August 19

In the city of Antwerp the house in the Vrijdagmarkt (the Friday Market) was opened to the public on this day in 1877. This building was named the Three Compasses by the printer Christopher Plantin when he first occupied it in 1576, and for exactly three centuries a printing office was maintained on the premises by Plantin and his descendants.

Known today as the Plantin-Moretus Museum, the building now houses the finest collection of historic punches and matrices in existence. Most of them are of 16th century origin and represent the work of such masters as Claude Garamond, Robert Granjon, and Guillaume Le Bé. The collection numbers 4,443 punches, 15,825 justified matrices, and 4,681 strikes (unjustified matrices).

It was not until the period following the second World War that it was recognized that the real value of the museum to typographic scholars rested upon the punches and matrices. Mr. Harry Carter, Archivist to the University Press at Oxford, had visited the museum in 1924 and found that this collection was in great disorder, many of the punches being rusted and the fonts mixed up. While Carter impressed the museum officials with the need to catalogue the punches and matrices, this work was not attempted seriously until after the war.

By 1956 the first inventory of the great collection was drawn up, and since that time great strides have been made in the proper fonting and identification of the punches. An American, Mike Parker, went to the museum on a scholarship and developed a system of photographing the punches which was of great value in furthering the work of cataloguing. The value of bringing order to this splendid collection is already apparent. For example, it was widely believed that most of the types were of Dutch origin, but thanks to the research of the group working in Antwerp, it has been learned that many of the punches were the work of such masters as Garamond and Granjon.

The ancient typefoundry connected with Plantin’s printing office has also been partially revived and some casting of type from the early punches has taken place, although as yet on a limited basis, due to the depth of drive differences in many of the matrices. Without question the Plantin-Moretus Museum will become increasingly important to scholars, particularly those engaged in studies relating to 16th and 17th century type design. In addition it remains a fascinating place to visit for printers who will be happy merely to walk about and observe—to feel themselves, for a few moments, part of a great and honorable tradition.

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