Monday, October 13, 2014

Plantin-Moretus: a Printing Museum in Antwerp

Last month Owen and I went to Antwerp. A friend of ours was presenting at a conference and had sent us a strange little "I'm going to be really close to you but there's no way for me to actually come visit you, bummer" message on Facebook, and that seemed like the perfect excuse to take a weekend trip to Belgium, and so for an extremely reasonable train fare, and a happy couple of nights in a AirBnB apartment, we had an exciting adventure and a delightful time visiting a friend from home. There are a lot of things I could tell about Antwerp: it's beautiful central markets, its enormous and exquisite cathedral, its incredible train station, the excellent bike rental system, but the thing I most want to talk about is the printing museum.

the two presses in the back are the oldest in the world
Growing up I knew more about historical printing than most children. My father is an art professor and although it is not his specialty, he has taught both typography and printmaking from time to time. More than once I helped him print etchings, an impressive process involving soaked paper, an inked metal plate and an actual old-school press which rolls the sandwich of paper and metal through sufficient pressure to press the paper into all the inky scratches on the metal plate. It's a finicky job, and requires two people, one with clean hands to deal with the paper, and one with dirty hands to deal with the ink, and I loved it.
a bilingual printed text

In graduate school I learned a lot of things about the printing process, and the sale and importance of books in the time of Shakespeare. We folded up paper into quartos and sixteenmos, listened to Tiffany Stern talk about how the paper props were likely given separately from the rest of the script to the printers. We became familiar with secretary hand, got to know different printers and their particular stamps on their pages, we even had a project where we had to write a paper making sense out of all the books sold alongside a Shakespeare play at a bookstand in London in a given year, all things we can do with even a small library, thanks to the powers of the internet, and a few good resources. I wrote my MFA thesis about the power of books, paper and stories in their world and in ours.

geeking out
With all this love of books and their printing, I was excited to visit the Plantin-Moretus Museum, but not nearly as excited as I should have been. I do not know if I have ever enjoyed a museum so much, and if you've read this blog at all you may know I take inordinate joy in museums. The Plantin-Moretus told the story of a printing family business, a friendship with Rubens, enough wealth and hubris to make anyone laugh, (for instance, gilded Italian leather wall coverings) but also careful and meticulous insight into every step of the printing process.
uncut pages with editing marks in the margins

As you walk from room to room, you enter various places of work. There's the type room (where the type is, to this day stored in careful boxes) and the room for the setting of the type, and a full of presses. The room for the editing (big boothed table by large windows for the light), the shop where the books were sold, the foundry where the type was made, and no end of beautiful libraries. You can pour over books in Dutch, books in English, books in Latin or Greek, or printed Arabic scripts. Beautiful manuscript volumes, tall, narrow account books, a five language bible in many volumes, and giant atlases. This printing house put out some of the earliest of illustrated scientific works covering anatomy, botany, astronomy all studied like never before. It wasn't just the printing presses they own, including the two oldest presses in the world, it seeing all those tools for every piece of every task, which was just astonishing. The process seems so careful, so meticulous, with so many pairs of hands involved from start to finish.

Today's tools are so much more complex, and yet also so user friendly that even though I haven't any clear idea about the workings of my computer or even of this website, things are set up so that I can click the "publish" button whenever I choose. It makes me wonder, where is craftsmanship in online writing? Does it lie wholly in the writing style? And how to the material objects used to read text today (my computer screen, or a smart phone or whatever) affect the material read? What about laying text in a blogpost? Do people have more or less control over their words now? How does range of readership affect these questions? In the last week I've had more pageviews on my blog from the Ukraine than from the US, and I am very curious: who are you readers in the Ukraine? What do you find interesting in my writing? And to anyone reading, what do you find compelling about books? About the act of reading? It's been nearly a month and I am still wondering.


  1. I've actually always wondered how much say authors have in what the print on the printed editions of their books look like. Especially when I read books where it seems important or a particularly good choice is made for something like "flashback sequence." How much of these decisions did the author contribute to? Is it the kind of thing where if it's important the author insists on a voice? Or does the author have to trust whatever graphic designer or textual designer the publishing house employs? If this is a separate job, where can I get one like that?

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