Werner Waterschoot:
16th Century Antwerp, a Cultural Capital

In the 1581 edition of his well-known Descrittione de tutti i Paesi Bassi Lodovico Guieciardini praised the printing-office of Christophe Plantin as unrivalled throughout Europe. This contemporary eulogy has been borne out by posterity. In our opinion, the activity of the Officina Plantiniana marks one of Antwerp's most characteristic cultural achievements in the 16th century. Guicciardini mentioned no other printer besides Plantin. Nevertheless, the latter was not the only printer in Antwerp at that time, nor was he the first one. Antwerp had played a prominent part in Dutch typographic history since 1481. By the end of the 15th century, the city held the greatest share of book-production in the Southern Netherlands. With 432 titles produced before 1501, Antwerp excelled Leuven (270 titles), whereas all other southern towns together produced no more than 131 books. At that time, only the cities of Zwolle and Deventer in the north were more important in the same field. Both cities took profit from the existence of famous schools, organised by the Brethren of the Common Life, and, as a consequence, by the presence of an avid reading public.

The rise of Antwerp as a typographic centre, however, was due to other circumstances. Printing needed money, first of all for establishing and equipping the shop, but, still more important, for financing forthcoming publications. The cost of paper was the heaviest burden on the printer's budget and had to be paid for before production began. On the other hand, the profit made by the sold copies came in only slowly. The necessary capital, then, was most easily supplied in a dynamically growing city such as Antwerp. Its increasing means of communications and steadily spreading hinterland facilitated and accelerated the sale of the printer's output.

The career of Antwerp's earliest important printer is representative in this respect. Gerard Leeu had been active as a printer at Gouda in Holland, where he produced some 60 books in the years 1477-1484. He then went to Antwerp and printed more than 150 books, apparently for a much wider, even international public.

Like many of Antwerp's foremost merchants and captains of finance, quite a lot of the printers were of foreign origin. This circumstance was no obstacle for practising the printing business. Although the guilds kept the number of masters restricted and, since 1558, printers had had to join the Guild of St Luke, access to their trade was not arranged by enrolment in some guild, but by acquiring a patent from the central government exempt from all town regulations. As a result, the sector expanded continuously: in the years 1501-1510, 45 people constituted the typographic trade; by the 1570s, this number had multiplied by ten.

As in other economic respects, Antwerp surpassed the rest of the Netherlands in this sector. Ghent and Brussels counted some ten printers, Leuven had as many as 42 of them, but their production was only of local interest, compared to some of Antwerp's outstanding crafts-masters from the first half of the 16th century.

Michael Hillen van Hoochstraten published more than 150 books in the years 1506-1546, ranging from writings by Erasmus and Luther to almanacs. Issuing his publications as job-work, he had some of them printed at Delft and in Paris. He worked for the English market too. Yet more impressive was the career of Willem Vorsterman, who published about 400 books in the period 1504-1543. Besides job-work for colleagues in Ghent, Amsterdam, Leiden, Konstanz and other cities, he contracted out work to other Antwerp firms and to Jodocus Badius in Paris. Consequently, his production was a very polyglot one: it comprises books in Dutch, French, English, Spanish and Danish. The preponderance of Antwerp printers made that city the natural place for the production of important, voluminous and illustrated books in the Netherlands.

The runaway success of the Antwerp printing-houses manifested itself in three very specific features of production: diversification, topicality and mass-production. At the beginning of the 16th century, religious literature held a great segment of the book-market: between 1500 and 1539, of 2,650 books printed in Antwerp, no less than 1,164 items belonged to the pious sector, devotional works prevailing heavily with 371 titles, that is one third part of this kind of literature. The predominance of this genre of late medieval origin diminished in favour of religious controversy under the influence of the Reformation. In this respect, the diffusion of the Bible in the vernacular was essential. As early as 1540, no less than 40 of 48 Dutch Bible-editions in the Lutheran spirit had appeared. Antwerp printers spread these Reformed signals to foreign countries as well. Willem Vorsterman printed the New Testament in Danish for Chrisoem Pedersen and in 1530 Martin Lempereur published the Bible in French, translated by Jacques Lefevre d'Etaples. Antwerp was also the place where Tyndale's publications came out. Lutheran literature was prohibited by imperial order. Hence its production and sale was a very profitable business, but a risky one as well: three Antwerp printers had to climb the scaffold for that reason.

Although religious controversy literature held the preponderance — as in all other European countries — the Antwerp presses produced a variegated offer of books: songbooks and chapbooks for common entertainment, schoolbooks for youth, dictionaries, books on accountancy and on cartography for the business world, scientific books for practitioners and scholars.

Topicality could not remain absent from the typographic production of such a commercial centre as Antwerp. News sheets, mostly about political subjects, were spread in large amounts, usually by minor printers. Prognostications ensured a steady and guaranteed income to the publishers. Neither should the function of prints in the diffusion of all kinds of information be underestimated. Antwerp publishers demonstrated their alertness by reprinting most quickly books that tended to be successful sellers. The first edition of Sigismund von Herberstein's Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii came out in Basel in 1555. One year later the book was published in Antwerp. Distance proved to be no obstruction. Antonio Possevino's Moscovia appeared in Wilna, now in Lithuania, but the work did not escape the attention of Plantin, who managed to offer his edition one year later, in 1587.

Massification in book-production was manifested in the size of the Antwerp printing- offices: a quarter of them were great business-concerns. At an early stage, the cutting of type and type-foundry was assigned to specialists, whereas printing, publishing and bookselling was reserved to themselves.

The most representative was, of course, Christophe Plantin. The importance of Antwerp as a typographic centre became decisive through his activity alone. Plantin himself explained his choice of Antwerp with three reasons: the availability of materials, the abundance of craftsmen, and the easy access to the market. At the zenith of his activities in the 1570s, he kept at least 16 presses working and had 20 compositors, 32 pressmen, and 3 proofreaders in his service, in addition to the staff for his house and bookshop. Between 1555 and 1589 he produced some 2,450 books, which he distributed via Paris and Frankfort. Due to the monopoly on liturgical books in Spain and its colonies, he acquired a very lucrative position. It enabled him to become Europe's leading printer of humanist, scientific and religious literature. He was famous for his press-work, set in type which was designed by the best French and Dutch specialists. He deliberately preferred copper-plate illustrations to woodcuts. As a result, copper-plate illustration became predominant in the next century. The quality of his work was such that scholars from all over Europe offered him their writings for publication. After 1585, when the Spanish regime and the old Church had stabilized, the variety of Plantin's production diminished as the number of Catholic devotional publications increased. This evolution was parallelled by that of the Giolito firm in Venice which, under the influence of the Counter-Reformation, restricted itself to religious books in Italian for the geographically limited market.

Besides Plantin's officinal Guicciardini was moved to praise many of Antwerp's accomplishments, such as the art of singing and dancing. “All over the city”, he said, “one sees everywhere weddings, banquets and dancings. Everywhere, one hears cheerful singing and clinking”. The Venetian ambassador Vincenzo Quirini characterised the music in Antwerp at the beginning of the century as ‘perfect’ and his colleague Bernardo Navagero considered the inhabitants of the Netherlands to be born musicians. The most steady and most important musical centre in Antwerp was provided by the church. The Antwerp cathedral held twelve choristers, who lived in a private house, where they received instruction from their master. On high feast-days, hours and masses were sung in descant. The singing-master was a composer as well. At the beginning of the 16th century, this office was held by the famous Jacob Obrecht, whose polyphonic compositions are characterised by an extraordinary capacity for assimilation. The city itself had a company of fiddlers in its service. They presumably provided for the secular and ecclesiastical performances after vocal patterns. As well as the cathedral the four parish churches and many monasteries contributed to the musical culture as well.

Antwerp had many composers, who were active as singers, clergymen, schoolmasters, or men in private service. There must have been an intense concert-life, very little of which is known, however. Andries Pevemage, the singing-master of the cathedral after 1585, is said to have organized weekly concerts at his home, where compositions of Italian, French and Dutch masters would have been performed. The upper-class youth received musical instruction from private teachers. Some texts of the foremost Renaissance poet Jan van der Noot were set to music by four of the best composers, Hubert Waelrant, Andries Pavemage, Grégoire Treschault and Cornelis Verdonck, all living in Antwerp at that time. When enumerating members of the Antwerp aristocracy, Guicciardini more than once pointed out that the gentleman in question was well-versed in music. Still in the 1650s the Dutch poet and diplomat Constantijn Huygens highly appreciated the musical culture which he encountered in the Duarte house in Antwerp.

Antwerp was also a centre for the production of music-books. Tielman Susato, an immigrant from Cologne, was the first to gain an internationally reputed position for music printing. Other important masters such as Jan de Laet published advanced music works. The indefatigable Plantin produced the finest choir-books. From the 1570s on, the Bellerus and Phalesius families were leading houses for this musical production. The whole contemporary repertoire was made available by the Antwerp presses: vernacular song-books and psalms, as well as polyphonic secular and ecclesiastical music. Works of all famous European composers were offered by the Antwerp publishers, if sometimes with great delay.

Another feature which characterised Antwerp as a centre of music was the production of musical instruments. Hans Ruckers from Mechelen, the well-known builder of clavecins, managed a company of a size comparable to Plantin's officina. Ifis products, like Plantin's, were sent all over Europe. Although Ruckers was the leading manufacturer of these instruments, he was not the only one. Another important business in this field was the building of organs. They were exported as far as Spain and Scandinavia. In the Antwerp cathedral itself, no less than four organs were mounted.

Literature and performing arts flourished in this prosperous and stimulating setting. Humanists were usually committed to royal patronage, and therefore other towns offered them more advantages: Brussels as the seat of the court, Mechelen as juridical centre, and Leuven as the place of learning. Hence humanists in residence were civil servants in high functions, writing in their spare time. In the 16th century, the Netherlands produced a plethora of scholars and scientists. Yet the most prominent men did not live in Antwerp: neither Andreas Vesalius, nor Gerardus Mercator, nor Simon Stevin, nor Rembertus Dodonaeus. Yet they do belong to the Antwerp humanist scene, for their works were printed in that city. Thanks to the competence of the Antwerp publishers, there was a permanent coming and going of distinguished men of learning. This visiting was not limited to Dutch scholars: foreign writers as well had their works printed in Antwerp, such as the Danish Reformer Christjem Pedersen, his English colleague William Tyndale, and the Hungarian physician and author of emblems Joannes Sambucus.

In the second half of the 16th century, Plantin's officina developed into an humanist centre. It started with his greatest editorial enterprise, the polyglot Bible under the supervision of the Spanish theologian Arias Montanus. Many scholars were involved ill this project. Plantin's printing of Latin literature, old and new, did the rest. Together with his friend, the geographer Abraham Ortelius, he formed a nucleus on which men like Justus Lipsius, Joris Hoefnagel, Frans Hogenberg and Gerard Mercator could rely for their Antwerp affairs. After Plantin's death in 1589, Ortelius became the undisputed head of the Antwerp learned society. In particular, he acted as a benevolent intermediary between European scholars in matters of antiquity.

Although Antwerp's humanists enjoyed a solid reputation in the European respublica litterarum, they were not conspicuous in the streets. To reach the common people's ear was the objective of the Dutch rhetoricians. Literary life in the Netherlands had become a matter for the chambers of rhetoric. Even in the 15th century, such a chamber had been a meeting place of men interested in literature who wrote poetry in mutual competition. This phenomenon spread with great success in the most urbanized regions of the Netherlands. Naturally, these companies competed in producing poetry and drama. Their impact was not unimportant. A gathering of chambers in Ghent in the year 1539 had an alarming effect on the authorities because Lutheran points of view were uttered on that occasion. The dukedom of Brabant was home to a particular type of competition, the ‘Land's Jewel’. This dramatic competition was held exclusively between a group of Brabant chambers. The winner of the first match was awarded a plate of silver. This winning chamber was obliged to organize the next contest and to enlarge the prize with one more plate. ne cycle ended after seven meetings, when the ultimate winner got seven silver plates. Antwerp had three such chambers: the ‘Gilliflowers’, fused with the Guild of St Luke in 1480; the ‘Marigold’, founded in 1488; and the ‘Olive-branch’, dating from 1510. The ‘Gilliflowers’, was twice victorious in the ‘Land's Jewel’ and had to organize the next festival, which they did in 1496 and 1561 respectively. From the 1496 feast nothing is left but a list of the prizes. On the other hand, the texts of the competition in 1561 were collected into a bulky volume, printed in 1562. The introductory pages describe the entrance of the 14 participating chambers as a magnificent spectacle. There were 1328 men on horseback beside many actors on 23 antique and 196 illuminated chariots. Of course, this entry was primarily a display of the wealth and splendour of Brabant towns, represented by their chambers. But it was Antwerp which had set the framework and had summoned the whole dukedom to participate in the contest. The ‘Gilliflowers’ depended heavily on the Antwerp authorities for the organization of the festival. It was the city authorities which had to get the consent of the central government for such a comprehensive manifestation. The collaboration between city and guild was assured by the presence of several aldermen on the committee of the chamber. No great surprise then that one of the items in the programme was a ‘Eulogy of the honest merchant’. Many prizes were offered, not only for purely dramatic matters such as for the best actor, but also for the most impressive entrance, the finest allegorical blazon, the most solemn presence in church and the most brilliant illumination of lodgings. The festivities lasted from the 3rd of August until the 26th. Trade was slow during that period, because all attention was concentrated on the stage, which was set up in the marketplace. Antwerp was crowded with visitors from all over the Netherlands. The fame of this contest, which put an end to the ‘Land's Jewel’, was consolidated by the 1562 publication, which set standards for similar assemblies in Northern Netherlands for the rest of the century.

There was one type of occasion on which humanists, artists and rhetoricians joined forces to prepare a major political and cultural pageant: the entry of a new sovereign. These celebrations were high points in 16th century urban life. In 1520, when honouring the emperor Charles V, the town secretary Cornelius Grapheus and the clerk Pieter Gillis invented Latin, Greek and Hebrew inscriptions for the triumphal arches and tableaux vivants. 250 painters and 300 carpenters executed the project. Other such occasions were the presentation of Prince Philippe as the heir to the throne in 1549, the inauguration of the Duke of Anjou by the rebellious provinces after deserting the Spanish king in 1582, the welcoming of Archduke Ernest as a representative of Philippe II in 1594, and the entry of Albert and Isabella as new sovereigns in 1599. On each of these celebrations, accounts were published to emphasise the city's loyalty as well as its power, as demonstrated by the opulence of these festivities. The entry of Prince Philippe in 1549 must have been the most grandiose spectacle of them all. The now old Grapheus provided the programme while the artistic organization was entrusted to Pieter Coecke van Aelst, who had taken every recognised artist in his charge. The whole city was covered with triumphal arches and stages. More than 2000 columns had to be painted. Because the old city hall was in disrepair, a temporary wooden palace had been erected in the marketplace.

What remained of all this after 1585? Roughly speaking, Antwerp's cultural achievements stood firm for a while. Most conspicuous as a break with the past was the oppression of the chambers of rhetoric. The Duke of Alba declared them to be hotbeds of heresy and they were forbidden for the rest of the century. The time of the ‘Land's Jewel’ was over. However, musical life continued to flower in Antwerp during the 17th century. Book production went on too. After 1589 a number of printers and journeymen left for the Northern Netherlands, where they stimulated the rise of the Holland printing business. The impetus of the Counter-Reformation provided for a new flourishing of religious literature. But the spiritual climate had changed. The old heterodox visitors absented themselves from the now rigidly Catholic city. Uniformity of mind began to prevail upon diversity of opinion. At the end of the century, devotional literature again had a substantial share of Antwerp book production, just as it had at the beginning of the century. Had the variegated achievements been but an intermezzo?

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