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10 Interesting Facts about the Plantin-Moretus Museum

10 Interesting Facts about the Plantin-Moretus Museum
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The National Library of Belarus has its own Book Museum and studies the history of book culture museums in the world. We offer a "journey" to the oldest book museum in Europe – the Plantin-Moretus Museum.

This year is the 500th anniversary of the outstanding printer Christophe Plantin. The printing house he founded in Antwerp is now a museum that preserves, explores and popularizes the legacy of the great printer. The Plantin-Moretus Museum is three hundred years of printing and family history.

In 1555, Christophe Plantin founded the printing house, which became one of the leading in Europe and operated for more than three centuries. During 34 years, Plantin produced almost 2,000 books in different languages! The books were of high printing quality, with impeccable text accuracy and sophisticated decoration. After the death of Christophe Plantin in 1589, his family continued his work. Plantin's descendants not only maintained the printing business at a high level but also preserved the documented memory of the founder. Since 1877, the fully preserved publishing house with printing equipment has served as a museum.

In 2005, the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp became the first museum institution to be included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. The museum is a rare source of information about the family dynasty of printers, the cultural, social and industrial history of the city. The museum is unique in that it combines a residential building and an old printing house. The house has survived to this day rarely intact and belongs to architectural masterpieces. The ensemble consists of several buildings connected to each other and a cosy patio.

10 Interesting Facts about the Plantin-Moretus Museum:

1. It is the oldest book museum in Europe. In 1876, the last owner of the printing house, Edward Moretus, sold the historic company building together with the old printing presses and fonts to the Antwerp city government. Within a year, the enterprise was quickly transformed into a museum and was opened to the public.

2. During the Second World War, the museum was closed. The library and all the valuable items were put in a huge number of chests. They were originally kept in the castle of Lavaux-Sainte-Anne, and then they were moved to the cellars of the National Bank in Brussels. In 1945, the museum complex narrowly escaped total destruction. The east wing of the museum was badly damaged by bombs. Since 1947, restoration work was carried out. In 1951 the restored complex with the exhibition was reopened to the public.


3. In 1992-1993. a "botanical garden" was created with plants and herbs that were grown in the late 16th – early 17th centuries in the courtyard of the house.


The courtyard is decorated with portrait sculptures of famous 17th–20th centuries residents. Christophe Plantin's sculpture is in the centre.


4. The museum's collection of paintings comprises of 151 works, including 71 portraits. The third Head of the printing house Balthasar I Moretus asked his childhood friend Peter Paul Rubens to paint portraits of the family. In 1612-1616, Rubens created 12 portraits. Some of the portraits are on display in the museum. Visitors can sit by the fireplace, calmly examine family portraits and feel the atmosphere of the house.


The central exhibit is a portrait of Christophe Plantin by Peter Paul Rubens. 


Rubens made the portrait after Christophe Plantin's death. To create it, he used a previous painting written during Plantin's life in 1584, also stored in the museum collection. On the canvas, the printer holds a book and a compass, which is part of the printing house logo.


The museum is named after Plantin-Moretus, because after Christophe Plantin, the printing house passed to his son-in-law Jan Moretus. Rubens also wrote his portrait.


5. Peter Paul Rubens was a typographic artist who not only created portraits but also designed book frontispieces, title pages and illustrations.

The National Library of Belarus has a book with an engraved title page (mederite) based on a sketch by Rubens. The engraver was Cornelis Galle. The author of the book is Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski (1595–1640), poet, philosopher, and literary theorist. He taught at the Jesuit College in Polotsk, the Niasvizh Jesuit College and the Vilnius Jesuit Gymnasium. Sarbiewski is known as an outstanding Latin-language poet. For a long time, his poems were studied in European educational institutions of the XVII-XIX centuries as a perfect example of New Latin Poetry. His most famous edition is considered to be "Lyricorum libri IV", printed at Plantin's printing house in 1632 and in five thousand copies. 


6. It is quite easy to recognize Plantin's editions. He had a typographic mark "Golden Compasses". The image has been found in books, artwork, and house decoration. The museum even offers a quest for young visitors: you should find and secure all the "compasses" in the museum space. And there are dozens of them! At the entrance to the building, there is a sculpture from 1640 depicting a publishing brand.


A bright sign with the image of the stamp was created in the 19th–20th centuries. There is a hand reaching out from the clouds and holding a compass in the central part, and the inscription "Labore et constantia" ("Labor and Constancy"). The straight and still compass leg embodies constancy, the moving one is for labour.


And, of course, the publisher's mark "Golden Compass" was placed on the front page or at the end of the book. The original version of the mark was concise, but gradually its design became more sophisticated and various decorations were added to the main part. Almost every image of the brand differs due to its own decorative element, and a separate board was created for each.


"Peregrination" by Mikołaj Radziwiłł "The Orphan" was printed in the famous publishing house Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp in 1614 during the author's lifetime. This was the second edition in Latin (the first was published in Braniewo in 1601). The specific nature of the copy at the National Library of Belarus is in that it comes from the Niasvizh Library of Radziwiłł. The last sheet of the copy bears the publisher's mark.


7. The printing house had a bookstore focused on retail trade. The books were sold here without binding. To bind a book, a client had to use the services of a binder. To this day, the bookstore with its counter and cabinets is still fully equipped to sell books. There's even a money scale for checking silver and gold coins.

8. All employees of the printing house used the library. Competitors' products helped proof-readers and printers prepare new editions at a high scientific and printing level. Today, the library contains about 25,000 books printed before 1800, including the 36-line Gutenberg Bible. This is one of 14 surviving examples in the world. The library is organized as a humanistic private library of the 17th century in the museum space. With tall shelves filled with books arranged according to format, reading stands, globes and busts. Plaster portrait sculptures on bookshelves are Greek and Roman scholars and emperors. Plantin's masterpiece of printing, the eight-volume "Polyglot Bible", in which the text is given in five languages, is in the centre of the museum hall.


9. The museum houses the world's oldest printing presses, two of which are from the late 16th century. Five presses from the 17th and 18th centuries are still in working condition. The collection of engraving boards totals 14 thousand and is the largest in the world. The collection of engravings includes over 20 thousand works and is dedicated to the artists of Antwerp from 1500 to the present day. Rich archives of the 16th–20th centuries talk about the everyday life of the printing house, houses, as well as people who lived and worked here.


10. The museum offers its visitors interesting programs for all ages. Here you can print the text and engraving yourself on an old workbench or cut out a toy Christophe Plantin and his wife.


The museum has its own reading room and an online catalogue, which shows all the museum's collections.

Throughout this year, Antwerp hosted scientific and popular events for the 500th anniversary of Christophe Plantin, including a light show on the facade of the museum building. 


The National Library of Belarus also celebrated the anniversary of the Dutch printer and prepared the following materials:

Tatyana Sapego, Head of the Research and Design Work Section of the Bibliology Research Department:

Photos are taken from the website of the Plantin-Moretus Museum, an E-catalogue of the National Library of Belarus and from the author's archive.


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