The Plantin Polyglot Bible
Biblia Sacra Hebraice, Chaldaice, Graece, & Latine. Edited by Benedictus Arias Montanus (1527-98). Antwerp: Christopher Plantin, 1569-72.
A monument of Biblical scholarship and a masterpiece of Renaissance book production. One of only 13 copies printed on vellum expressly for King Philip II of Spain, the only copy in private hands. Only ten other sets survive today, seven in Spain and one each in London, Turin and the Vatican, and only one incomplete set has been sold in two centuries.
A Great Enterprise
From its conception, the Plantin Polyglot Bible was a grand project: to produce the finest Bible in all Christendom, published under royal patronage of Philip II, King of Spain and Lord of the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands; it is therefore also known as the Biblia Regia. Even on the basis of advance sheets circulated at the Frankfurt book fair, it was celebrated by contemporaries for its importance and beauty, and European potentates vied to be associated with so ambitious and prestigious a project.
The Plantin Polyglot Bible is the second great Polyglot Bible. The Complutensian Polyglot Bible, printed at Alcalà in 1514-17, provided the foundation for the Plantin Polyglot, and a team of noted scholars under the editorship of the renowned Spanish orientalist Benedictus Arias Montanus scoured libraries across Europe for additional sources in order to establish the most up-to-date and reliable texts. Among the printed texts used were Bomberg’s Venice edition of the Hebrew, the Aldine edition of the Greek, and Widmanstädt’s edition of the Syriac text, and manuscripts included those at Alcalà consulted for the Complutensian Polyglot and at the Vatican. Joining the Biblical texts were additional works, brought together as an ‘Apparatus Sacra’, consisting of grammars, dictionaries, thesauri and a geography of the Holy Land.
Plantin devoted 5 years, up to 4 presses and 40 workmen to print the Bible. He had been acquiring types from the best type-cutters and designers of the day – Guillaume Le Bé and Cornelis van Bomberghen for Hebrew and Robert Granjon for Greek and Syriac – and he ordered four varieties of the finest paper to print the 1200 paper copies. In addition, Philip II ordered 13 copies on vellum for his personal use. Printing the Bible commenced in 1568 and by the summer of 1572 all but two volumes of the Apparatus Sacra (the third volume, containing the Hebrew and Greek Bibles, had been printed in 1571) and the privileges were complete. A hiatus then ensued, owing in part to a lack of ready cash but also to the political situation: an uprising in Zeeland against Spanish rule interrupted the supply of vellum. The final two volumes of the Apparatus and the privileges were printed later that year, only ever on paper.
Royal Copies of a Royal Bible
Philip II commissioned, at great expense, 13 special copies printed on vellum for his personal use and gift. Each set comprised 6 volumes of Biblical text (volumes 1-5, 7 [parts 1-2]) and two volumes of Apparatus proper (volumes 6 and 8 and part 3 of volume 7). Given the sheer weight of this luxurious material, the six vellum volumes were bound into 11 and joined subsequently, if at all, by volumes 6 and 8 of Apparatus on paper. Plantin’s records indicate that the sets of 11 vellum volumes without the Apparatus were considered a discrete whole: the cost of binding five sets sent to Philip II at the Royal Palace in December 1572 specifies 11, not 13, volumes.
Early recipients of a vellum copy were the Pope (the first 5 volumes only), followed by the Duke of Alba and the Duke of Savoy. The desirability of a vellum copy was such that the Duke of Bavaria offered to pay Plantin to have one printed for himself, an offer Plantin had to decline. Van Praet states that the five sets sent to Philip in 1572 remained at the Escorial until sometime before 1789, when two copies were gifted [by Charles III] to his son, the Prince of Asturias (the future King Charles IV), one to the Infante Luis de Borbon, and one – the present copy – to his younger son, Infante Gabriel de Borbon. The gift presumably took place a few years earlier, since both Charles and Gabriel died in 1788. Bound in red morocco around the time of the gift, Gabriel’s set retains evidence of its first two centuries at the Royal Palace of El Escorial, in the form of its fore-edges, lettered with title and volume number in the 16th century, nearly identical to a set still there. A slightly later shelfmark is also very similar to an Escorial shelfmark.
Contents and Condition
Printed on vellum. 6 volumes of Biblical texts bound into 11, folio (420 x 295mm). Hebrew, Chaldee (Aramaic), Greek, Roman and Syriac types. All Biblical texts complete, but without the 3 preliminary quires of privileges in volume I (usually absent from vellum copies) and the ‘Apparatus sacra’ (volumes 6, 7 [part 3] and 8), , printed later. A shelfmark (11.A.13) in the last volume indicates that the Apparatus volumes 6 and 8 almost certainly once joined this set.
Note: in keeping with standard bibliographical descriptions of the work, volumes are referred to by arabic numerals for paper copies in 8 volumes; roman numerals immediately following refer to the corresponding volume in the vellum copies.
With one (of 6) full-page engravings [Baptism of Christ] and Plantin device incorporating the Spanish royal arms in vol.5 (IX), 4 part-titles within woodcut border, 2 other Plantin devices in vol. 7 (X-XI), woodcut initials and signature of Arias Montanus. Hebrew bearer type in vol. IV Q4; VI q8r, VIII V2, IX tt4. Vol. 4 (VI) with correction slip pasted on c4r.
Lacking 7 leaves: Vol. 1: *1 (engraved title and engraving on verso), *3 (engraving); vol. 2: p1,2 (half title [supplied in manuscript facsimile] and engraved frontispiece); vol. 4 (VI): p1.2 (half-title, engraved frontispiece). Without final blank l6 in vol. 3 (V) and Tt6 in vol. 5 (VIII) but with final blank m6 in vol. 4 (VII), [dagger]8 in vol. 5 (VIII) and p8 in vol. 7 (X). (Vol. I *4,5 loose and with section torn away from inner lower margin, occasional faint thumb-soiling at first corners; vol. II stains at gutter of part-title.)
Late 18th-century Spanish red morocco gilt, sides with triple-fillet border, spine compartments with triple-fillet frame, lettered directly in second and third compartment, gilt turn-ins, marbled endpapers, vellum flyleaf at beginning and end of each volume, possibly retained from an earlier binding, contemporary gilt edges, fore-edges lettered in black, blue silk ribbon marker, most volumes with contemporary note on first leaf “A Biblior” and the volume number (minor rubbing at extremities, a few scuff marks and small stains).
The division of the Bible into 11 volumes is identical to that of other vellum copies. The division of vol. 2 does not correspond with a quire break, resulting in a duplicate leaf s1 (on paper) as the final leaf of vol. II and vol. III beginning with s1 on vellum.
Provenance: Philip II, King of Spain (sent to him from Antwerp on 20 December 1572; remained in royal ownership until c.1788 when Charles III gave it to his son:) – Infante Don Gabriel de Borbon (1752-88) – by descent to the present owner.
Adams B-970; Darlow & Moule 1422; Voet, Plantin Press 644; C. Clair, Plantin, 1960, pp.57-86.
Census of Vellum Copies:
5 volumes bound in 8, missing vols. 6-8.
Pope Gregory XIII copy
2. London, British Library
8 volumes bound in 13, vols. 6, 7 (part 3), 8 and privileges in vol. 1 printed on paper
Duke of Alba copy
3. Toledo, Biblioteca Publica Castilla-La Mancha
1-7331 – 1-7339
8 volumes bound in 13
Infante Luis de Borbon copy
4. El Escorial, Real Biblioteca
RBME . 1-III-1-11
8 volumes bound in 13, lacking portrait and engraving in vol. V
5. El Escorial, Real Biblioteca
RBME . 86-V-1-11
8 volumes bound in 13, lacking all engravings
6. El Escorial, Real Biblioteca
RBME . 87-V-1-8
6 volumes bound in 8, lacking vols 7 and 8
7. Madrid, Biblioteca Real
8 volumes bound in 13
8. Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional
8 volumes bound in 13 (R/16304-R/16316)
9. Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional
8 volumes bound in 13 (R/8892-8904)
10. Turin, Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria
8 volumes bound in 13, missing one part of vol. 8
Duke of Savoy copy
11. The present copy
Infante Gabriel de Borbon copy
A set owned by Charles Chardin (1742-1826), listed in his 1811 library catalogue (Catalogue de livres précieux …sur peaux-velins) and subsequently sold in London (Sotheby’s, 12 June 1817, lot 150), lacked volumes 1, 6 and 8. The set is almost certainly that subsequently owned by the Earls of Bute, rebound and sold in these rooms as lot 234 (vols. 2-5, 7 bound in 10 volumes) on 15 March 1995, now dispersed. Its volume one may be that at Paris, Bibliothèque national.