FURTHER AFIELD: Afternoon in Antwerp

You may expect to see nature photography here, but please bear with me as I detour to share a stimulating afternoon in Antwerp that I enjoyed earlier this year.

While staying in Gent, Belgium, last April we decided to visit Antwerp, which is only an hour away by train. It wouldn’t be a see-the-sights day – that’s not our style. I had read about an unusual museum there, the Museum Plantin-Moresus. It was the residence and workshop of a great printer-publisher of the Renaissance era, and we were both intrigued so we made that our goal for the day.

I was having one of those travel days when it takes all morning long to pull myself together. Checking the train schedule, we saw there was time for a leisurely late morning coffee at the cafe across the street from our airbnb apartment. Good, we needed it! Then it was a quick tram ride to Gent Sint-Pietersstation where we lined up for tickets, grabbed fresh sandwiches to eat on the train, and boarded.

The ticket taker looked a little worse for the wear but was keeping up appearances with his cap, tie and jacket. Verdant fields flowed past the window and before I knew it, we had arrived at Antwerpen Centraal, one of Europe’s most beautiful train stations. The bustle reminded me of New York’s Grand Central Station, which I used to commute through. Here though, everything was more ornate, ceilings were higher, the architecture grander. Throwing any semblance of not-a-tourist-coolness aside, I gaped, craned my neck, and clicked that shutter.

1. “Morning” coffee at 12:40pm; Illy Espresso Shop, Gent, Belgium
2. Ticket taker, Belgian Railways

3. Antwerpen Centraal. The high ceiling was designed with steam engine smoke in mind. It sustained heavy damage in WWII bombing raids, and was fully restored in 1986 using clear polycarbonate instead of glass for better stress tolerance.

5. Antwerpen Centraal

Consulting a Rome2rio app for directions, we headed for the museum. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is the original workshop and residence of Christophe Plantin, an influential 16th century printer, publisher, and humanist. The museum is housed in a series of centuries-old buildings with a dizzying array of rooms (34 of them!) that ramble around a central courtyard. The quiet, softly lit rooms are packed with extraordinary early printed matter, old printing presses and family artifacts. Immersion in the world of early printing appealed to me; I have fond memories of a day spent at a small printing house helping fine-tune a run of brochures I designed for a specialty bakery business years ago.

6. Printing presses, Museum Plantin-Moretus
7. Stairs worn smooth from hundreds of years of footsteps.

Exploring room after room, occasionally getting lost in dim corridors as I stepped up and down stairs and across creaking floors, I perused hefty religious texts embellished with gold, precious illuminated prayer books, important botanical reference texts, an “early modern ode to women”, almanac illustrations, maps and more. I was deeply impressed not only by the workmanship, which is beautiful, but by the variety of subject matter. Seeing the breadth of topics that rolled off the presses here 450 years ago, I felt an inkling of how exciting it must have been to be alive during a time of such intellectual fervor. The era’s enthusiasm for knowledge was right there on those delicate pages, shining a light across the centuries.

9. Script flows across the page with grace and finesse.
11. The uses of almanacs, explained by a museum label.

Plantin was born in France about 500 years ago. He started a bookbinding business there but relocated with his wife to the commercially vibrant town of Antwerp in 1548. He set up shop and joined the Guild of Saint Luke, where painters, sculptors, engravers and printers apprenticed and connected with clients. He was industrious and produced impeccable work; before long he and his son-in-law Jan Moretus were running one of Europe’s top publishing houses. The Plantin-Moretus family continued the tradition another three hundred years, finally selling the building where it all began to the city of Antwerp in 1876. The museum opened the following year.

12. A painting portrays the prevailing enthusiasm for scientific inquiry.

The Low countries in Plantin’s era were the center of western culture; by 1560, Antwerp was the richest city in Europe. It was also the site of religious conflict. In 1523 two monks had been taken away and burned alive for refusing to recant their heretical Lutheran beliefs. The powerful King Phillip II of Spain put immense pressure on Lutherans and Calvinists, and the printed word played an important part in the struggle. Plantin published all sorts of things, including Calvinist pamphlets. He is described as a Protestant sympathizer, a very dangerous position to take. Savvy person that he was, he found his own middle ground in the creation and publication of a major work, the “Plantin Polyglot” (Biblia Polyglotta or Biblia Regia). This complex, impressive multi-lingual bible satisfied the needs of scholars – but it also pleased King Phillip II.

Times were turbulent enough that Plantin fled to the more liberal Leiden at one point, only to return soon afterward to Antwerp. He seemed to walk a line as fine as the ones he printed: by 1585, Plantin was considered the primary printer-publisher for the Counter-Reformation, while secretly helping Calvinists in Utrecht organize an anti-Spanish printing press. With all this, it amazes me that he managed to live into his late sixties.

14. Portrait of Cosimo de’Medici, by Peter Paul Rubens; Museum Plantin-Moretus


15. Taking the afternoon sun in the courtyard.

The museum has a world-class drawing collection, the oldest printing presses in the world, an extensive library, and more. Over 25,000 books and manuscripts can be searched on its website. If you are ever in Antwerp, it’s worth seeing.

If printing interests you, a well-written, illustrated history of printing from pre-history to 2017 can be found on this site.

The museum was closing but I could hardly tear myself away. We were kindly escorted out with our souvenirs – one was a 12″ x 16″ print of a grotesque face from the 16th century that children are invited to color. We will probably frame ours.

16. Grotesque face

We had time for a look at Antwerp’s Grote Markt, an historic gathering place dating back to the 13th century where Guild houses – ornate and dignified buildings designated for various trades – reflect Antwerp’s prominent position in the 15th and 16th centuries. I took a few pictures with my camera and phone as the sun began to set and museum overload began to take hold. Tired and hungry, we found our way to a Thai restaurant, a good choice for hungry folks on a budget who want food quickly. Later we took a wrong turn on the way to the train station, but that happens when you travel on your own in a country whose language you don’t read or speak. Eventually we got back to Gent and collapsed.

18. A pollarded tree bursting with spring buds has a fitting backdrop in an intricate metal rooftop, now a parking garage by the river Scheldt!

19. Local denizens
20. For Adrian and Harrie….maybe you should meet up here!

21. A last glimpse of Antwerp.

I would have liked more time in Antwerp, but I learned a lot just from seeing the Museum Pantin-Moretus. I could sense how thrilling the acquisition of knowledge must have been to people in 16th century Europe, and I got a better grip on the critical role played by people who printed and disseminated that knowledge. The variety of printed matter that Plantin and Moretus published and changes manifested by the printed word could be likened to the explosion of information we are undergoing by having the internet at our fingertips. Understanding the degree of danger present in the religious struggles Plantin was navigating, coupled with impressions I gathered from the American Pilgrim’s Museum in Leiden bring to mind my own ancestor’s migrations from Europe to the New World. Their arrival from various northern European countries spanned the 17th to the 19th centuries, which means their lives were shaped by the same history I had the pleasure of being immersed in, if only for a few hours.

It goes without saying that religious struggles continue. The same with migrations for a better life. I hope that the humanist ideals Plantin stood for aren’t entirely buried under today’s divisive rhetoric. Travel is all about being moved and changed by your experience, and that minor museum in Antwerp made a day that reverberates.


69 comments

  1. Interesting reading! I envy your visit to the museum.
    The central, the ticket taker and the museum has a slight Harry Potter-ish vibe to them. Or, I guess it is really the other way around. Anyhow, looks like you had a nice day in Antwerp!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am glad you went to Antwerpen 🙂 The station is beautiful (these old structures – I love it!) and I would love to see the museum. It must be absolutely fascinating! I love this atmosphere of these old printing machines. Reminds me of my day out to Hamburg. The meaning of printed information, the possibilities and the impact it had on everything at that time is almost unimaginable now, on the other hand we nearly experience the same with the internet – you wrote it. Knowledge, information is multiplied and that in a blink of an eye (?). We will see where it will lead us. Already now it is often so nontransparent and misused. – Your photos are very nice. I love picture nr. 18 – so much like you Lynn 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am sure you would be in heaven at that museum. You would need to go over and over again – spend a week in Antwerp! 🙂 Knowledge was being reproduced and spread around in an unprecedented way then, and now even more so – well, as you said, we will have to see where it leads us. So glad you mentioned the black and white photo – it doesn’t fit here so well but it was probably my one artistic photo that day, so I had to include it. You understand. 😉 Thank you, and have a good weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, I too am filled with envy! Wow that’s some train station, like a locomotive cathedral. There’s so many fantastic details to take in, whether it’s illuminated documents or wonderful ornate buildings. And all those great little figures up on the rooftops – angels, knights, ships, how cool! Your print of a grotesque face looks like the Green Man on one of these high heat/high humidity days. 😊 And I like the way you captured the wavy worn stairs, expressing all those centuries of foot traffic, it gives them a dreamlike look.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A locomotive cathedral – perfect! I’m sure you’d have a great time exploring the station, the museum, and plenty more. I love your take on our souvenir – too funny. Thank you so much, Robert, I appreciate your presence.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Odd coincidence that Eric and I were just talking about his early days and experience in his printing press days. Your meanders away from nature are pure pleasure and highly enjoyable. Perhaps it’s the patina of age and history that we haven’t begun to achieve on this continent. It’s been a delightful departure from the nature photography! I do love the way you become immersed in the culture and the minutia during all of your travels. Such a blessed departure from the tourists descending from their monster cruise ships like a horde of marauders, ticking off items on their bucket lists. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s good to hear you enjoy the “meanders away from nature” too. 🙂 That museum is a gem. I always look for smaller museums, here in the US, too. In fact, did I tell you about the incredible one in Weaverville, CA? It’s a very old, thoroughly traditional Chinese temple from mining days. You could go there next time you’re in the area. Thanks Gunta, I hope all’s well!

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  5. Very interesting the sharing of your vision, details and history of this European city and museum.
    Important the comparison between the evolution of the press in this distant 16th century and the current expansion of the internet. The same jump.. but some levels up!
    And the world progresses….
    But it also retreats in solidarity and frightens the selfishness with which so many countries actually refuse to help people, migrants, when they themselves have been migrants in the past. They forget that “little” detail…
    As you said very well… “I hope that humanist ideals Plantin stood for aren’t entirely buried under today´s divisive rhetoric”.
    So do I.
    Have a nice weekend!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That little detail, yes, it’s really unbelievable, isn’t it? And over here it keeps getting worse, but this trend can’t last forever. Things will turn around, but when? Thanks so much, for reading, thinking, and commenting! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Ohh, love the train-station dome shot, love the staircase shot, love the person on the patio bench… and love that printer-publisher museum! specialty museums are the best… you nicely tease out all the social/political ramifications of the printing trade, thanks for that

    Liked by 1 person

    • The man sunning himself was so relaxed…I was glad I could take that photo and glad you liked it too, Penny. The Antwerp train station is wonderful, and what a treat it was to find that train station food is excellent in northern Europe. (I look for small museums here in the states too, and have found some good ones). I had a little help with the parts about printing, between researching online and talking it through with Joe, who is also a willing proof-reader. A bit of work, putting it all together, so your comments are deeply appreciated.

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  7. la sublime gare d’anvers…sourire…merci pour ce parcours en photo de cette belle ville, si proche d’où je suis…sourire
    j’aime en voir le regard d’une “voyageuse”…..et le regard est beau !!!
    dommage que je ne puisse lire le texte…sourire et belle journée !

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oui, cette gare est si belle! Et la foule m’a rappelé la gare centrale Grans de New York. J’avais l’habitude de prendre des trains là-bas.
      J’ai aussi écrit sur Christophe Plantin, dont la maison et l’imprimerie sont à présent un musée fascinant. Vous pouvez lire sur lui en ligne – très intéressant, comment il a fait plaisir au roi catholique Phillip II tout en travaillant secrètement à aider les protestants. Homme intelligent. 🙂 Je pense que vous aimeriez le musée. J’aurais aimé pouvoir vous rencontrer pendant notre séjour à Gand (c’était en Avril). J’aurais pu venir à Bruxelles. Peut-être que je reviendrai un jour. 🙂 sourire….

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  8. I have never been in Antwerpen. It seems to be a nice city, because of its history. The central station is fantastic! I love the structures and the shapes. It reminds me a little bit to the central station in Hamburg.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t really feel like I’ve been in Antwerpen either since we only saw the train station, the museum and the Grote Markt. But we liked what we saw. It would be fun, wouldn’t it, to be able to find a time in one of the grand old train stations when there were hardly any people, and still lots of natural light. Maybe you’ll get lucky in Hamburg sometime and you can spend a good hour concentrating on the architecture. I hope so!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. That was a strange accident … I’ll try again:
    While enjoying your new report on a European place, I could truly smell bohnerwachs and printing in these rooms of Christophe Plantin. As I learnd from your posts, you love museums. And far beyond that, Antwerp must have been intriguing for you. This cathedral -like station alone would be worth the trip!
    Old cities are really fascinating, historically and photographically at the same time. I’m experiencing it at the moment as well. Thank you for sharing your impressions with us, Lynn.

    Liked by 1 person

    • At least you didn’t have to try three times! Yes, I do like museums, especially smaller specialty ones – any good museum is like a great library or bookstore, but three dimensional. 😉
      Wouldn’t it be nice if they could have a separate room with one press still running, and you could truly smell the inks and hear the sounds, and everything? Antwerp was intriguing but we hardly saw it because of our late start. But that’s the way it is. I hope you enough time in Mainz to feel immersed. 🙂

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  10. What a wonderful day and wonderful series of photos. I was very aware when I visited Europe of the depth of history that occurred. It particularly struck me when my wife and I had lunch in a restaurant housed in the basement of a 500 year old building. Your photos really being out the age and beauty of these places.

    Liked by 1 person

    • For an American, the depth of history, as you so aptly put it, is a revelation. I never got to Europe when I was younger, so this is late in coming but that probably has advantages too. I really got a sense of old World vs. New World and have a better feeling for what that difference is all about. Maybe it’s partly our intense visual curiosity that makes us able to get so much out of these experiences, I don’t know. But I can tell you did, too.

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  11. Did you get to read any of the ode to women?

    Re: “I could sense how thrilling the acquisition of knowledge must have been to people in 16th century Europe….” I feel the same way five centuries later.

    Did you know that our word grotesque is etymologically grotto-eque? According to etymonline.com, “The explanation that the word first was used of paintings found on the walls of Roman ruins revealed by excavation (Italian pittura grottesca) is ‘intrinsically plausible,’ according to OED [Oxford English Dictionary].”

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  12. Hahaha!!! LOVE number 20!!! >>> yes, Harrie and I should meet up there! There’s the Duvel Triple, 9.5%, which is one of our favourites; despite the promising name, Delirium Tremens is nothing special; but if that Guinness is the 8% Belgian version, then its simply HEAVENLY!

    And I LOVE “The ticket taker looked a little worse for the wear ” >>> but he looks fine to me – characterful is the word >>> and I mean, if you think he looks a little the worse for wear >>> you should see ME!!! I mean, often, on the Levels, even the cows have more style!!! And I very much like image 7, the stairs, very striking. A 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh you noticed, good! snapped the photo with you in mind, posted with you (and Harrie) in mind. The ticket taker was a little rougher from the chest down but I couldn’t catch that. 😉 Glad you enjoyed the post, Adrian. 🙂

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    • You’re so right, one trip could yield enough material for many posts. And there are more to come. I’m so happy you mentioned that portrait – it really struck me. Just amazing. I loved seeing so many great works of art in the museums we went to, and I am truly a modern (minimalist mainly) art lover. But truthfully, of course, I will respond deeply to certain works from all times and places. That Rubens sings across the ages.

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  13. Enthusiasm for scientific inquiry. If only that was still the case rather than Call to Duty, etc.

    This was a fascinating excursion, Lynn. Nothing wrong with a change of pace and the same photographic quality is present whether it is nature or culture. It’s wonderful to see the details and obvious care that went into buildings back then. I don’t know if money was no object, but we likely will never see such intricacy and craftsmanship in the creation of structures in the future.

    That round window decoration with the compass is a work of fine art. Such beauty.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, “Texas Steve” still feels the intellectual passion (see his comment) but I hear you! 😉 I really appreciate your kind words about the subject matter. Yes, it’s heartening to be in the presence of all that evidence of caring touch and painstaking attention to detail. Glad you zeroed in on that window – it shows Plantin’s “icon” and motto. It was so pretty – I was glad I was able to photograph it. Thank you.

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  14. Never been in Antwerpen but form your words and pictures it really seems to be an interesting place to stay a few days.
    And you are correct, there are many “unknown minor museums” around which are really worthwhile to visit.

    I took a note about the Museum Plantin-Moresus maybe one day…love your photos and that B&W of such a special station is a beauty! You should print, frame and hang it!

    “… I hope that the humanist ideals Plantin stood for aren’t entirely buried under today’s divisive rhetoric” I hope it as well…thanks for thinking of it, we need more humanist ideals!

    robert

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maybe one day…and we stayed in Gent actually, which was very nice. Our favorite was Leiden if you do get to northern Europe. That’s one friendly, beautiful, charming place, with plenty to see as well, and great proximity to Amsterdam, Rotterdam, etc. What I saw and read about Plantin was inspiring. I’m glad you liked the station photo. Thank you!!

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  15. Your printing museum reminds me of a visit we had to a Gutenberg museum in Mainz, Germany a few years ago. We’d just flown in on the red-eye the night before and the low lighting to preserve those old texts made it quite the challenge to stay awake. Interesting though, the history of printing. I had a little first-hand experience back in 1976, working the night shift on a press that printed flyers. A whole different animal.

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    • The person with whom I posted about that old building in a village in Germany (Ule Rolfff, see comment above) just went to that museum, and I think she’s planning to post about it. Such a long flight from out here, I can imagine it was hard to focus! Printing is really cool stuff, I agree!

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    • Thank you, Denise! It was funny how, compared to other train stations, this one made me think of Grand Central – there was a similar bustle there. Those high ceilings really draw the attention up and elevate the experience. Have a good rest of your week!

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