Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The Art of Printing

I was visiting Antwerp the other day. Wanted to look around a little bit and find out more about this interesting, medieval city. Looking around for interesting museums to start with, I found the Plantin-Moretus Museum. Turns out to be much more than I could ever have bargained for. The museum/house tell the history of one of the greatest printer-publishers of all time. It was founded by one of the first ‘industrial’ printers, a brilliant, self-taught man who only Gutenberg himself could beat. His name is Christopher Plantin (ca 1520-1589), from Saint-Avertain, near Tours, in central France. He was the most important printer-publisher of the time, and one of the great pioneers of Western civilisation. Countless are the publications he printed in the fields of humanism and the sciences.

Christopher Plantin, was the arch-typographer to Philip II Spain, and in the mid 16th century he transfered his well-known printing office, called The Golden Compass to where it is situated today, in the centre of Antwerp. His motto was Labore et Constantia (Work and Constancy). His descendants and successors, the Moretuses, carried on his heritage for three hundred years. They also continued to live in the house that was transformed to one of the finest residencies in Antwerp.

The family was very successful and through rich marriages, clever business dealings and successful speculations, the Moretus family became one of the richest in the Southern Netherlands. The family was elevated to nobility in 1692 and they were at this time no longer dependent on the printing enterprise. However, they kept up the traditions, preserved the office, and continued on their quest. One thing they did not attend to was modernisation! For that we thank them today. The last owner, Jonkheer Edward Moretus, finally sold off everything in 1876. However, to keep it into one entity, The Golden Compass was sold “lock, stock and barrel - grounds, buildings, workshops, tools archive, stock, library, art collections and household effects to the city of Antwerp with the support of the Belgian State.”

The garden
Already in 1877, after some necessary adaptations, the Plantin-Moretus Museum opened to the public. The thing that makes it so special is, that still today, it looks as it was during the three hundred years it was in the family hands. We can go through the private rooms, look into their secluded garden, go through the print shop and imagine the busy times there. The original shop is still there, with a list on the wall of books forbidden to print. A video shows you how publications were printed in those days. Afterwards, when you go through the museum, you realise that the video has been filmed on the premises, using the tools still there. It is quite amazing.

The book shop with the list of forbidden books to the right.
Since the house was in one family’s hands for so many years, and they were very good in keeping track of what they were doing, there is a fantastic archive. It contains the oldest known documents relating to book printing technology and also reflects the major trends in Western thought in that period. In 2004 it was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritages.

Some of the marvellous books

The book illustrations take up a big part of the archives. There are “791 drawings, 2,846 copperplates and 13,791 woodblock”. They bring together the names of nearly all the great Antwerp masters of the 16th and 17th century, such as Peter Paul Rubens as the most famous one. In the museum you see some of the copper plates that he did. You really feel the wings of history here. Rubens was also a personal friend of the family.

Ruben's copper plates
“The library contains around 25,000 volumes dating from before 1800. It is one of the rare libraries in the Netherlands to be kept through the centuries in its original rooms. With 638 manuscripts dating from the 9th to the 17th century, 154 incunabula (had to look this word up in Wikipedia; it is a book, pamphlet, or broadside that was printed—not handwritten—before the year 1501 in Europe), including the only 36-line Gutenberg Bible to remain in Belgium. It makes the library the pre-eminent study and documentation centre for the history and art of the book from the 9th to the 19th century.”
The big library
The small library

The house also contains rich art collections, fantastic gilded leather ‘wallpaper’, tapestries, luxury furnishings and nineteen paintings by Peter Paul Rubens.

Gilded leather wall paper

If you are in Antwerp, this is a must see Museum!


  1. When I see the ways books used to be printed I'm amazed. This is almost as "archaic" as the monks copying out the manuscripts, and yet what skill each process took. Haven't we come such a far way (notice I didn't say "better" or more "more beautiful") with our present day technology? I guess it requires a skill of its own kind.

  2. Yes, it is lovely to see these rare books. They are a master piece in themselves. Just to make a copperplate requires a skilled artist. Some of the books, as you can see also on one picture, are full of beautiful paintings.
    Today, we make a pdf and then wosh... it is printed! Well, you have to know how to do that as well, but I think it is open to learn for more people than the old time paintings which really had to be made by artists.