Museum Plantin-Moretus

By | September 23, 2012

Typographic Pilgrimage: Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp

At the Plantin-Moretus Museum visitors will find intact the old printing firm of Officina Plantiniana, under the sign of the Golden Compasses, established at this location in 1576 by its founder Christopher Plantin. The complex also includes the family’s historic home in the Flemish Renaissance style; an extensive collection of paintings and prints, including works by Peter Paul Rubens, who also designed title pages and illustrations for their books; an unprecedented archive of business and family records; and an impressive library containing 640 manuscripts and 25,000 volumes, including works printed on Officina Plantiniana presses as well as books printed throughout Europe. In addition to classical texts and religious works, such as missals and liturgical volumes, the printing house produced scientific treatises and significant books on the arts and humanism, many by the humanist Justus Lipsius.

After Plantin’s death in 1589, his son-in-law Jan Moretus I took over the business, which was then passed on to the most capable son for the next ten generations. In 1876, after 300 years of printing activity, Edward Moretus sold the entire building and its contents to the city of Antwerp with support from the Belgian State and the following year the Plantin-Moretus Museum opened its doors.

In July 2010, I visited the museum and was astonished by the authenticity of the sixteenth-century print shop, which boasts the world’s oldest printing presses dating from around 1600; type cases full of cast metal type; a collection of 4,500 punches and 16,000 matrices, some of which were produced by the Parisian Robert Granjon, one of the greatest type cutters during Plantin’s time; and an unequalled collection of woodcuts and copperplate engravings. Plantin pioneered the use of copperplate engraving as a technique for book illustration.

I found it interesting that the type foundry and foundry workshop were set apart on their own floor, called the foundry floor, which was located on the top level (or third floor) of the north wing. Those floors were laid in stone to reduce the risk of fire. Since the casting of type was normally contracted out to specialized firms, the foundry was used only at intervals from 1622 to 1660 and later from 1736 to 1760.

Among the most significant books in the Plantin-Moretus Museum collection is the three-volume Biblia Latina, the 36-line Bible, printed around 1460 in Bamberg, Germany, by Albrecht Pfister using type cast by Johannes Gutenberg. Only 14 copies still exist and this is the only copy in Belgium. Of the Officina Plantiniana accomplishments, Plantin’s Biblia Polyglotta, which he worked on from 1568 to 1573, is considered the greatest typographical undertaking of that century—an eight-volume scholarly edition of the Bible’s text in five languages: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, and Aramaic. King Philip II of Spain financed the venture and sent the great Spanish theologian and humanist Benedictus Arias Montanus to Antwerp to supervise the project.

In July 2005, the Plantin-Moretus Museum was officially added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. In the words of Ludovicus Guicciardini, “As fair and wondrous as all that precedeth it is the great and splendid printing office of the royal printer Christopher Plantin, for, to this day, its like hath no compare in all Europe.” (Description of all the Netherlands as translated by Cornelius Kiliaan, Amsterdam, Willem Blaeu, 1612)

Entrance to the Plantin-Moretus Museum.

Entrance to the Plantin-Moretus Museum on the Vrijdagmarkt in Antwerp.

View of Heilige Geeststraat

View of Heilige Geeststraat.

Printing shop

The printing shop in the Plantin-Moretus Museum.


View of the courtyard.

View from foundry.

View overlooking the courtyard from the type foundry window.


De Nave, Francine. The Plantin-Moretus Museum, Printing and Publishing before 1800, Francine de Nave, Plantin-Moretus Museum, Antwerp, 2004.

De Nave, Francine, and Tijs, Dr. Rutger. The Plantin-Moretus House, Workshop, and Museum Complex: Building History, Antwerp, 2005.

De Rynck, Patrick. Guide to the Museum Plantin-Moretus Prentenkabinet, English edition, BAI, Antwerp, 2009.

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