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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.