Plantin: a Typeface and Master Printer at Home in Antwerp

Christophe Plantin gave his name to a typeface, and his printing house and home in Antwerp is a highlight of any visit to Belgium’s port city.

The oldest printing presses in the world still in existence date from before 1600. Two of them stand alongside five others of only a slightly later date in the printing room of Christophe Plantin in Antwerp. The printing house that Plantin (1520–89) and his descendants built is now the remarkably well preserved Museum Plantin Moretus in Vrijdagmarkt, a short walk from the city’s central Grote Markt. Most visitors to Antwerp head for the nearby Italianate mansion of Peter Paul Rubens and fail to find the city’s other spectacular attraction.

In 2005 Unesco declared the museum a World Heritage Site, and it easy to see why. No other printing house from this date exists in such a well-preserved state. Built around a central cloistered garden, the attractive redbrick Renaissance mansion, full of paintings and historic treasures, still has about it a working air. Next to the printing room is the proof-reading room. Proof readers – often religious scholars – sat on benches either end of a large oak desk, and on display are examples of the corrections they made to the proof pages.

The Largest Printing House in Europe

The atmosphere was always chaotic and tense, according to the audio guide (essential), as the printers would be shouting at the proof readers to hurry up – or complaining that they have made too many changes. Each press could print 1,250 pages, on both sides, in a 14-hour working day. At one time Plantin was operating 15 presses and employing 56 people in what was the largest printing house in Europe.

Plantin was extremely interested in type, collecting around 90 different fonts, and he had his own foundry in an upstairs room where letters were cast. Some were needed for publishing in different languages, including a Bible with text in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac and Armenian, which took five years to complete.

Still preserved is the wood-panelled shop, with a door onto a side-street entrance. Here publications would be sold in sheets, and customers would have to take them elsewhere to have them bound. On a wall is a notice printed for the authorities listing all the books proscribed by the church – some of the printing house’s own titles among them.

The Plantin Legacy

Plantin was French, and he and his wife Jeanne Rivière had arrived in Antwerp when he was 29. After his death his work was carried on by son-in-law Jan Moretus I and his descendants, until 1876 when Edward Moretus sold the house, with all its fascinating contents, to the Belgian state. Paintings, maps and other printed material are on display, as well as a three-volume Gutenberg Bible owned by Plantin.

In 1913, after a visit to the museum, the Monotype Corporation of America produced a typeface based on one they had seen had been used there. It had been created by the 16th-century French typographer Robert Granjon. Monotype called it Plantin, and it was immediately popular with newspapers, and a precursor of Times Roman, which arrived two decades later.