The history of printing and typography is tantalizingly full of holes. Much of what we know comes from snippets – colophons in books, type specimens, contemporary references, and legal or other public records. We’re pretty sure that Gutenberg was the first printer in Europe, but from court records of his bankruptcies, not because his work was carefully documented for posterity. We know quite a bit about Garamond, whose name graces some of the most popular typefaces of the 20th century, but we learned only in 1925 that most of the designs bearing his name were actually modeled on the work of another punchcutter, Jean Jannon, who wasn’t born until 20 years after Garamond’s death.
In contrast, the Plantin-Moretus Museum is as much as any historian could ask for – a veritable time capsule of three centuries of publishing and living. When Christopher Plantin moved from France to Antwerp and set up his printing office in 1579, he launched a publishing dynasty that flourished for two centuries and endured for three. Plantin, his son-in-law Jan Moretus I, and their descendents and colleagues in the Officina Plantiniana kept detailed records on every aspect of their business: what they published; permits and licenses (printers needed a license for every book in those times); costs of materials, including typefounding tools (matrices or punches), casting metal, paper, and ink; and capital expenditures for presses, furniture, and other equipment as well as for the building, which housed not only the growing business but the family.
The Officina published many fine books, including the famous “polyglot” Catholic bible, with verses set in five languages, which took eight years to complete and was never paid for; and the printshop later set a record by printing 52,000 missals in the five years between 1571 and 1576 – all catering to the counter-Reformationist policies of the Spanish, who controlled the Southern Netherlands at that time.
Part of a spread showing nice italics and a handsome initial cap
The Officina Plantiniana was run as an efficient publishing business organized on a semi–assembly-line basis that divided workers into trade specialties: type casters, compositors, proofreaders, pressmen – trades that have persisted into the 20th century. The business kept good production records – noting at one point that a compositor was expected to finish a multi-page form in every 12-hour day, and that two journeyman printers (one inking, one printing) could print both sides of 1250 sheets per day on each of the company’s presses, which numbered 22 in the Officina’s heyday.
The Golden Compass – Plantin’s printer’s mark as well as the name he gave to his life and business – also had a reputation for high quality. The Officina cast its own type, which allowed it to avoid the weak inking or unevenness that can be caused by using worn type (and allowing them never to run out of type). But even in Plantin’s time the Officina did not design typefaces – it commissioned some designs and bought matrices or punches from such punchcutters and type designers as Claude Garamond, Guillame Le Bé, and Robert Granjon, most of them from Plantin’s native France. Plantin also insisted on using engraved plates for illustrations, many of them by Pieter Paul Rubens, at a time when most printers still used the more economical but cruder carved wooden blocks, which, unlike engravings, could be locked up on the press and printed with the type.
The business closed in 1867, and when Edouard Moretus sold the building to the city of Antwerp nine years later, everything was intact. Keeping track of details is customary for any business, but retaining them for hundreds of years – as the Plantin-Moretus family did – is unusual if not unique. Lucky us. If you visit, you’ll find the rows of presses, type foundry, bookshop, and the family’s elegant living quarters more or less as they were in the middle of the 19th century. The museum has long been a Mecca for printing historians, book collectors, and scholars, as well as type designers, who go there to study early typographic source materials, including type specimens, printed books, old types, and type tooling, among them Garamond’s punches. Adobe’s Robert Slimbach researched Adobe Garamond there, for example.
All of which brings us to The Plantin-Moretus Museum on CD, a multimedia overview of the life and work of Christopher Plantin, the Moretuses, and their family and colleagues. It opens gracefully, using old maps of Europe and Antwerp to guide us to and into the building, where we see some of the rooms in the museum – including the majestic dining room, printing office, bookshop, and interior courtyard. Portraits of key figures in the history of the Golden Compass – 18 of them by Rubens – are used to guide us through the presentation.
Francine de Nave was editor-in-chief and academic supervisor of the CD project. She works for the museum, and has written extensively on the history of the Plantin-Moretus dynasty; her influence seems obvious in the CD, which seems to emphasize history over the visual artifacts of printing and typography. The latter would be more enlightening for those of us who care about type and typography, but we can’t see quite enough. You can browse through books in a couple of sections of the CD, but only one section allows you to zoom in. Even then, I wanted to get closer so I could see more detail. There’s also no provision for printing at a higher resolution – as you can with the PDF books from Octavo, which have low-res images for screen viewing and high-res images for zooming in on or printing. While looking at this CD, I often found myself wishing that Octavo had produced it, focusing in on the pages of books and other printed materials at the Museum.
The CD is not very well designed (using ‘design’ in its grand sense). It seems to lack internal structure; it resembles a loose anthology – with gaps and overlaps – more than something coherent. There’s no table of contents, index, or search facility, so you’re at the mercy of arrows and other sequencers to move through the topics. (There’s no easy way to go back to review something you’ve already seen, and since some topics were covered in more than one place, hard to remember even where to stop when rerunning the CD from the start.) It’s not well designed as an exercise in multimedia, either. Some movement was provided, evidently, just because it could be – including a vertigo-inducing swirl through the courtyard. Some information was provided onscreen, some as spoken narrative, but without apparent rhyme or reason. The excerpts from pleasant English Renaissance works were reduced to theme songs by repetition; however, as I discovered the hard way, if you turn this annoyance off, you lose the audio portion of the CD as well. The way you cause things to happen, including navigation, varies too much – in fact, each section has its own separate help file, in recognition of how confusing the CD can be.
Even worse, on a CD that frequently claims typographic quality as one of the Golden Compass’s major strengths, was the wretched typography. The use of typewriter quotes, hyphens in date ranges where dashes should be, and generally poor spacing (even allowing for the fact that we’re looking at type on a computer monitor) was a great flaw. The use of Adobe Garamond (called simply “Garamond” in the type credits) makes sense – Slimbach did his preliminary work on the design at the museum. But Gill Sans? (Sloppily, both fonts were credited to Adobe, even though Gill Sans is well known to anyone with even slight knowledge of type to be a Monotype trademark.) Unsurprisingly, the long list of credits that acknowledges such work as word processing, various kinds of production, photo selection, graphical techniques, and graphic design fails to list any credit for typography. It shows.
I was predisposed to like this CD. I love the museum – it’s high on my list of favorite European museums, in the company of the Musée de Cluny and the Rodin Museum in Paris, which share the virtues of compact size and narrow focus. But the more time I spent with the CD, the more I disliked it. It’s not even a good brochure for the Plantin-Moretus. It’s too boring, something the museum – with its creaking old floors, odorous residues of ink and paper, and rich lodes of visual treasures – definitely is not. Save the money you might spend on the CD as the start of an “Antwerp Fund” for your next trip to Europe.