Plantin-Moretus Museum: On a journey to the 16th century
Text: Arne Adriaenssens | Photos: Plantin-Moretus Museum
We tend to assume that travelling is an invention of the modern age, but it is as old as mankind itself. Ever since we opted for a sedentary existence, we have roamed the earth for a myriad of reasons – food, war, business… In the 16th century, one of these avid travellers was letterpress pioneer Christophe Plantin. With the mini-exhibition On the road with Plantin. Travel in the 16th century, Antwerp’s Plantin-Moretus Museum lets you tag along on his journeys and explore what it’s like to travel in the 1500s.
The Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp is a unique historical site in the heart of the city. It was the house and workshop of the Plantin-Moretus book printer family – the descendants of Christophe Plantin, the Flemish letterpress trailblazer who printed many important folios, among which the first atlas; the first Dutch dictionary; and the Biblia Regia, a ground-breaking, eight-volume bible in five languages. “The fascinating story of these books is told on the first floor,” explains Werner van Hoof, curator of historic residence at the museum. “You visit three stunning libraries, as well as other personal rooms of the Plantin-Moretus family and can immerse yourself in their bibliography. The exhibition is divided into four parts: languages, science, religion and man and society.” Downstairs, in the former salons, printing halls, offices and store, you get close and personal with the man that was Christophe Plantin and the impact that he had on the world. “Unique is that the family and corporate archives of the Plantin-Moretus family have survived the time as well, providing us with 300 years’ worth of corporate and personal details. Alongside our entire museum being UNESCO World Heritage, these documents have received the UNESCO Memory of the World status.”
This summer, the museum zooms in on Plantin’s travels with the mini-exhibition On the road with Plantin. Travel in the 16th century. “As a businessman, Christophe Plantin spent a lot of time on the road,” explains van Hoof, who is also the curator of this mini-exhibition. “He paid his international contacts and relations a visit, went to the famous book-fair of Frankfurt, visited his store in Paris or headed to his printing house in Leiden. We often think that the 16th century was an immobile era, but some people were travelling regularly already – students, pilgrims, soldiers and tradesmen, to name a few.” Obviously, travelling was more difficult back then. As tourism was not yet organised and travelling over land put you at high risk of being robbed, many travelled over water. “But that was risky as well as sinking ships were the rule rather than the exception. Distribution of luxury goods, like books, could therefore only be done over the dangerous trails.”
The mini-exhibition counts numerous interesting facts and anecdotes. For example, the struggle that these tradesmen had with currency exchanges. “As every county had its own coin, tradesmen always carried a little balance and book with the different currencies with them. This way, they could weigh the money they received and check what it was worth.” With the robbers along the roads, tradesmen like Plantin used a system to ‘transfer’ the money to their hometowns as well. They gave the cash to a local businessman, who would give them a promissory note in return. In return for this paper, one of this businessman’s connections would pay out the money upon arrival.
“The story of Plantin and his contemporaries’ travels is a fascinating one. While preparing the mini-exhibition, we stumbled upon way more fascinating information than we could possibly fit in our exhibition. That’s why we publish a complementary book on the subject as well. People whose curiosity is tickled by our exhibition can read it to immerse themselves even deeper in the matter.”
500 years of Christophe Plantin: In 2020 the Museum Plantin-Moretus celebrates the 500th anniversary of Christophe Plantin. To celebrate the 500th birthday of Christopher Plantin, the museum hosts another mini-exhibition about Plantin’s letters and a big expo about 16th-century inventions (both from 9 October 2020 to 10 January 2021). They also dust off Plantin’s original wood stamps and let creative souls use them to create something new with them – both in the museum itself as online. www.museumplantinmoretus.be
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