Histourism: Two days in Antwerp

Last week’s visit to the Plantin-Moretus museum in Antwerp was the grand finale to this year’s pilgrimage of the history of the book. In the British Museum I saw two of the earliest known forms of writing: hieroglyphics, on the Rosetta Stone, and the cuneiform script, used to write the Gilgamesh epic on a clay cylinder. In the Pergamon Museum in Berlin I saw a magnificent collection of papyrus fragments, and now, in Antwerp, I saw a magnificent collection of printed books and manuscripts. The museum stands as the last remnant of the vibrant book printing trade in western Europe.

Let’s talk printing presses real quick. Around 1440, Johannes Gutenberg, inspired by the metal casting techniques of gold smiths and the quick work that was done by wine presses, invented the printing press. He created a movable print type composed of leaden letters cast from matrices, and invented a new type of ink. By composing the metal letters in a rack, coating them with ink and using a heavy press to create a print on paper he kick-started the modern book trade.  It’s worth noting that the Chinese and the Koreans had invented a similar type of movable type using porcelain and bronze in the 12th and 13th centuries, respectively. By 1500 the printing press had become widely scattered across Europe. Christoffel Plantijn was a renowned French printer who started his printing business in Antwerp in 1555. The most famous work he printed was the Polyglot Bible, a mammoth Bible that had side-by-side translations in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Aramaic and Syrian. It’s incredible to think that in order to print one page, the leaden molds of every letter – and every foreign letter – had to be arranged meticulously on a rack, then covered with ink and pressed on a page. I got to hold one of those racks filled with leaden letters – it was bloody heavy! It must have weighed at least 30 kilos. Imagine having to carry that across a room!

So Plantijn led a thriving business; he even became the king’s household printer. Besides religious and liturgical works he printed humanist, botanical and medicinal works, as well as maps and illustrations from copperplate and woodblock. After his death in 1589 his business was taken over by Moretus, his son-in-law. It remained in his family until 1876, when the house and the workplace were sold to the city of Antwerp. It’s now a museum that allows you a glimpse into the household of a 16th century well-to-do Flemish family and boasts thousand of beautiful manuscripts, printed books, illustrations, two of the oldest printing presses in the world and some very rare letter types. It’s one of my favourite museums in the world. It’s truly incredible how big an impact the printing industry had! What we now see as a commodity was only just on the rise then.

I was with my group and professors from my Manuscripts and Printed Books class, and our professor had arranged a demonstration of how the printing presses worked, which was awesome. We then spent a good few hours looking around the museum until it was time for them to go home. I stayed another night; I really wanted to visit the museum of fine arts, which unfortunately turned out to be closed for renovation until 2017. Instead, I spent the next day wandering around the city looking for the gorgeous art nouveau architecture my travel guide recommended. Most of these could be found around the Cogels-Osylei in the Jewish quarter Zurenborg. As is often the case in big cities, the Jewish quarter was populated by the rich, meaning that the architecture was innovative and refined.

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