Thursday, November 02, 2006

Amsterdam vacation III: If it's Saturday, this must be Belgium

If you are not particularly interested in the history of the printed word, you may never have learned more than the schoolbook one-liner, “Gutenberg invented printing in 1454,” or perhaps “Gutenberg invented printing with movable type.”

If you have an interest in the field, though, you undoubtedly know that neither of the above statements is true. Movable type was in use in Korea as early as the twelfth century. Printing is older than that. What invented was a way to cast any number of copies of a single, hand-cut punch. His principal invention, the hand mold, was responsible for the development of the commercial printing industry. Within a few short years, printing establishments sprang up all over Europe, producing books that ordinary folks could afford, pushing literacy ahead of the wave of production. Printing was the fifteenth century’s version of the dot com boom. Anybody interested in making a buck got into the biz. We can look at the history of the alphabet and writing styles and typefaces and the art of the book, but a full understanding has to include the history of the business, too.

By a century later, with the expansion of printing still in full swing, the Rupert Murdoch of the day, one Christopher Plantin, was a young Frenchman who had moved with his bride to Antwerp, a major printing center by then. He was a bookbinder, but he lost the use of one arm in a mugging and had to find another way to earn a living. He took up printing in 1555. He had some successes and some failures. Mostly successes. In 1576 he moved his business to a new facility, where his descendants ran the business until 1876—300 years in one location. By 1876, they were essentially living on interest and rents; they still loved printing but were no longer relying on it for income. They donated the premises and its contents intact to become a museum. The city of Antwerp owns and manages the museum today and they do so magnificently.

The Museum Plantin-Moretus (Moretus was Plantin’s son-in-law) houses the oldest extant printing press (amid several other presses that are not much newer), punches cut by Claude Garamond himself, over six hundred manuscripts dating back to the ninth century, the company’s nearly complete business archives, and other treasures that earned the museum the designation of a world heritage site.

For any student of printing, of type, of the history of technology or of business, of the Renaissance, of Humanism, of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, of architecture, of art, this is an institution that must be seen. The few hours we spent there were not nearly enough, and I would gladly go back as a mere tourist. But it is also a scholarly resource of immense importance, the heritage of the world, but also the heritage of one visionary businessman who established his own success principally by sucking up to rich customers whose views he detested (namely the Spanish Catholic church) and who ensured the continuity of the firm with a single brilliant insight that he decreed to be a principle of family tradition—that the business should pass not to the eldest son or the eldest child but rather to the most able. Thus this father of daughters passed it to the most able of his sons-in-law and it then passed down through the generations according to the same principle, bringing in daughters or nephews when sons were not up to the task.

There’s probably a lesson there for some of our contemporary institutions.

If you visit, enjoy a great lunch at reasonable prices at the small restaurant nearest the museum’s door. English is accepted, but credit cards are not. Real Belgian food. Real Belgian beer. Avoid eating in the tacky tourist areas you will pass through on your way to the museum.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comments re passing down family printing businesses. Henckel Press in New Market, VA (one of many ancesteral lines of mine) is still a going business and regularly they produce a German children's book (from what I understand) that was popular when they first came to this country. I would guess that it might have been passed down to in-laws as well, but as you know, families were large in yesteryears.