Christophe Plantin

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Christophe Plantin

Circa 1520-1589

Bookbinder, printer, and publisher

Sources

Renown. Christophe Plantin, head of the large Plantin publishing house in Antwerp, was the most famous publisher of the sixteenth century despite the fact that he offered no real innovations in terms of book or type design. His fame rested on the ability to tap financial resources, to exploit political connections to King Philip II of Spain, and to organize production of books along industrial lines. His famed Bible won him a monopoly of sales in all lands under the rule of the Spanish king. Plantin capitalized on his unique opportunities to create what French historians Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin have called “the most powerful book manufactury to exist before the nineteenth Century.”

Antwerp. Plantin built his huge publishing empire without the aid of private fortune. He was born about 1520 in France, and he learned printing and bookbinding in Caen, Rouen, and Paris. Plantin left Paris in 1548 and settled in Antwerp the next year. Initially he worked as a bookbinder and decorator of jewel boxes until an injury to his arm forced him to return to printing. In the 1550s he began to print and publish a wide range of works in many languages. His only significant publication prior to 1562 was printed at the expense of the state and titled Account of the Funeral Ceremonies of Charles V. In 1562, church censors searched his shop for publication of an unorthodox prayer book and forced him to flee Antwerp. After nearly two years, Plantin returned to find all his possessions sold, but his decision to come back was fortuitous. Years later, in a letter to Pope Gregory XIII, Plantin explained his reasons for choosing Antwerp: “Access to the city is good,” the market squares have representatives from “many different nations,” materials for “the art of printing” are available, workers “in any of the crafts” are abundant, and “finally there flourishes the University of Louvain.”

Rebuilding His Business. In 1563 Plantin found financial backers in Antwerp and ordered new type from the best punch cutters in Europe. Plantin was a member of a religious group called “The Family of Charity.” He used these connections to form a syndicate of publishers funded by some of the city's wealthiest residents. The syndicate ended after five years, but it had published 260 works and put Plantin back in control of a thriving publishing office.

Philip II. Plantin used his connections to cultivate ties with influential churchmen and with Gabriel de Cayas, secretary to Philip II. As a result, he received legal and financial support from the Spanish Crown. Plantin eventually was granted papal permission to monopolize the publication of liturgical books used in all lands that fell under the rule of the Spanish king. The king of France and the duke of Savoy attempted to persuade him to move to Paris and Turin, but he opted to stay in Antwerp and publish for Spanish lands.

Polyglot Bible. Plantin's initial fame derived largely from an eight-volume Biblia polyglotta (Polyglot Bible, 1569-1572). The Bible included Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Chaldaic (ancient Semitic) texts printed in columns with a brief summary at the bottom of each page. The project was funded with a cash advance from the king of Spain that was to be repaid with copies of the completed book. One thou-sand two hundred and twelve copies were printed with five prices, contingent on the quality of the paper or vellum used. The Polyglot Bible was an exercise in diplomacy as well as printing because the king refused to allow publication without preapproval from Pope Pius V. The Pope rejected the offer and Plantin sent an editor to Rome to petition papal reconsideration. After the death of Pius V, the new pope, Gregory XIII, finally consented, but the work remained under Church suspicion. The Inquisition examined the books for many years after publication and prevented circulation until 1580. The delay strained Plantin's resources but final approval greatly enhanced his reputation.

Labor and Constancy. A good deal is known about Plantin through his connections and the mass of papers, records, and correspondence that he left. His shop had as many as two dozen presses running at the same time and more than one hundred employees. He maintained outlets in major commercial centers across Europe. Despite the huge scale of his operations, he had severe fluctuations in his fortune. Spanish troops mutinied in Antwerp in 1576 and disrupted business. In 1581 he was forced to sell his collection of books in Paris for half its value. The next year, he passed the business over to his sons-in-law, and he died eight years later. Plantin's printer's mark, the small symbol that printers used to identify their works, has a hand coming down from the clouds to mark a circle with a compass. The words “By the Labor and Constancy” appear on the mark. Plantin's ability to rebound from defeats, to tap Antwerp's financial resources, to win the Spanish monarchy's support, and to gain papal authorization allowed him to turn a small printing shop into a major publishing house.

Sources

Colin Clair, Christopher Plantin (London: Cassell, 1960).

Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800, translated by David Gerard, edited by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and David Wootton (London: N.L.B., 1976).

Saul Marks, Christopher Plantin and the Officina Plantiniana (Los Angeles: Plantin, 1972).

Douglas McMurtrie, The Book: The Story of Printing & Bookmaking, third revised edition (New York & London: Oxford University Press, 1962).