son-in-law Jan Moretus I, he continued to re-build the Antwerp firm to such an extent that by the time he died on July 1st, 1589, it had become the most important printing-publishing business for the Counter-Reformation in the whole of the Low Countries.

Plantin’s enormous output in the course of his 34 years of activity–totaling ca. 2,450 titles, or an average of 72 editions a year–made him the first industrial printer in history. The quality of his production was always high, both in form and content. His output included religious (33.32%), humanist (35.47%), legal (1.65%) and historical (4.15%) publications, as well as musical scores and often pioneering studies in the field of geography (2.76%) and the sciences (7.37%)–botany, mathematics, astronomy, medicine and pharmacology, physics, and technology. As such, he was the first great publisher of Counter-Reformation literature and the most prolific printer of humanist, academic, and scientific publications of his time. In addition, however, he was also the most creative and productive printer–publisher of the second half of the sixteenth century and one of the greatest of all time. Moreover, his work also earned him a unique place in the development of typography as the first industrial printing entrepreneur in history. He consequently made a major contribution to the development of culture and book publishing and must thus be regarded as one of the great trailblazers of Western culture.

The credit for the continuance of the operations of Plantin’s enterprise into the second half of the 19th century must be given to the Moretuses. Following Plantin’s motto Labore et Constantia (“Through Work and Constancy”), Plantin’s descendants and successors, the Moretuses, were able to become the wealthiest residents of the city and its surroundings through rich marriages, business deals, and all manner of successful monetary speculations. Consequently, they were completely independent financially of their business income and enjoyed an opulent life-style once they entered the nobility in 1692. Nevertheless, the Moretuses continued to cherish and care for the old Plantin Press with all its treasures out of family piety until the last printer-entrepreneur of the Moretus dynasty, Edward Moretus, closed the book on three hundred years of printing on April 20th, 1876. To insure that the family estate should remain as the Plantin-Moretus Museum, the Officina Plantiniana, together with its buildings, grounds, and all its household effects, was sold to the city of Antwerp.

For a total sum of 1,200,000 BEF, including 230,000 BEF in the form of a government grant, the Plantin Press was preserved for future generations as the Plantin–Moretus Museum. The majority of the real estate (23/30th) became state property, while the moveable goods became part of Antwerp’s patrimony. As a result, the old Plantin House, still completely intact as a splendidly furnished mansion and fully equipped publishing and printing office, changed not only ownership but also purpose. After the completion of a number of alterations to accommodate museum visitors, the institution was opened to the public on August 19th, 1877.

2. Unique collections in a unique house: the treasures of the Plantin-Moretus Museum
The Plantin-Moretus Museum provides us with one of the finest examples of a stately patrician residence from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. However, the Plantin-Moretus Museum is known not only as such but is famous primarily as a unique fully equipped printing business preserved as it was in the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

The world-famous Plantin-Moretus Museum offers the only original examples of the technique of printing as it was practiced since the middle of the 15th century. Indeed, as a unique and harmonious combination of a patrician residence and business, the Plantin–Moretus Museum houses, in its original historic setting, an exceptionally rich and diverse typographical collection, unequalled in the world.

The focal point of this collection are the two oldest preserved printing presses in the world. Apart from these presses, dating from approximately 1600, there are no less than five Blaeu-type wooden printing presses from the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as a press for intaglio printing dating from 1714.

In the typographical collection the type founding equipment, principally from the 16th and 17th centuries, is well represented both in terms of quality and quantity. No fewer than 278 moulds, 4,477 punches and 15,825 matrices form the equipment needed for the production of around 80 different letter types, including Greek, Hebrew, Syrian, and Ethiopian styles of letters, in addition to the beautiful 16th-century civilité-letter, which Plantin introduced into the Low Countries. Without question, the Museum’s typographical collection is, for the 16th century, unequalled in the world.

In addition, the book illustration materials from the same period, comprising some 650 drawings, 2,846 copperplates, and 13,791 wood blocks, form not only a unique typographical collection but also an exceptionally rich art collection. In the collection of drawings, Antwerp’s greatest masters from the 16th and 17th centuries are represented, featuring in particular Pieter Paul Rubens, the universal genius who established Antwerp’s fame as a city of art forever.

Equally exceptional is the fact that the business and household archives are preserved here. Dating back to 1555 and comprising a nearly continuous series of records from 1563 to 1865, the more than 158 running meters of registers, bundles, and individual pieces provide an incredible wealth of detailed and accurate data. Consequently, the archives are an inexhaustible source for the study of the history of the book, as well as of the artistic, cultural, business, and socio–economic life of Antwerp and the Low Countries in particular, and of Europe in general. The archives of theOfficina Plantiniana are, therefore, more than an account of the fortunes of this large capitalist enterprise: they also reflect and are part of major European cultural currents. That is why this documentary heritage was included as the first Benelux entry–and one of the very few from Europe–on the UNESCO “Memory of the World” Register on September 4th, 2001, a distinction that was celebrated on November 30th, 2001, in the museum with the Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information of the UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization), Mr. Abdul Waheed Khan.

There is also the business’s production, which is housed in the old library. Established at the end of 1563 by Plantin as a working library for the Press, it was expanded by his bibliophile successors into a richly diversified private library. It is one of the very rare private book collections in the Low Countries that was built-up by one family and is preserved in its original surroundings! Due in part to the acquisition policies of the succeeding curators, it now contains some 25,000 volumes of early printed books and is exceptionally diverse in its holdings: 638 manuscripts (9th-16th centuries) and 154 incunabula (books printed before 1501), including the only copy of the 36 line Gutenberg Bible preserved in Belgium–this Bible was printed in Bamberg before 1461 with material that belonged to Johannes Gutenberg and possibly under his supervision. In addition, the library also contains a significant number of “post-incunabula” (books printed between 1501 and 1540) and is internationally regarded as the most complete single collection of Plantin and Moretus publications, as it contains more than 90% of their total production. In addition, it reflects the history of the art of printing and bookbinding in Antwerp from the late 15th century to around 1800 and constitutes one of the most important collections in this field.

Finally the unique and fully equipped workrooms –the type-foundry (1622), the printing office (1579), the proofreading room (ca. 1700), the book shop (ca. 1700), and the office (ca. 1576)– the like of which can be seen no where else in the world in their original state, give the Plantin–Moretus Museum its own, incomparable character.

3. A protected monument with a destination as a museum forever: the accomplishments and goals for the future of the Plantin-Moretus Museum
The exceptional character of the Plantin–Moretus Museum makes it the crown jewel among the museums of Antwerp and the most authentic attraction among the world’s typographical museums. Simultaneously, because of its unique collections and archives –exceptional the world over for records of a printing and publishing house from the middle of the 16th through the second half of the 19th century– the Plantin-Moretus Museum is today an important research center for the study of printing in Europe and the Low Countries in the 16th and 17th centuries and, naturally, for the production of the Officina Plantiniana in particular.

Because of its unique character and the immense value of its building and collections, the Plantin-Moretus Museum has been recognized as a cultural patrimony of exceptional value and was designated as a protected monument by a decree from July 10th, 1997, by the Flemish minister of culture. In order to insure the recognition of the whole as a museum, the Flemish Community transferred its ownership of the 23/30th part of the property to the city of Antwerp on December 2nd, 1998. One condition of this transfer requires the government of Antwerp to respect its designation as a museum forever. This was explicitly stated by the Board of Aldermen and the City Council in their decisions of October 2nd and November 24th, 1997. Consequently, the museum must be recognized as such.

In 1974, ICOM (International Council of Museums) adopted the following definition of a museum, namely, as “a permanent institution at the service of the community and her development, accessible to the public, not aimed at making benefits, acquiring the material testimonies of man and his environment, preserving them, doing research on them, showing and commenting on them for purposes of study, education and pleasure.” The Plantin-Moretus Museum tries to fulfill a stimulating and motivating social role on local, regional, and international levels. As the Plantin-Moretus Museum is one of the main tourist attractions of Antwerp with an average of 100,000 visitors a year, we wish to take up and fulfill its social responsibility in the coming years. In addition, we are determined to keep the institution’s extremely rich cultural patrimony, already preserved for more than four centuries, intact for future generations.

More than ever, a priority is being given to providing public services. This fundamental aim will largely take the form of improved access to the collections and archives via computer and in extending educational services, underpinned by an active exhibition policy.

Moreover, we wish to play a continuing role in the dissemination of knowledge of the old typographic and graphic techniques in the multimedia society of the future. Thus, aside from organizing workshops for students, we are working together with the graphic school of the Plantin Society, which combines knowledge of older techniques with the study of the very recent evolution of graphic and typographical technologies. The courses organized by this institution are financed entirely with the support of several companies in the area of Antwerp, in particular, the Agfa-Gevaert Company. As such, the Plantin Society is acting as an intermediary between the Plantin–Moretus Museum and the graphic industry. These courses also add a new dimension to the museum’s identity. While the museum collections and research based upon them necessarily remain restricted to typographical techniques from pre-1800, is it possible to examine the subsequent and most recent aspects of graphic arts and the industry around it in these courses, designed for an interested public. This combination of old and new can also generate new quality. For example, famous international letter designers search out letter types from the typographical treasures of the museum in order to polish them op for the digital area.

Through these activities, we wish to implement the fundamental objective of the Plantin–Moretus Museum, namely, to support the study of the development of the book and prints as one of the most fascinating aspects of European civilization and connect this with the newest realizations in the exploding field of communication technology. In the coming years, we at the Plantin-Moretus Museum hope to investigate the development of 16th and 17th-century book and print production, as culture-generating media technologies at work since the 15th century, by drawing upon the precious heritage of the old Officina Plantiniana and linking it to the most recent realizations in the exploding field of communication technologies. We will thereby give a new significance and meaning to the museum’s collections.

In this way, the Plantin-Moretus Museum, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, will maintain a true interaction with society through a contemporary, renewing, inventive, and interdisciplinary approach, which already has been praised as a model during the conference “Le livre exposé. Enjeux et methodes d’une muséographie de l’écrit”, organized in Lyon in November 1999 by the Council of Europe and ENSSIB (Ecole nationale supérieure des sciences de l’information et des bibliothèques).

Due to the exceptional importance of its patrimony and its great cultural value these many years, the Plantin–Moretus Museum was also recognized by the Flemish Minister of Culture on February 15th, 1999, and designated as a museum of international importance in the Flemish museum landscape.

Since 1997, the Plantin-Moretus Museum has also been recognized far beyond the Belgian borders, in particular, in the Far East by the Japanese Toppan Printing Company Ltd. in Tokyo, whose activities and reputation extend world-wide. This resulted in an agreement to work together on April 13th, 1999.

Today, the Plantin-Moretus Museum is the honored recipient of the highly esteemed Award that, since 1976, the American Printing History Association has been giving to an institution for “distinguished contributions to the study, recording, preservation, or dissemination of printing history”. It is my pleasure to accept this Award that following the UNESCO designation, is the second major contribution to the prestige of the Plantin–Moretus Museum in a very short time.

Thank you.

Dr. Francine de Nave 
Administrative coordinator and Director 
The Plantin-Moretus Museum and the Municipal Printroom, 
Antwerp, Belgium

Dr. de Nave is author of Het Museum Plantin-Moretus te Antwerpen (Antwerp: Museum Plantin-Moretus, 1985), describing the library and archives.

Posted with the author’s permission. Copyright remains with the author.