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  • Christopher Plantin and Engraved Book Illustrations in Sixteenth-Century Europe
  • Antony Griffiths (bio)
Christopher Plantin and Engraved Book Illustrations in Sixteenth-Century Europe. By Karen L. Bowen and Dick Imhof. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2008. xvi + 458 pp. £70. ISBN 978 0 521 85276 0.

This is an extremely well-researched and illuminating study of one aspect of the production of Christopher Plantin. It focuses entirely on his books illustrated with intaglio plates (engravings and etchings). The reader will find very little on his woodcut illustrations and only indirectly on other aspects of the firm. It covers only the years of Plantin's life, from his beginnings as a printer in the mid-1550s until his death in 1589. Hence it does not go into the later, and for the historian of art more distinguished period, when Jan Moretus employed Rubens to design title-pages and plates for his books. Plantin has been well served by historians, and aspects of this subject have been touched on by previous studies, from Denucé and Delen to Voet, [End Page 216] and indeed by these two authors themselves, but this will surely become the definitive account. Thanks to the astonishing wealth of material in the firm's archives, it is possible to marry information in the letters and ledgers with that from the books themselves to produce an array of hard information that would be impossible to obtain elsewhere for this period. The authors both have a mastery of the archives (Imhof is the archivist and curator of rare books at the Plantin-Moretus Museum) and of the problems of intaglio print production (Bowen is a print historian of rare quality), and I have unbounded admiration for the way in which they have analysed the data and teased information out of very difficult material. For the archives are inevitably incomplete, and many questions allow only partial answer.

The book is tightly focused. There are three introductory sections that discuss the earlier history of intaglio book illustration, the issues that this production process raises, and the printmaking context in Antwerp at the time. This is followed by four core long chapters, three of which follow roughly by decade the growth of Plantin's involvement with intaglio illustration on his own account, and the fourth goes into the complicated question of the work he carried out on behalf of others. Together this occupies three quarters of the book. The rest is taken up by five substantial appendices on his pricing schema and sales figures, together with the publication of the posthumous inventory of his copper plates, a bibliography of the illustrated editions that he printed for others, and an extremely useful account of all the persons who were involved in this aspect of his business, from the designers to the engravers and the printers.

So what emerges? The first level is an understanding of just how difficult these editions were to produce. Plantin had great problems in persuading designers and engravers to work for him. Print production in Antwerp was booming, and everyone of quality wanted to retain control over their own plates: the money was not in the engraving but in the publishing. So he had to content himself in the main with second-raters, of whom the most reliable was the family friend Peeter van der Borcht. The authors make an entirely convincing argument that Plantin's shift to etched rather than engraved plates in the 1580s was simply due to his inability to attract engravers. Van der Borcht, who had long supplied many of the designs but was unable to engrave, therefore had to go a step further and etch them on plates as well.

The next level of complication was the problem of integrating the printing of letterpress and copperplates on a single sheet: a 16° might require printing two plates on the recto and two on the verso in spaces left in a whole sheet of letterpress. The authors are extremely good on this, and provide a very clear account of what is involved. Plantin was never a copperplate printer, and always contracted this work out. So a key element in his production was his reliance throughout on...


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