Thursday, February 16, 2012

Type and typography-foundations

As a sidelight to my own interests in type and typography, as mentioned in a previous post (at:, I want to describe a visit I made a few years ago to the Plantin-Moretus Museum.
     This museum is among the most remarkable and impressive museums devoted to printing and publishing anywhere. Located in Antwerp, Belgium, it includes a wide range of interesting historical artifacts, many of them unique in the world. I was able to visit the museum as a short side trip by rail from Amsterdam, where my wife was attending a computer conference.
     The museum had its origins in the printing business of Christopher Plantin, a French printer who had moved to Antwerp in 1549 (only a hundred years after Gutenberg). This business, passed down through Plantin’s descendants by marriage into the Moretus family, was active until 1876. In that year, Edward Moretus closed the business and, aware of the many historical associations of the building and contents, sold the entire property, just as it stood, to the City of Antwerp, which continues to own it today. It is thus a remarkable time machine, showing us almost literally a printing establishment of the 17th and 18th centuries, together with a fascinating historical collection from the whole time over which the business operated. 
     This is a view of the museum’s interior courtyard; the building occupies (nominally) a city block and is entirely built around this courtyard (Museum photo).

     The 16th century building which houses the Museum, two of its wooden printing presses dating from about 1600 (and five others from the 17th century), and a great many significant and ancient items of furniture, tapestries, books and paintings, all create a wide-ranging view into the past. There are offices, several workshops, a magnificent library, and a press room, all restored to the typical appearance of a patrician house and a printing business of centuries ago. And for some, the book illustrations and family portraits created by the painter Peter Paul Rubens for his friend Balthazar Moretus might be of greatest interest. 
     But the part of the museum I had come to see was the printing side. This view, provided by the Museum, shows about half of the press room, with hand presses at right and type cases in the foreground:

From these presses came workmanship  which was admired throughout the publishing world.
    The most intriguing part to me of the Museum’s printing display is its type collection. Most types used by Plantin and his successors were purchased from outside sources, and are of enormous historical interest. Many are in the form of the original steel punches, which were prepared by the type designer. These in turn were used as the first step in the process of casting lead type. The Plantin-Moretus collection of such punches from the 16th and 17th centuries, and the “matrices” for casting which were made by driving the punches into sheet brass or copper, is the most extensive in the world.  
     The punch collection is mostly stored in wooden boxes like this one. The letters are naturally backwards, so that the letters impressed in the matrices are frontwards, the cast piece of type made from each matrix is backwards, and the final letter printed on the page is frontwards (photo by Jacob Dewinetz of Greenboathouse Press):

     Early in the 17th century, Balthazar Moretus installed a type foundry in his building, and walking through it today, you can almost believe the workmen have stepped out for lunch. Tools, materials, furnaces, and working equipment of several kinds stand just as they did when the business was active. Of course, the types were produced and accumulated for the everyday use of the printing business, and would not have seemed remarkable in their day. 
     But to see at close range (and on polite request to a docent, to be allowed to handle) the punches, finished by the hand of such designers as Claude Garamond, Robert Granjon, Guillaume Le Bé, and others, is a remarkable experience and, for someone interested in typography and type history, an emotional one too. I greatly admire Garamond’s typefaces, and have used them in designing a number of books. To hold in my hand a punch which Claude Garamond had made with his own hands, almost 500 years ago, nearly brought tears to my eyes.
     This Museum has made its materials available to type designers down through the years, most notably in the digital age, as modern designers wrestle with the problems of creating a faithful representation of a metal type for computer use. One example is the widely used digital face Adobe Garamond, for which Adobe’s Robert Slimbach went to the Plantin-Moretus to work with the original Garamond punches. The result is that many typographic experts feel the Adobe version of this great typeface is as accurate in capturing the feel of the original as any ever made. 
     Located just a short walk of perhaps 15 or 20 minutes from Antwerp’s Central Railroad Station (Google Maps will show you the way), this remarkable museum is well worth a visit for anyone interested in its contents. I recommend it as a highlight for anyone with even a passing interest in typefaces and the history of books.
Tony Thompson

1 comment:

  1. Tony,
    Wow! Thanks for sharing this unique insight into the original world of type, typesetting and printing.