The Printed Book

by Harry G. Aldis, M.A. Cambridge at the University Press 1916

Scholar Printers of the Sixteenth Century Part 5

After the founder's death in 1589 the Plantin press maintained its high standard of workmanship under the direction of his son-in-law, Jean Moretus; but there was a falling off in both the output and the importance of the books sent forth, science and classical works giving place to ecclesiastical history and books of devotion. The energetic reign (161041) of Balthasar Moretus, son of Jean, brought a revival of prestige; but after the death of Balthasar the second, in 1674, attention was almost entirely confined to the printing of liturgical books. The business continued to be carried on by successive members of the family down to 1876, when this stately printing house was acquired by the city of Antwerp, and, preserved as the Musee-Plantin, it is one of the most fascinating and instructive extant examples of an old-world printing office.

In the seventeenth century the vogue for books of diminutive size reached its zenith in the little duodecimo volumes with which the name Elzevir is closely identified. The culmination of this fashion was in great measure due to the enterprise of the Elzevirs, a family who for upwards of a century carried on business in Leyden, Amsterdam, and other towns. In the Elzevirs we have parted company with the scholar-printers who themselves edited and revised the texts which they presented to the learned world. We have, instead, intelligent printer publishers, excellent men of business, anxious to produce books that both textually and typographically should sustain their credit for good work. To secure correctness they employed scholars to edit their publications and see them through the press.

The origin of the house goes back to 1583, in which year Louis Elzevir, a migrant from Louvain, commenced publishing in Leyden. But it is from 1626, when Bonaventura Elzevir, a son of the founder, was joined by his nephew Abraham that the fame of the house really begins. It was then that, having acquired a printing office of their own, they began to specialize in the issue of the characteristic small volumes, and the period from 1626 to the death of both partners in 1652 is the most notable in the history of the house. Bonaventura and Abraham were succeeded by their sons Jean and Daniel. In 1655 Daniel migrated to Amsterdam to join his cousin Louis, and the fortuitously celebrated Pastissier franrois (a mere reprint of a Paris edition of 1653) bears the imprint of these two in that same year. Thenceforth the Amsterdam house took the leading place, and so continued until the death of Daniel in 1680. In all, some fifteen members of the family had been engaged in the book trade before the house came to an ignoble end at Leyden in the hands of the younger Abraham in 1712.