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Books for a new world

Production by Belgian publisher Plantin-Moretus supplied culture and information to the Iberian peninsula and its colonies between the 16th and 18th centuries.

The painting that covers the nave of the mother church of São Jose de Nova Era, a city in Minas Gerais...

IGREJA DE SÃO JOSÉ, NOVA ERA (MG)The painting that covers the nave of the mother church of São Jose de Nova Era, a city in Minas Gerais… IGREJA DE SÃO JOSÉ, NOVA ERA (MG)

Near the center of Antwerp, Belgium, on a street called Vrijdagmarkt (which means Friday Market in Flemish), stands the world’s most complete museum of graphic arts, the Plantin-Moretus, name of the publishing house that operated there between 1555 and 1876. The museum is “a rare jewel,” according to historians Júnia Ferreira Furtado, professor in the History Department of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), and Iris Kantor of the History Department of the University of São Paulo’s Faculty of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences (FFLCH-USP). A visit to the Plantin-Moretus gives one not only the most complete trip through the typographic printing arts of the period but also a glimpse of the world of printed matter commerce during the era of maritime expansion.

Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2005, the significance of the museum and the Plantin-Moretus publishing house should resonate with Ibero-American countries. The port of Antwerp, as well as all the southern Low Countries, as Belgium was known, was under Spanish domination between the 16th and 18th centuries and the Plantin-Moretus played a privileged role in the production of graphic and editorial works commissioned by the Iberian monarchies, works that also circulated in the Spanish-American and Asian colonies. Therefore, a large number of the books that came to Brazil during the colonial era also had their origins in the print shop founded by Christophe Plantin (1520-1589). But its importance has been routinely underestimated, and not only in Ibero-American countries.

Such disregard was the primary reason for the exhibit entitled No rastro de Colombo. Livros e estampas de Antuérpia no mundo inteiro (On the trail of Columbus. Books and prints from Antwerp found all over the world), organized in 2009 at the Plantin-Moretus by Eddy Stols, a specialist in relations between Belgium and the Iberian and Ibero-American worlds at the Catholic University of Leuven, in Belgium. “People usually do not recognize how vital the economy of the southern Low Countries, and of Antwerp in particular, was after the Spanish reconquered them in the 1580s,” says Stols. “On the contrary, the integration of the Flemish into the Luso-Spanish world system lasted for many years and did not disappear after the region passed from Spanish to Austrian hands in 1713.”

The exhibit resulted in a book entitled O mundo sobre papel: livros, gravuras e impressos flamengos nos impérios português e espanhol (séculos XVI a XVIII) (The world on paper: Flemish books, engravings, and prints during the Portuguese and Spanish Empires (16th to 18th century)), which was published in 2009 in Spanish and Flemish and will come out in a Brazilian edition this year, the result of collaboration between the Editora da Universidade de São Paulo (Edusp) and the UFMG publishing house. In Brazil, the book, which in its original edition already included articles by Brazilian specialists, gains three more that were produced here.

... is a rereading of an engraving in Missal 34, a Portuguese book that circulated for many years in Brazil.

CASA DOS CONTOS, OURO PRETO (MG)… is a rereading of an engraving in Missal 34, a Portuguese book that circulated for many years in Brazil.CASA DOS CONTOS, OURO PRETO (MG)

“The compilation of studies sheds light on a multitude of anonymous professionals who made up a complex network of publishers. Seen comparatively, the impact of the Flemish publishing houses was as important as was the French Enciclopédia in the 18th century. The works published in Flanders formed the basis of the scientific revolution of modern times,” says Iris Kantor. She was one of the editors of the Brazilian edition of O mundo sobre papel (The World on Paper), along with Júnia Ferreira Furtado, Eddy Stols, and Werner Thomas, of the Catholic University of Leuven. Kantor also authored a study about the impact that the works by cartographer Abraham Ortelius and philosopher Justus Lipsius, both Flemish, had on the literate colonial elite in Brazil.

According to Kantor, Antwerp became the home of 2,000 enterprises connected with the production of graphic arts. The city was a major maritime port, the connection between the Atlantic and Indian oceans, northern Europe, and Asia, a city greatly coveted by the Protestants of the northern Low Countries (Holland). “Antwerp became the publishing center that supplied all four corners of the Luso-Hispanic empire. The Flemish publishing houses disseminated a new sense of cosmopolitanism that encouraged interaction among cultures and transfer of cultural models through printed texts and images,” Kantor says. Among the city’s publishing houses, Plantin gained special prominence when, in 1571, King Philip II of Spain granted it a lucrative monopoly on the production of liturgical books that would be used in the Spanish territories, a privilege that extended to the Portuguese crown.

“Scientific” publication of the bible
In 1576, typography shops had already produced 18,000 breviaries, 17,000 missals, 9,000 books of hours, and 8,000 liturgical books of other kinds for that market. The close relationship between the monarch and Plantin had been sealed ever since the publisher was given the task of developing and publishing the Bíblia Poliglota (Multilingual Bible), also known as the Bíblia Régia (King’s Bible), that made an international impact. Its eight volumes were published between 1568 and 1573 in five languages: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Syrian, and Aramaic.

The preparation of the Bíblia Poliglota involved illustrious learned men of the times, under the supervision of theologian Benito Arias Montano. It is this aspect of a humanistic center of the Catholic Counter-Reformation that leads Kantor to compare the Flemish publishers to the French illuminists and their devotion to encyclopedias. The Bíblia Poliglota itself intended to be considered as a “scientific” edition of the sacred texts.

Frontispiece illustrated by Rubens for Las obras en verso (Works in Verse) published in 1663.

PLANTIN-MORETUS MUSEUM/PRINTING ROOMFrontispiece illustrated by Rubens for Las obras en verso (Works in Verse) published in 1663.PLANTIN-MORETUS MUSEUM/PRINTING ROOM

The figure of Christophe Plantin was essential in the scenario of intellectual effervescence and restlessness brought about by maritime expansion. “Plantin kept up correspondence with the most important scientists of the time,” Kantor says. “The publishing house served as a gathering place where knowledge was decanted. Many of the intellectuals were neighbors of each other in Antwerp, and the publisher had set aside a room where they could meet.” The humanist movement was not divorced from the mercantile economy. Knowledge, especially the learning of languages, was vital to anyone who was engaged in foreign trade. “What was being inaugurated in those days was a market for books that supported itself and flourished with enormous power and scope,” says Kantor.

Between 1555 and 1589, Plantin published about 2,450 titles. Liturgical and religious works represented 33% of its volume, but other products ranged from music notebooks to legal, historical and geographical texts. Scientific treatises (7.3% of the total) included subjects such as cartography, medicine, astronomy, technology, pharmacology, botany, and mathematics. In illustrating the books, Plantin pioneered the use of copper engraving, which ultimately replaced the wood-cutting used by German printers. The publisher ascribed great importance to the quality of the images it produced. Among the artists who worked for Plantin were Pieter Paul Rubens and Pieter Brueghel the Elder. When he died, Plantin left the business to his son-in-law, Jan Moretus, who added his surname to that of the company.

As in the metropolis, so in the colonies like Brazil, it was religious publications that were the most popular among the general public, whether needed for the practice of the faith among the colonizers or for the catechism of new souls. The material did not arrive unaccompanied in the colonies. “The illustrated missals, catechism, and devotional books opened up to the evangelized peoples of three continents not only the Catholic religion but also a broader culture and a new picture of the world through the works of Erasmus of Rotterdam, the re-publishing of Roman classics, and the maps by Ortelius, for example,” says Eddy Stols.

The broad dissemination of knowledge—and the transformation of the book into a product circulated in world trade—brought unexpected cultural crossbreeding and made lasting marks. “Painters in Spanish America reproduced scenes of ice skaters and figures like archangels armed with rifles and dressed in Flemish lace,” Stols says. “And the Japanese synthesized what they knew about foreign lands in their fabrication of folding screens, which featured maps of the world and drawings of Western cities.”

Retrato de Cristophe Plantin (Portrait of Christophe Plantin), painted by Rubens during the period of 1613-1616.

Plantin-Moretus Museum/Printing RoomRetrato de Cristophe Plantin (Portrait of Christophe Plantin), painted by Rubens during the period of 1613-1616.Plantin-Moretus Museum/Printing Room

Churches in Minas Gerais
Two articles presented in Um mundo sobre papel–-one by Alex Bohrer, professor at the Ouro Preto Art Foundation and another by Camila Fernandes Guimarães Santiago, professor of art history at Bahia’s Federal University of the Recôncavo—deal with the sometimes explicit influence of Flemish engravings on the baroque churches of Minas Gerais. “Flemish pictorial production adorned various kinds of spaces, such as ceilings and altars,” says Júnia Ferreira Furtado. “Plantin’s engravings were subjected to all kinds of appropriations.”

The Plantin product line ultimately also marked the formation of the first libraries in Brazilian territory. Although among the general public the printed materials that circulated most frequently were the missals and catechisms, a cultured (not merely literate) elite was importing books according to their specific needs—treatises on mathematics and engineering for the military, for example. “There were no bookstores. Instead there were importers who were agents, distributors to the people involved in the colonization process like magistrates, governors of captaincies, and authorities in general,” Iris Kantor explains.

At the same time, the first humanist collections were being formed in libraries maintained by the religious orders. “People tend to take a deprecating view of the culture of the colonial era,” the professor continues. She emphasizes that the idea that the art of illustration did not reach Brazil until the end of the 18th century is false. “The Jesuits’ library in Bahia in the first half of the 18th century, for example, had 3,000 to 4,000 volumes, more or less that same as the average number found in European libraries of the same period.” At any rate, as the researcher points out, with the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1759 the transmission and preservation of that bibliographic heritage was irremediably compromised.”