Antwerp has been on our list of places to visit for some time. We’d heard whispers of Christophe Plantin’s legacy in the city, but it wasn’t until we worked with Fontsmith on launching FS Brabo – named after Antwerp’s legendary hero – that we started to understand the treasure trove of typography that could be found there.
Now, for those that don’t know, the Platin-Moretus Museum is the house and printing office of the Plantin-Moretus family, whose publishing empire stretched from the early 16th century to the late 19th century, and it’s influences are still stretching on today. And so we had to see it for ourselves.
Despite being told by everyone we’ve ever met in the type world that it was an astonishing place, the Platin-Moretus Museum was more impressive than we had imagined, by some distance…
Firstly, it’s vast – like a palace for the printed word, sitting grandly at the top of the Vrijdagmarkt, it’s bulk puts everything around it into shadow. Inside, the house is room after room of 16th century grandeur, preserved as if the Plantin-Moretus family had only just left. And if Dutch portrait painting is your thing, you’re in for a treat. But we only had eyes for the books. Immaculately printed, each tome (and they really are tomes, each one inches thick) is simple and elegant, with the most beautiful typography marching across the pages. They look so crisp it’s hard to believe some are 500 years old.
After the relative darkness of the heavy 16th century interiors, we stumbled out into a sun-drenched formal walled garden that leads into the Officina Plantiniana, where the work really happened. A true publisher, Plantin was passionate about the whole process of making a book, housing everything under one roof (although biding was done elsewhere, by the buyer, as was the trend at the time).
Starting in the creaking wood-clad original bookshop, complete with unbound pages and weighing scales, we weaved our way to the readers’ room, with it’s high well-lit table and original marked-up pages, then onwards through Plantin’s small office – this time leather-clad – and into the print shop. First used in 1580, it was the largest in of it’s kind at the time, with 16 presses and 32 printers, 20 compositors and 3 proof-readers.
Nowadays, it’s quiet, the bustle of it’s history long ceased. But the cases of type are still stacked around the room, with some of the more unusual type out to be poured over. And running the length of the bright workshop are some of the oldest printing presses in the world. Well used, but remarkably, the ‘newer’ presses are still in working condition. The oldest pair are thought to be from around 1600. And we thought our Victorian hand presses were old…
Upstairs, unusually it seemed to us, was the foundry. Where we were in awe: Plantin is well known for employing some of the best punch cutters of the time, and museum still has those punches. Immaculate examples of Claude Garamont punches, mats and type from the1550s and 60s, showing the most exquisite handiwork on a tiny scale. Pristine punches by van de Keere, shortening the ascenders and descenders for Plantin in c.1571. The sharpest hand-cut music notes and staves that made us wish we were musical printers. Even just the handwritten, slightly foxed box labels use the most wonderful calligraphic flourishes… OK, we’ll stop now.
It’s a remarkable and wonderful collection for anyone with any sort of interest in books and typography. You can idle away hours. And we did. Luckily there was still time to indulge in a glass (or two) of Belgium Beer afterwards.
The trip was rounded off with a visit to Goossens bakery to get our hands on a packet of hand biscuits, celebrating the legend of Brabo saving Antwerpen from the dastardly giant Antigoon with a swift swing of his sword, which enticed us there in the first place…