Karen Bowen and Dirk Imhof have written a major contribution to the literature on the Plantin Press in Antwerp, with special relevance for scholars of the history of printmaking. Imhof, a curator at the Plantin-Moretus Museum, and Bowen each have an extensive history of research and publications, separately and jointly, on Plantin. Their particular distinction here, which informs every chapter of the book, is a thorough familiarity with the Plantin archives.
Although engraved illustrations in printed books were attempted as early as 1476, woodcut illustrations remained the norm well into the sixteenth century. The person most responsible for the eventual triumph of intaglio illustrations over woodcuts was Christopher Plantin, whose output of books with three or more engraved or etched text illustrations comes to around 115, compared to the approximately 20 volumes of his nearest competitor, Antonio Lafreri in Rome. Bowen and Imhof carefully analyze the many obstacles and complications peculiar to intaglio illustration, and the creative, flexible solutions Plantin devised to overcome them. As they also emphasize, he had the good fortune of being favored by historical circumstances: the patronage of Philip II and a windfall of demand for religious texts, courtesy of the Council of Trent.
Though an engraving renders a sharper, more detailed, and mimetic image than a woodcut, still it is not difficult to understand why woodcut illustrations remained the standard in early book publishing for so long. To print a woodcut illustration, the woodblock was laid in the printing forme along with the moveable type of the text, and they were printed together. By contrast, inserting an engraved illustration into a page of type required the intaglio plate to be printed separately on a roller press after the text had first been printed on a screw press, necessitating two printings per page. Metal plates and their incising were also more costly, and since they became worn sooner than woodblocks, the plates had to be reworked or replaced for large runs.
This leads to one of the authors’ special virtues: a pragmatic, empirical approach to solving technical and historical problems. Instead of guesstimating the theoretical number of impressions possible per medium, as is common in the print literature (or accepting Plantin’s word that engraved plates produce only 1000 impressions: Appendix 2), the authors take the sensible step of counting the number of impressions actually published of designated engravings and etchings in Plantin books from the same years, initially printed with new plates and reprinted with the same plates. This yields precise numbers: 4071 impressions of the engravings and 3100-3200 impressions of the etchings, though they stress that etched plates show “fatigue” after around 1500 printings (pp. 237-43). These useful statistics can be taken in conjunction with Jan van der Stock’s count of 9,500 woodcut impressions made from a single documented Antwerp woodblock, between 1536-37 and 1585-86 (Printing Images in Antwerp,Rotterdam, 1998, p. 121).
Publishing books with engraved rather than woodcut illustrations created a host of difficulties for Plantin, chief of which was finding and retaining artist-engravers for his shop. At times this problem was grave enough that he had to turn to artists living outside Antwerp to meet demand. Among his other innovative solutions and marketing strategies: having multiple plates of the same image created initially so as not to interrupt a large press run; updating second and third editions of a title by adding new engravings; re-using existing plates for illustrations in multiple titles; and mixing plates by different artists (disregarding stylistic inconsistencies) if the subjects and sizes fit. Yet Plantin’s entrepreneurial vision also created his ascendency. A turning point in his career was his bold plan for an entirely new and scientific Bible, the “Polyglot Bible,” with comparative texts in four ancient languages plus Latin, and an illustrated appendix containing vocabulary, units of measure, fashion, and ecclesiastical structures of the ancient Hebrews. He approached Philip II and persuaded him to support the eight-volume project. It was overseen by Benito Arias Montano, the King’s chaplain and biblical scholar. Few printed Bibles before this one had been illustrated, and the high-quality engravings plus the novel scientific character of the appendix illustrations established Plantin’s preeminence among Catholics.
During this same period (1569), Plantin began winning papal rights as the sole Netherlands publisher of new editions of the catechism, breviary, and missal that had been dictated by the Council of Trent. The Council’s decision, enforced by the pope, required use of existing texts to be discontinued, and overnight the need for new liturgical books surged. Though publishers in other countries also received privileges to publish the new editions, Plantin had more presses at his disposal and the advantage of connections with Philip II and Montano. When Philip obtained papal permission to have special Spanish versions of the new breviary and missal printed, it was Plantin who received the orders, and between 1571-75 his press shipped nearly 50,000 new liturgical books to Spain. With minor exceptions, no other European publishers were producing these books with engraved illustrations, like Plantin.
Late in life, Plantin experimented with etched rather than engraved illustrations. Though quicker and cheaper to make, etchings were not to be the medium of the future. His successor and son-in-law, Jan Moretus, rightly recognized that the greater durability of the engraved plate (4100 impressions vs. 3200 etched impressions), even with the etching’s cheaper start-up costs, made engravings more cost effective for big jobs. Engraved illustrations became the European standard in the seventeenth century, for which Plantin deserves much of the credit.
Bowen and Imhof have produced a distinguished study, demonstrating a keen grasp of the technicalities of production, the logistical difficulties of coordinating a new industry, and Plantin’s gift for finding and creating new markets for a new product. It includes five archive-based appendices, covering the artists who worked for Plantin, pricing, sales information, and other invaluable data. This is an authoritative book, joining the ranks of Leon Voet’s magisterial studies of the Plantin Press and Jan van der Stock’s landmark study of early Antwerp printmaking.
Editor’s note: The book won the 2009 Roland H. Bainton Prize in Art and Music History from the Sixteenth-Century Society and Conference. The authors also received a HNA publication grant.