In 1555 Christophe Plantin (ca 1520-1589) established in Antwerp one of the most successful printing and publishing businesses of all time. Still in family hands, the Plantin Press continued operating until 1867. Still standing, the company's former premises now comprise the Museum Plantin-Moretus.
Although he professed himself a devout Catholic, Plantin came under the suspicion of heresy during his lifetime and it is now thought that he was probably a member of a heretical sect known as the Family of Love. Born near the city of Tours, he worked in his younger years as a bookbinder in Paris. In the first half of the sixteenth century the French capital was a dangerous place for anyone in the book trade suspected of disseminating literature tinged with Reformation ideas. This might have prompted Plantin to move to the more liberal atmosphere of Antwerp in 1549.
Even in Antwerp, however, printers had to be careful. In 1562 Plantin's movable property was seized and sold because he allowed a heretical pamphlet to be printed at his press. In the late 1560s he conceived an ambitious project that would place his credentials as a faithful servant of the Church beyond doubt. He planned to print a multi-volume polyglot Bible in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chaldaic (a Middle-Eastern language, related to Aramaic, used in versions of the Old Testament) and Syriac (replacing Chaldaic for the New Testament). Moreover, he sought the sponsorship of one of the most powerful men in Europe, Philip II, whose domain encompassed not only the kingdom of Spain but all of the Netherlands. Because of Philip II's royal sanction, Plantin's Bible is sometimes known as the Biblia Regia.
Philip II insisted that a learned Spanish clergyman, Benito Arias Montano, should supervise the project. Fortunately, Montano and Plantin got on well. Still, the multi-volume project was a difficult and expensive undertaking. New typefaces had to be struck in the Greek and Hebrew alphabets. Plantin's son-in-law and business partner, Jan Moretus, was fluent in Greek, but compositors had to be found who were capable of setting Hebrew. Philip II proved far readier at sending instructions than at forwarding the financial aid he had promised. Even after publication of all eight volumes the problems did not cease. A rival scholar denounced Montano to the Spanish Inquisition, claiming that the Hebrew and Chaldaic sections of the Plantin Bible were overly supportive of Jewish beliefs. Montano was acquitted, but nobody in the fifteenth century stood before the Inquisition without anxiety.
With the various typefaces skilfully arranged on the page to avoid confusion, the Polyglot Bible is regarded as Plantin's masterpiece as a printer. The Library's copy was donated by Henry Shaw in 1906.
Related resources: Rare book collection.