From 'the greatest printing office in the world'

A leaf from Biblia Sacra ... a Theologis Lovaniensibus Praestitum (The Holy Bible, Prepared by the Theologians of Louvain) published by Christopher Plantin at Antwerp in 1583 (408 x 270 mm)  

This splendid leaf comes from the press of Christopher Plantin (Christophe in his native French, Cristoffel in Dutch) – one of the great names in printing history, and  probably the best known printer-publisher anywhere in the 16th century. A Frenchman by birth, Plantin moved to Antwerp and produced his first book there in 1555. Between then and his death in 1589 he published an astonishing 2450 editions. In the words of Douglas McMurtrie, author of The Book (1943),  'Plantin's ambition was to make his the greatest printing office in the world, and he certainly realized his ambition'. 

The Flemish city of Antwerp was under Spanish rule when Plantin arrived, and has been described as 'the most important cultural centre north of Paris' and 'the richest city in Europe' at that time. But it was entering a period of dramatic decline, buffeted by political, religious, and financial upheavals, including in 1576 a massacre in which 7000 citizens of the town are said to have been slaughtered by mutinying Spanish troops; Plantin had to pay hefty ransoms to protect his property. His achievement was to negotiate these storms and keep his business solvent, though there were several close calls.

Much of the output of the Plantin press was religious, and he was helped by a near monopoly on the supply of church service books to the authorities. In one four-year period an estimated 100,000 copies of religious books were exported to Spain by the Plantin Press. To keep his 16 presses busy (some sources claim 22) Plantin needed prodigious quantities of lead type, together with the punches and matrices used to make it.  The firm was holding some 20 tons of lead type at the time of the founder's death.

In the 1560s Plantin acquired punches and matrices created by the French typographer Claude Garamond, who had recently died. The roman font used for this leaf derives from one of Garamond's, though Plantin is said to have the ascenders (as in 'b', 'h', etc.) and the descenders (as in 'p', 'q'.) shortened in order to fit more lines on the page. A number of modern revivals of this font have been created, based on original Garamond material in the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp. Garamond himself developed his roman type from earlier examples produced in Venice. Garamond's roman appears in a smaller size on another leaf in my collection, printed in Basel in 1543. (The font known today as Plantin derives from one that was not actually used at the Plantin press in the founder's lifetime.)

The text on my leaf is from the little known Book of Judith in which the wily widow of that name uses her charms to gain access to the tent of the wicked Holofernes, where she decapitates him. For this edition, regarded as one of Plantin's finest productions, he used a recently-authorised Latin translation known as the Louvain Bible. The printer himself may not have been in Antwerp when this book was published, having moved temporarily to Leiden, apparently for political reasons. 

garamond sample

The modern Adobe Garamond font (lower line) is a revival of the one Plantin used on this leaf (upper line).

Another space-saving dodge in this version of the Bible is to print the chapters divided only into paragraphs, not individual verses. Instead the start of each verse is indicated by a blank space and a superscript cloverleaf symbol, while the verse numbers are ranged down the centre, a system which I think works well.