The Golden Compasses

auteur: Leon Voet

bron: Leon Voet, The Golden Compasses. The History of the House of Plantin-Moretus. Vangendt & Co, Amsterdam / Routledge & Kegan Paul, London / Abner Schram, New York 1969-1972. (2 delen)  



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Chapter 13
The Plantin House as a Tourist Attraction1.

It was not only grave and dignified scholars who in past centuries entered the ‘big house’ in the Vrijdagmarkt to negotiate the publication of a book or to engage in profound (or not so profound) conversation over a rummer of wine; or artists and engravers who came to discuss a commission; or fellow-printers - who until 1618, and possibly later, were sent round to the Gulden Passer in the Kammenstraat, where the casks of wine provided for this category of guest were stored:2. long before the Plantin House became a museum it was already attracting tourists, crowned heads as well as ordinary people.

The Golden Compasses in the Vrijdagmarkt and the Kammenstraat both had the distinction of being mentioned and described in the first guide-book for the Netherlands, Ludovico Guicciardini's Descrittione di tutti i Paesi Bassi - but not in the first edition of 1567, published by Plantin's great rival Willem Silvius, who would have been little pleased by such publicity for his competitor. When Plantin published a new edition in 1581, the author inserted in the chapter devoted to Antwerp the following enthusiastic passage: ‘No less excellent, pleasant and remarkable than all that has been mentioned above (apart from other less significant ones in this town) is this splendid printing office, set up separately from the shop in a private dwelling that is perfectly suited to it, by Christophe Plantin, printer to the king: whose

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enterprise is worthy of praise and remembrance; and all the more laudable for until now no one has known of or seen a printing office in the whole of Europe where there are more presses, more type and a greater diversity of characters, more cases and other tools fit for such an excellent craft: or in which so many well-versed and exceptional men are to be found employed for large wages and salaries. These men work at revising and correcting books in all the languages (I make no exception), either classical or vernacular, which are used throughout Christendom; in such a way that when everything has been taken into account in this house of the Muses, including the labour employed in printing and attendant activities, expenditure amounts daily to more than three hundred florins of the country, which comes to a hundred and fifty écus; a truly glorious and magnificent fact, adding not so much to the profit and honour of the worthy author of all this but rather to the whole town, in as much as books are sent out from there which are both well printed and correct. These are dispatched in great quantities throughout the world.’1.

It remains open to question whether it was Plantin with his great business acumen who had this advertisement inserted, or whether Guicciardini did it on his own initiative as a favour to his publisher. In either case the enthusiasm was wholly justifiable, and was echoed by the many strangers who visited Antwerp and regularly made their way to the Vrijdagmarkt.

The list of famous and illustrious visitors began in 1579 with no less a person than William the Silent, Prince of Orange, and his wife. Plantin

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wrote a poem for the occasion, ‘Le seul divin est perdurable; toute autre chose est perissable’, which was printed in the presence of the exalted guests: ‘Faict et imprimé presents les tresillustres Prince et Princesse d'Orange, venus voir l'Imprimerie de Christophle Plantin, XIIII. jour de Décembre M.D.LXXIX.’1. The only known copy of this poem, together with the Souhait which was associated with it and printed at about the same time, can still be admired in the second Plantinian room of the Museum.2.

The fortunes of war drove William of Orange back to the North and restored Spanish rule to Antwerp. Henceforth the monarchs and princes who visited the officina were related to, or associated in one way or another with the Spanish royal house. The first of these were the Archdukes Albert and Isabella. In December 1599 the pair made their joyous entry into Antwerp, spending several days there. On the sixth day - 16th December 1599 - it was the turn of the Tapissierspand [the building where tapestries were sold] and the Plantin house to be graced with a visit.3. ‘And so that they should not leave out anything that was rare and worth seeing, they went after dinner to the house where is situated the shop which sells all kinds of tapestries in such great quantities that there is usually enough in stock to furnish a whole kingdom. The rest of the day was spent profitably in the printing office of the learned and famous Christophe Plantin, carefully administered by the conscientious and meticulous Jan Moretus, his son-in-law, who in recognition of the honour that he felt was beine afforded him, had run off on one of his presses in the presence of his sovereign lord and lady a sheet printed in capitals which he presented to them on the spot.’4. Like his father-in-law, Jan Moretus had honoured his distinguished visitors with

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a specially, dedicated address. This tradition was continued faithfully, for in every documented instance of royal visits there is mention of an address.

In 1631 Maria de' Medici, Louis XIII's scheming mother, fled from France and was cordially received by the Archduchess Isabella. Accompanied by Isabella she visited the principal towns of the Southern Netherlands. Antwerp and the Plantin house were not overlooked.1. Following the family custom, Balthasar I presented both the royal tourists with a loyal greeting composed in French and Latin. The French text for Maria de' Medici is interesting, if only as a curiosity:

A la Reyne Tres-Chrestienne
Mère de Troys Roys les plus grands du monde,
qu'un nuage de dissension eslevé dans le royaume de son fils,
Dieu l'ayant permis pour une meilleure fin,
a mené dans les provinces de son gendre,
pour resiouir et illustrer
avec sa face sereine et Florentine
celle de la Flandre descolorée par les guerres,
L'imprimerie Plantinienne,
brillante des rayons d'une si grande maiesté,
applaudit en tout respect;
luy augure enbref, et la félicité dès à présent
du beau laurier de Paix,
dont elle se verra couronnée au Royaume de son fils
après la pacification des troubles
de France et Flandre
Le x. septembre de l'an m.dc.xxxi
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Balthasar was so proud of his literary labours that he had the four loyal addresses included in the beautifully illustrated work he printed the following year, the Histoire curieuse de tout ce qui c'est passé à l'entrée de la Reyne Mère du Roy Tres-Chrestien dans les villes des Pays-Bas by Jean Puget de la Serre, a courtier of Maria de' Medici. A presentation copy, printed on parchment and magnificently bound, was offered to the queen. Thanks to the efforts of the Permanent Donation Fund for the Antwerp Municipal Library and the Plantin-Moretus Museum, it has been returned at last to its place of origin and is now displayed in the Moretus room.1.

Three years later, on 21st August 1634, it was an Italian prince, Thomas of Savoy, who arrived in the Vrijdagmarkt. This time there was very nearly a hitch: the letters announcing the visit went astray and Balthasar was only informed at the last minute. The traditional address was in jeopardy, but the printer, humanist, and poet proved equal to the situation. As he himself explained in a letter to Philippe Chifflet, one hour in the silence of the night was time enough for him to produce a text of this sort. Thomas of Savoy received an appropriate Latin address, composed according to all the rules of the art; it had even been submitted to the ‘preventive’ censorship of Jean Jacques Chifflet, Philippe's brother, who had examined it to make sure there was nothing in this adulation of an Italian prince which might offend any of the Spanish authorities in Brussels.2.

Eight months later, on 9th April 1635, die Cardinal Infante, Don Ferdinand, Isabella's successor as governor-general of the Spanish Netherlands, took the opportunity afforded by his stay in Antwerp to pay a visit to the Plantinian press. This time posterity is better informed about the visitor's reactions because of an entry in the diary of Philippe Chifflet, who was a courtier as well as a close friend of Balthasar: ‘His Highness, who wished to emulate the praiseworthy curiosity of the Archdukes Albert and Isabella, of the Queen Mother, of the King of Poland, a prince at that time, and

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of several other great Princes, visited the Plantinian printing office of Master Balthasar Moretus with whom I was lodging; and he saw brought forth in his presence a beautiful inscription printed on a large sheet which Master Moretus presented to him as it came from the press. His Highness took particular pleasure in seeing the compositors assemble the type, insert the punctuation and the spacing and arrange everything on the form; asking questions about the several pleasing and curious points concerned in the full process of this Art. Master Moretus took him through the Printing Office to all parts of his premises, showing him all aspects of his business, which is like a small republic in itself; in one quarter were the correctors, in another the compositors, in the next the founders and repairers of types, and finally the wood engravers who most appropriately had just finished making a full-length likeness of His Highness in armour - and so well done that it was admired by all the courtiers... At this point one may describe Master Moretus's establishment which consists usually of 40 workmen paid punctually every Saturday; these workmen are compositors, [press]pullers or printers, proof-readers, collators, engravers both in wood and copper, then the founders and sometimes others who are employed to make matrices with the ancient punches.’1.

The prince was delighted with what he saw, but no more so than Balthasar. The printer alluded to this visit repeatedly in his letters, with a rather

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childlike pride, and sent copies of his address to various friends and relations.1.

This does not exhaust the list of exalted callers, but less is known about other such visits. Let it suffice to say that hardly a single governor-general of the Spanish Netherlands omitted to call at the Plantinian house when making official or semi-official visits to Antwerp. Besides Albert and Isabella and Don Ferdinand, the masters of the Golden Compasses entertained Don Francisco de Mello (1641), the Marquis Castel Rodrigo (1646) and Prince Leopold William (1647). Polish royalty visited the house with great regularity - Prince Vladislav in 1624, Prince Casimir in 1635 and Queen Louisa Maria Gonzaga in 1646. Queen Christina of Sweden too visited it in 1654.2.

In 1668 it was another Italian prince, Cosimo III de' Medici, who looked over the Officina Plantiniana. This descendant of a famous line of bankers simply noted dryly in his diary that the typographical equipment there must be worth 300,000 scudi. An almost complete darkness descends after Cosimo de' Medici's visit. No doubt other distinguished sightseers wandered through the patrician residence in the Vrijdagmarkt but, with three notable

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exceptions, nothing is known of such visits between 1668 and 1876, when the thread can be picked up again.

These three exceptions are revealed by typical Plantinian addresses. ‘Sa Majesté la reine des Français [the wife of King Louis-Philippe], MM. le roi et la reine des Belges et LL. AA. RR. les princesses françaises Marie et Clémentine honorent en ce moment, 2 heures après-midi, 28 Octobre 1834, de leur Auguste présence l'ancienne Archi-Typographie Plantinienne dont l'établissement remonte à l'an M.D.LVI. Anvers, de l'Archi-Typographie Plantinienne, chez Albert Moretus’ [Her Majesty the Queen of France, Their Majesties the King and Queen of the Belgians and Their Royal Highnesses the Princesses Marie and Clémentine of France, honouring with their August presence at this moment, 2 o'clock in the afternoon of 28th October 1834, the ancient Plantinian Press, the foundation of which dates back to the year 1556. Antwerp, in the Plantinian Press of Albert Moretus] is how the text of the first of these addresses runs.1. The second, in almost the same words, shows that a few months later, at one o'clock in the afternoon of 14th July 1835 to be exact, King Leopold I and his wife returned, this time accompanied by the Prince of Linange. The visit must have made a great impression on the Queen of the Belgians for a third address indicates that less than a year later, on 3rd May 1836 (at eleven o'clock in the morning), Her Majesty, accompanied by her sister Marie, once more favoured the Officina Plantiniana with her presence.2.

Crowned heads and high-ranking dignitaries were not the only ones who were given the opportunity of admiring the famous press from the inside during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The big house was always open to the curious. There was no traveller of inquiring mind who did not find his way to the Vrijdagmarkt when passing through Antwerp. Many of them wrote down their impressions in diaries and travel journals.3. Most of these travellers confined themselves to brief exclamations of admiration: ‘It

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actually has eleven presses, and Balthasar Moretus is now in charge’ wrote the German theologian Calixtus in 1641. ‘The magnificent Plantinian printing office [which] has twelve presses and at least one hundred founts of type’ was the comment of the Englishman Brown in 1668. In 1677 the young German Apronius saw ‘founts of silver’ as well as more than ten presses.

Some travellers expressed their admiration in greater detail. These descriptions are not models of their kind, but the German Hartmann in 1657, the Englishman Skippon, and the Frenchman Balthasar de Monconys in 1663 reflect quite aptly what visitors found most striking in those days - and this seems to have been much the same as that which impresses the present-day tourist.

The words of Monconys can be quoted by way of illustration: ‘We have also been in Plantin's printing office, which retains the name of its founder, although it is one Moretus, a descendant of his son-in-law, who directs it. It is quite a large house, consisting of four wings enclosing an open quadrangle. In the middle of this is a pretty garden, the walls of which are most pleasantly covered by vines, like almost all the walls in this town, which goes very well with brickwork. In the lower part of one of these wings is the printing shop, where twelve presses are constantly at work. The rest of the house, except for part of the ground floor which serves as living quarters, is filled with copies of each book that they have printed and some other books besides.’

This interest in the Plantinian house was shared by sightseers of more humble rank. In 1643 Balthasar II Moretus was asked by Hendrik Barentsen, a Catholic friend who was a bookseller in Holland, if he would print an unspecified tract for him (probably a political or religious lampoon aimed at the North). Balthasar II was not very enthusiastic about the commission and tried to put it off indefinitely, pointing out that many Dutchmen visited his press in the summer:1. ‘... for I have since been thinking that if it must be printed in complete secrecy, this cannot be done in my printing office, where every day (chiefly in the summer, about the time of the coming fair) many strangers, Dutchmen too, come to look around...’2.

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(102) Opposite: Address dedicated to the Prince and Princess of Orange, printed in their presence on 14th December 1579, when they visited Plantin's premises. Only one copy of it is known.

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(103) Another loyal address, specially printed on 28th October 1834 at 2 o'clock in the afternoon in the presence of Marie-Amélie, Queen of France, consort to King Louis-Philippe, who visited the officina in the company of Leopold I, King of the Belgians and his wife, Queen Louise-Marie (daughter of the French royal pair) and the French princesses Marie and Clémentine. The only known copies are in the Plantin-Moretus Museum.

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The facts available about such visits show that they can be dated to the second half of the seventeenth century, that is to say the period when the bookshop was in a room facing the courtyard (the present proof-readers' room).1. The two things are probably connected: to reach the shop the public had to pass through the main gateway and across the courtyard, and thus had the opportunity of peering through the windows of ground-floor rooms or putting their heads round open doors. Mention of visitors of this sort stopped abruptly when the bookshop was moved to the Heilig Geeststraat: after that the privilege of entering the courtyard and viewing the officina was extended only to invited guests, as before 1640.

The fact that measures had to be taken at quite an early date to prevent quarrels among the staff over the conducting of strangers round the press - and the sharing of the tips which these people liked to give - suggests, however, that even before 1640 the number of those invited guests through the years can hardly have been small. On 12th March 1633 the ‘chapel’ or association in which the Plantinian workpeople were organized made the following ruling: ‘... [it] is decreed that anyone who shows strangers round any part of the premises shall be obliged (if he is so requested) to declare on oath what gratuity he has received, of which he shall retain three stuivers, he penalty [for infringement of this rule] being forfeiture of 25 stuivers’.2.

A few months earlier a similar kind of provision had been made for the sharing of tips received from people who had their names set and printed on the Plantinian presses as a memento of their visit: ‘At the same time [i.e. 22nd December 1632] it is decreed that if any person approaches a workman to have his name or any other matter printed, the compositor and the printer shall each retain three stuivers of any gratuity given and the remainder shall go to the chapel.’3.

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It can be seen that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Plantin house was important to what would now be termed tourism in Antwerp. It is less certain whether this was true for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The wealthy, and now also noble Moretuses give the impression of having been much more selective in these centuries. The last masters were in fact reputed to be veritably Cerberean, keeping out the tourists as determinedly as their forebears had welcomed and entertained them. In 1874, when die negotiations began which were to lead to the acquisition of the Gulden Passer by the City of Antwerp, there were few outside the family circle who knew what the old Plantinian house looked like from the inside or what treasures it harboured.1.