Plantin Museum in Antwerp gets you close to Master Printers and their Ideals


© CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

I never visit the Plantin Museum at Antwerp without feeling that I have come closer to the master-printers and their ideals. Here is the only great printing establishment of the past that time and the inroads of man have left intact. The beauty of the building, the harmony of the surroundings, the old portraits, the comfort yet the taste shown in the living-rooms, – all show that the artist-printer sought the same elements in his life that he expressed in his work. Entering from the Marche du Vendredi, I find myself face to face with a small tablet over the door on which is the device of Christophe Plantin, “first printer to the King, and the king of printers.” Here the familiar hand, grasping a pair of compasses, reaches down from the clouds, holding the compasses so that one leg stands at rest while the other describes a circle, enclosing the legend Labore et Constantia. Within the house one finds the actual type and presses, and designs by Rubens and other famous artists, that were employed in making the Plantin books. The rooms in which the master-printer lived make his personality very real. In those days a man’s business was his life, and the home and the workshop were not far separated. Here the family life and the making of books were so closely interwoven that the visitor can scarcely tell where one leaves off and the other begins.

William Dana Orcutt, In Quest of the Perfect Book (Little Brown, 1926)

Go here for visitor information on Antwerp.

Another stop on your literary tourist bucket list

If you listened to my Biblio File conversation with Jean Louis Maitre, you’ll know that Christophe Plantin was born near Tours, France and moved to Antwerp in the mid-1500s where he founded a printing company. After his death, it was taken over by his son-in-law Jan Moretus. The Plantin Moretus Printing company was sold to the city of Antwerp in 1876. Within a year the public was able to visit the living areas and the printing presses. In 2002 the Plantin-Moretus museum was nominated as UNESCO World Heritage Site and in 2005 was inscribed onto the World Heritage list.

The Museum has an exceptional collection of typographical material, the two oldest surviving printing presses in the world, many sets of dies and matrices, and an extensive library. All sorts of typographic masterpieces originated here, including the Biblia Regia, the Bibla Polyglotta and Ortelius’s atlases.

By some miracle the museum, located only feet from the river, twice escaped destruction. First during the Spanish invasion of 1576, second in 1945 when V1 bomb exploded outside the building. It should be mentioned that during the autumn of 1914 the Brits dispatched troops to protect Antwerp, among them were volunteers including Rupert Brooke, Douglas Jerrold and Charles Morgan. Ford Modox Ford published a poem entitled Antwerp in 1915. You can read it here.

Visitor information on Antwerp can be found here.