Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Book history heaven in Antwerp: the Plantin-Moretus Museum

Earlier this month, in a whistle stop visit to the wonderful Belgian city of Antwerp, I spent a very happy couple of hours in the Plantin-Moretus Museum.

The museum is located in the former premises of the Plantin-Moretus family printing and publishing firm, which started when Christpher Plantin came to Antwerp in the 1550s and stayed in business until the 1860s.  In 1876 the premises, library, archives, furnishings, typographical material, printed stock and artworks were sold to the the city and country to be preserved as a museum. Today the former printing house, family residence,company and family archives are recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and they open year-round (excluding Mondays) as a well-appointed and presented museum. 

The premises, known as the Golden Compasses, comprise several town houses acquired by the family over the centuries, surrounding a beautiful courtyard garden and opening off a lovely little square, Vrijdagmarkt (we sadly didn't get a chance to try any of the cafes or bars dotted around its edges). The various rooms display books and papers from the libraries and archives, including a splendid collection of incunables as well as the expected collection of publications (over 90% complete) printed by the Officina Plantiniana.  Furnishings include sumptuous seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Spanish Mechelen gilded leather wall 'paper', something I'd never seen before.  The printing house shop still retains shelves of books behind a grill, weights for checking the coinage proffered by customers, and a copy of the Librorum prohibitorum index--the list of books prohibited in the Spanish Netherlands--is displayed on the wall by the entrance.  The correctors' room displays proof copies of works in a dazzling selection of languages, marked up by early-modern correctors.

The printing room contains five working seventeenth- and eighteenth-century hand presses, and the two oldest surviving presses in the world, which date from around 1600.  Along one wall are a number of type cases, holding type both familiar (roman and blackletter type for printing in Latin or German) and unfamiliar (Hebrew type and type for printing music were both displayed).  Next door is the type store: tonnes of letters stored in shelves from floor to ceiling. 

Upstairs a library or three, displays of cartographic and music printing, the type foundry and much more.  Two hours wasn't nearly long enough, and I'm planning a repeat bibliographic pilgrimage before too long at all.  If you are even vaguely interested in the history of printing and ever find yourself in Antwerp, do go there!


  1. Ooh, this sounds good. Antwerp is on my list of places to visit and I will keep this museum in mind :-)

    1. Don't just keep it in mind - if you're there, go! It's right in the old town, too.