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Friday, March 25, 2011

On Books and Printing

The original 17th century print machines

To choose a good book, look in an inquisitor’s prohibited list.  ~John Aikin

On a recent trip to Belgium, I came across a small gem - an intact insight into the world of books and printing in the seventeenth century. The Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp. 

This little treasure is a museum of books and printing (ah yes I can see a few eyes rolling) but far from being a dry museum of glass boxes, it is a world heritage site because the museum is in fact the actual home and printing works of the Plantin-Moretus family and is exactly as it was in the late sixteenth/seventeenth century.

The printing house was founded in 1555 by a Frenchman, Christoffel Plantin, who by 1575 was running a thriving business employee 70 people and 15 printing presses (two of the oldest printing presses in the world are still extant in the museum).  The business was inherited by his son-in-law Jan Moretus and the business continued in the family for the next three centuries. The house  printed not only in Latin but also in Greek, Hebrew and other languages, producing itself a bible in three languages (Greek, Hebrew and Latin).

As a home, it is a fine example of a seventeenth century wealthy businessman’s home. Many of the rooms are lined with leather, with the design gilded – a sort of seventeenth century wall paper, only affordable by the most wealthy. By far the most impressive part was the library – particularly for the seventeenth century, it is a phenomenal collection.

But the real interest is in the process (the craft) of producing a book. The original letter dies (and the business actually made its own dies) still in their wooden racks are to be seen. The wide range of letters and fonts (many still used today such as Garamond)  in languages such as Ancient Greek and Arabic – in sizes from almost microscopic to full size makes you realise the skill of the typesetters who had to set the forms for the printing press.  The illustrations were generally done by copper plating (a process very well demonstrated at another museum we visited – the Rembrandt Museum in Amsterdam). Many of the illustrations were done by Balthasar Moretus’ great friend and fellow resident of Antwerp – John Paul Rubens (whose paintings hang on the walls of the house).

To print a page, the form had to be individually inked and then put in the press, one sheet at a time. In another part of the house at two huge desks, the editors sat, red pens in hand. These men were not just editing. To do their job well they were language scholars and academics.  The editing marks are the same as those used today by modern editors. Once the pages had been edited, the book could be printed, page after individual page. These were then wrapped and taken down to the shop to be sold in loose leaf form. If you wanted your book bound then you went to a book binder, a different trade all together.

When seen as an entire process, I came to realise why even after the invention of printing, books were so expensive and so valued. To possess a library even approaching the size of the one owned by the Moretus family, required enormous wealth.

And the reason for the quote at the beginning of this piece? In a corner of the museum there is the Inquisitors list of banned books which included several printed by the Plantin-Moretus press. They nearly came undone, had it not been for some very quick work by Jan Moretus in securing the Catholic Church’s contracts!

If you find yourself in Antwerp with nothing to do in the afternoon, don’t miss this wonderful museum and tribute to the art of creating a book!