Christophe Plantin, the French-born, Antwerp-based Gutenberg
No other Belgian has left his mark on the publishing world quite like Christophe Plantin did. The French born Antwerp resident is without doubt the most influential European printer after Johannes Gutenberg. Schools and publishers in Belgium still carry his name today.
Fair's fair. Christophe Plantin is an adopted Belgian. He was born in 1520 in the French municipality of Saint-Aventin near Tours. He grew up there in a modest and not too fortunate family. Plantin was fifteen when he saw his father for the last time, and a few years later he lost his mother to the plague. Without any support from home, he travelled around various French cities looking for work in the printing industry. Plantin finally arrived in Antwerp in 1550 as a bookbinder, along with his wife. Despite his training in the printing and bookbinding guild, he first had to complete several years in the luxury industry.
It was only when Plantin was commissioned to bind the municipal administration for Antwerp that his career began to take off. In the subsequent years, he opened his own shop which he called The Golden Compass. Its emblem was a compass held by a divine hand. Plantin chose the Latin phrase ‘labore et constantia’ (‘by labour and constancy’) as the text to accompany the logo. This motto would be the central theme all throughout his career. Starting from nothing, Plantin worked with admirable vigour and discipline to become the personal printer of King Philip II. The King commissioned Plantin to print the so-called Biblia Polyglotta, a multi-lingual bible with a different font for each language.
By extending his relations, Plantin worked very prudently and also opportunistically. During the Iconoclastic Fury of 1566, he supported Spain and even worked in the service of the Duke of Alba. When the Spanish Fury also broke out in Antwerp, Plantin cut his losses and moved to the Dutch town of Leiden for almost ten years, where he worked as a printer at the university. He finally returned to Antwerp, where he died in 1589. At the time, Plantin was the most important printer of religious, liturgical and humanist works.
Since only Plantin's daughters were still alive, it wasn't obvious who would continue the printing house. Eventually, Plantin had chosen one of his sons-in-law, Jan Moretus, to manage the printing house after his death. Moretus also had French roots. He carried on Plantin's work, and the printing house continued to be a meeting place for all kinds of humanists right up until the 19th century. Today, the old printing house has become the Plantin-Moretus Museum. In 2005, it was the first museum to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visitors from all over the world can now discover how Plantin further refined Gutenberg's art of book printing.