helen-louise (baratron) wrote,

Museum Plantin-Moretus

I posted all my Photos from Belgium, and I wrote about two days in Antwerp - but not about what we did on the third day. This is because I wanted the people receiving postcards to be getting a sneak exclusive about the day, and so didn't want to post the entry I'd written until they had their cards. As all the postcards have arrived, here's what we did on Friday 30th June.

Today we visited the Museum Plantin-Moretus, which is a printing and typography museum. It is an old house that contained a printing and publishing business from 1555 until the early 1800s. It passed through ten generations of the same family, always being inherited by the son (or stepson or son-in-law) who showed the most ability - and as it was held within the same family and on the same location, all of the archives were kept intact. Also, when the Industrial Revolution started, the family decided they no longer wanted to compete with the new way of doing things, so did not bother to update their equipment - and as a result, the workshops are preserved as they would have been at the end of the 18th Century.

This museum is a must-see for anyone who cares about books. Honestly, I would recommend actively going out of your way to visit Antwerp to see it. Although it's physically quite small, we spent over 4 hours there looking round. They have three libraries and archives including 25,000 old books, maps and manuscripts, many from the early years of printing. A few hundred of these books are on display in hermetically-sealed cases to protect them from light and moisture. The workshops include the oldest intact printing presses in the world, dating from the 16th Century, as well as four 17th Century printing presses that are still in good working order (!). You can see the foundry, where typefaces were made, and downstairs in the print room you can see some of the 90 fonts collected by the family. There are demonstration videos of carving and casting letters for fonts, of producing woodcuts and copper plates for illustration, and book binding. There's a reconstruction video to show you the entire chain of book production as it would have been in the 17th Century, including the two vital proof reading stages. Some old proofs are on display, and you can see the (now faded) red ink and marks that are still familiar to anyone who proof-reads today.

The building itself is also interesting, with lots of fine artworks by famous artists and sculptors. The artist Peter Paul Rubens was a good friend of Christopher Plantain and Jan Moretus, the founders of the company, and he painted pictures of all of the family alive during his time. Rubens also illustrated books for the company, and there are some of his original pencil sketches along with the copper plates made for printing the image and books containing the final version. The furniture has been left as close as possible to the original settings, and the audioguide explains when the various pieces were acquired and how authentic each room is to its time period. (There is one room that was created in the 18th Century as a model of a 16th Century room.)

There are so many amazing books on display I couldn't do justice to them all. Many of the texts were religious, as this is how the Plantin company managed to keep going during the various wars and Occupations of Antwerp - they produced a lot of books directly for the Catholic Church, thus ensuring a receptive market. There were enormous bound folios of liturgies, with sung words in Latin and a local language (usually French or Flemish, also some Spanish), with printed music. It's been a while since I did music theory, and I'd forgotten how much music manuscript has changed over the years. Some of the other books were tiny - a few inches high and printed with dense 8 point text smaller than the 10 point Arial I'm typing this in.

Two of the most interesting books on display are the Biblia Polyglottis, a Bible which has original Hebrew plus its Latin translation and ancient Greek plus its Latin translation as the main content on facing pages, thus letting you compare the different languages to gauge the "true". Then at the bottom there is Aramaic and (for the New Testament) Syriac as well. You have to appreciate the difficulty involved in typesetting five languages in four entirely different alphabets, with the typesetting mostly done by workmen who were unable to read - all without the aid of computers. Apparently it only took 5 years to produce (1568-1573), and it was done at the same time as lots of other books. There was also a phrase book in seven languages, which were Flemish, German, French, Latin, English, Spanish & Italian. I can't read four of those languages, but I could see that while the French & Latin were perfectly acceptable, the English was appalling - even considering it was written before English standarised its spelling. I don't think "I sell you gode price" has ever been grammatical!

A book from 1588, entitled "Rare and Valuable Plants", contains the first known drawing and scientific description of that rare and valuable specimen, the potato plant! There is also a room that consists almost entirely of books using the same woodcut of a tulip, also a very rare plant at the time of publication and extremely common now. The woodcut itself is on display along with all the books that are in about five different languages, some of which are scientific descriptions of plants, others of which just have the tulip as an illustration around their context - enterprising recycling when every illustration had to be laboriously carved or engraved by hand. Another room houses the 3 volumes of the 36-line Gutenberg Bible, the edition which is so rare only 14 copies are still in existence.

Yes - this seems to end rather abruptly, but I'm not sure what else I can say. It's a museum full of fascinating books and book-related paraphenalia - what more needs to be said? Except, maybe, "GO THERE!".
Tags: boooks, museums, travel

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