Martina Plantijn design information

Martina Plantijn is a better Plantin. Informed by the workhorse qualities of Frank Hinman Pierpont’s typeface and expanding upon his research of 16th century type at the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp, Martina Plantijn makes decisive digital updates across its roman and italic cuts.

2,758 words by Kris Sowersby
10 May 2023

Plantin.

In 1912 Frank Hinman Pierpont travelled to the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp. When he returned to Monotype’s Salfords factory in England, he bore “photographs and reproductions, including examples of Robert Granjon’s Gros Cicero”.¹ Pierpont, his assistant Fritz Stelzer and their team used these materials to create Plantin, one of Monotype’s best typefaces.

Stanley Morison, “A Tally of Types”, (1999): 22.

Monotype Plantin Series 110 was released in 1913, eight months after Imprint.²³ Both typefaces were created to combat printing on smooth art paper. Normal jobbing paper stock was rough and porous, and ink from thin letterforms would spread and thicken up to a normal typographic colour. “Indeed, when Pierpont had finished the design had perhaps as much in common with a nineteenth-century Clarendon as with a sixteenth-century Garamond. Although the classic old-face text design was preserved in the structure, the strength and colour required by a face for display and jobbing were imposed. The combination was both deliberate and successful.”

I love metal Plantin. It’s simultaneously sturdy and graceful, a rare combination of qualities in a typeface. As Morison bloviates, the sturdiness comes from the adaptation to make it work for (then) modern print production methods. In practical terms this meant thicker serifs, robust details and efficient proportions. Back then, efficient typesetting was economically important — more words on a page meant less material waste. Slightly narrower letterforms with shorter ascenders and descenders were becoming more common, later classics like Times New Roman and Helvetica helped crystallize these proportions into normalcy.

Imprint — the paragon of normality — inspired Untitled Serif.

Series 110 is Plantin Regular, 113 is Light, 194 is Bold, 236 is Bold Condensed.

Typographic colour is the overall impression from a block of text.

Stanley Morison, “A Tally of Types”, (1999): 23.

Gros Cicero, Robert Granjon, 1569.

Plantin’s source, Granjon’s Gros Cicero, is an excellent example of the renaissance old-style. A contemporary of Claude Garamont, Granjon cut the Gros Cicero in 1569. Regarding the Garamond-era fonts in the Plantin-Moretus collection, H.D.L. Vervliet wrote, “The elegant line and subdued emphasis show the classic search for silent and transparent form, the mark of Garamont’s hand and mind, which clearly differs from Granjon’s baroque exuberance, Haultin’s concern with production economy, and van den Keere’s love of foursquare solidity. These designs will stand with the best of their time or any other. We can be grateful to [Christophe] Plantin and honour Garamont for the work that is left to us after so many centuries, and which ranks with the best of its kind.” Their typefaces are typographic canon, exemplars of grace and utility. Naturally, these qualities flowed directly into Plantin.

H.D.L. Vervliet, “The Garamond Types of Christopher Plantin”, Journal of the Printing Historical Society, No. 1 (1965): 17.

Index Characterum Architypgraphiae Plantinianae. Allard Pierson, University of Amsterdam, KVB LPF 567.

Pierpont saw the Gros Cicero in a specimen prepared by Max Rooses, then curator at the Plantin-Moretus Museum. Rooses was organising the museum’s archives, paving the way for subsequent 20th century researchers like Vervliet and Harry Carter. I previously assumed the Gros Cicero was part of the specimen pages themselves, but it was actually used in the introduction paragraphs. I was pleasantly surprised that Pierpont’s team were inspired by the front matter of Rooses’ specimen. It’s like going to a movie to see your favourite actor and falling in love with an extra.

Max Rooses, “Index Characterum Architypgraphiae Plantinianae” (1905)

A typographic Figwit moment if ever there was one. Yeah, I live very close to the Weta Cave, how can you tell?

Robert Granjon's Gros Cicero, 1569.

Gros Cicero, Rooses 1905 specimen.

What’s more, by then Gros Cicero was about 330 years old and had the “wrong fount” a. It wasn’t Granjon’s original. The best guess is that it was replaced by an 18th century version cut by Johan Michael Smit. Comparing the same typeface printed three centuries apart is instrumental. Gros Cicero’s original impression is sharp, crisp and well-defined. Centuries later it’s gone soft, its crisp details soggy. Over time further additions have been made, like ç. The original form of a persists, however, in the accents, like à in … Plantin fait à Granjon.

In other words, Plantin was based on a worn-out 330-year-old font with the wrong a. Did Pierpont’s team know or care about the a? Either way, it didn’t matter — their transformative design and engineering created a modern classic. They took the guts of Gros Cicero and beefed it up for modern use, turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse.

James Mosely, “Granjon’s Gros Cicero”, forum post, 1 January 2009. What a way to kick off the new year!

Despite the strength of Plantin 110 roman, the remaining styles are pretty weak. Plantin Italic has some grace at the expense of being sturdy. It feels like Pierpont’s team took too much influence from British moderns and not enough from renaissance italics. They service the family by indicating they’re italic, not that they’re Plantin’s italic. They could have been a generic companion for almost any other roman in Monotype’s catalogue.

Plantin Light.

According to a Monotype pamphlet, “Plantin Light has special advantages for offset and gravure reproduction: it has no hair-lines to crumble away under these processes, and it “thickens up” without loss of elegance.”¹⁰ I’m fairly sure Plantin Light was mechanically automated. Here you can see just how shaky the outlines are, like the effects of small errors have been magnified at a larger size. Indeed, Morison writes, “Series 113 [Plantin Light] was a mechanical adaptation of the normal weight, cut to meet the publishers’ demands for a text face less black than series 110.”¹¹

Monotype Corporation, “Twenty-one Classic Type Faces”, undated.

Stanley Morison, “A Tally of Types”, (1999): 24.

Plantin Bold.

In contrast to the italic, Plantin’s Bold cuts are sturdy but stodgy. Their grace is diminished, which is sometimes unavoidable with bolder weights. Matthew Carter, writing about his design process for Galliard, remarked, “Without careful design, boldfaces lose definition and look as though they have been dipped in chocolate.”¹² Unfortunately this is the case with Plantin Bold. The characters are too wide and loosely spaced, getting worse in the larger sizes. The digital version amplifies these flaws, seemingly using the worst version of the metal and phototype styles.

Digitisations of metal classics from the 80s and 90s are a mixed bag, ranging from weak to mediocre. It’s a symptom of the conditions: foundries adapting their catalog to digital used primitive methods and tools (72dpi aliased monochrome screens, 300dpi laser printers). Some adaptations used phototype sources, meaning unitised widths and other (now unnecessary) constraints transitioned to digital. Happily, these are no longer concerns for contemporary typeface designers.

Matthew Carter, “Galliard: a modern revival of the types of Robert Granjon”, Visible Language Vol. 19, Issue 1 (1985): 77–98

Martina Plantijn.

Martina Plantijn is my third official bite at the Plantin cherry. The first was Galaxie Copernicus (2007) with Chester Jenkins. Tiempos (2010–18), a re-focussing of Galaxie Copernicus through the lens of Times New Roman, was the second. Martina Plantijn is a more accurate rendition. I’m honouring the original spirit and fortitude of Plantin.

Plantin 110 is a beacon of modern typefounding. I wish the rest of its family was as strong, and that it continued into the official phototype and digital versions. But they’re not. So, by “original” I mean the regular, metal roman style: Plantin 110. Martina Plantijn takes it as her guiding principle.

I’d come to an instinctive realisation that the way you design letters is to change the ones you don’t like. Really it’s an iterative process.

— Matthew Carter

Monotype Plantin, metal type.

Monotype Plantin, digital version.

Martina Plantijn.

Overlay of metal Plantin and Martina Plantijn (grey) with digital Plantin (outline).

Proportions were the first thing to re-establish. Comparing the proportions of Plantin’s metal and digital fonts is instructive. The digital is wider, less sure of itself. It’s a facsimile of the metal.¹³ The lowercase n is the Latin typeface’s lodestar. Because it determines so much across the lowercase, it’s critical to get right. Metal Plantin’s lowercase was fairly narrow, but not condensed. The serifs are sturdy and unbreakable — nothing fancy, just a gentle bracket. The head serif is a blunted wedge, plain and serviceable. The arch is clearly old-style, a good weight distribution tapering nicely to the stem. Digital Plantin gets it almost all wrong.

I’m fairly certain it’s digitised from the Monophoto phototype version, but happy to be corrected.

12pt metal Plantin.

Martina Plantin.

Digital Plantin.

Even a slight width adjustment has repercussions across the entire character set. Lines get longer, and internal space and side bearings open up. The density is thrown off, changing the typographic colour. A typeface is a system of relationships, and the relationships must all be coherent internally to have a harmonious external aesthetic. This is why digital Plantin feels wrong — its internal relationships are not based upon what I consider to be Plantin.

Plantin specimen with alternate-length ascenders and descenders.

Plantin specimen with alternate-length ascenders and descenders.

A printer once requested a cut of Plantin with longer descenders and Monotype obligingly issued a single 12pt version. Afterwards, they issued further versions with longer ascenders and much shorter descenders. None of them are very good. Changing these proportions might have been technically useful, but they diminished a fundamental aesthetic of Plantin.

Monotype Plantin, metal.

Monotype Plantin, digital.

Martina Plantijn Regular.

Martina Plantijn Black.

I gently updated Plantin’s iconic a, taking cues from modern digital drawing standards and aesthetics. It’s similar to what we did for Galaxy Copernicus. Plantin’s a terminal works at small sizes, but is awkward at large sizes — it’s neither smooth nor sharp enough. Martina Plantijn’s a is more decisive, and translates better to bolder weights.

One of Plantin’s key underrated details is the blunt-leg k. Normally there’s a serif on the leg but Pierpont’s team stripped it off. Their blunt leg is a plain, modern solution that still holds weight. This detail is such a part of Plantin’s aesthetic identity that it needed amplifying. I didn’t want an isolated letterform. Martina Plantijn works it in where appropriate: R K Q & £ ƒ.

Martina Plantin’s italic takes a cue from the roman k, playing out across f j k z K Q R. These abrupt cuts truncate typical italic flourishes, keeping it on a modern path.¹⁴ As much as I love renaissance italics, I didn’t want Martina Plantijn to be overshadowed by renaissance stylisation.

They also reference italic cuts of classics like Sabon, where I assume the truncated tails allowed for better fitting.

Guyot’s Double Pica Italic.

Stylistically, Plantin’s italic is confusing. The renaissance punch cutters made fabulous energetic italics.¹⁵ Considering the rich source material contained in the Plantin-Moretus, it’s unusual that it ended up being so British. But italics are hard to make, and Martina Plantijn’s were no exception. I returned to the renaissance italic roots to do the style justice. I approached it the same way Pierpont’s team approached Gros Cicero, taking the spirit and bluntly modernising. Renaissance italics have a lively, compact energy. Like the romans, Martina Plantijn’s italic is compact, with blunted details and a streamlined finish.

I’m quite a fan… see Heldane and Signifier.

Guyot Double Pica Italic.

Englische.

Plantin Italic.

Martina Plantijn Regular Italic.

Unlike Plantin’s looping pothooks, Martina Plantijn’s entry serifs are more akin to its roman triangular head serifs. These are usually more cursive, indicating an incoming pen-stroke. Martina Plantijn’s are consistently horizontal on the flat while the top curve remains fluid. This creates a solid anchor across the x-height that lets the baseline dance. The exit strokes incline abruptly and are slightly longer that normal.

Most acute corners are clipped. Many years ago I was told this was the correct approach, otherwise digital fonts would feel too digital. Signifier pushed back hard against that idea — inherited wisdom can be detrimental. It’s a minor detail but it feels right for Martina Plantijn. A little trim here and there helps it feel analogue.

Labore et Constancia.

Portrait of Martina Plantin, Peter Paul Reubens (1633).

Emily Flake, courtesy of The New Yorker Collection (2012).

In the 2010s there was heated debate amongst the GLAM community.¹⁶ It was about semantics: they were angry that curate had been co-opted and was losing meaning.¹⁷ The first shots were fired by Lauren Northup, then Curator of Collections at the Hermitage, in “An Open Letter to Everyone Using the Word ‘Curate’ Incorrectly on the Internet”. She pulls no punches:

Galleries Libraries Archives and Museums. I know it’s poor form to use an acronym before the full description… but how great is GLAM?

Then again… I’ve never poured molten lead and I’m happy to call Klim a “type foundry”.

“If anything has ever moved me to punch my fist through my computer screen, it is the recent gross misappropriation of the word CURATE, most particularly by a certain type of blogger. The flagrant misuse of this sacred … word has spread like wildfire through the precious world of home, craft and decor blogging and is infecting the internet like a virus.”

Many other curators and archivists rallied and vented, all desperate to save curation from the great unwashed. Most articles reminded readers of curate’s Latin root: curare meaning “to care”. Curatores in ancient Rome were civic caretakers in charge of aqueducts and sewers. In the middle ages the curatus was a priest devoted to the care of souls. Before social media, modern curators were GLAM professionals that:

… don’t simply organise; they constantly work on a collection to improve its documentation or storage, they spends hours agonising over emergency plans and loan requests, they worry about dust and pests and they do their best to make sure that the collection they care for will survive into the future.

Without the Plantin-Moretus Museum (Plantin-Moretusmuseum) there would be no Plantin and many other modern classics. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, the Plantin-Moretus Museum houses the work of 16th century printers Christophe Plantin and Jan Moretus. It is their former residence and printing establishment. The Officina Plantiniana was an extremely important and successful book printer and publisher. During his career, Plantin acquired many great renaissance typefaces which are still in excellent condition.

Designer Stephanie Specht in the Grote Bibliotheek (Great Library) at the Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp.

Martina Plantin (Martina Plantijn) was the second daughter of Christophe Plantin and Jeanne Rivière’s five children. She corrected texts in the print shop from the age of five, then ran the family lace shop from the age of 17. She married Jan Moretus in 1570. After her father and husband had died, she was the head of the Plantin-Moretus printing business from 1610 to 1614. She was considered a “formidable businesswoman”.

But she wasn’t the only one. The Officina Plantiniana survived for three centuries thanks to the work of a “group of strong, emancipated women”. Alongside Martina Plantin, there was Anna Goos, Anna-Maria de Neuf and Maria-Theresia Borrekens. The Plantin-Moretus Museum archives exist because of their sustained curation.

This is the real meaning of curation and archives. I sympathise completely with the GLAM crowd. Curate is close to meaningless now. To curate means to care, not to make a list. We like to remember those who start things, but the real work of archives and institutions is the maintenance and continuation of them. Starting something is easy, caring for it over centuries is hard.

Featured fonts

Notes & references

Stanley Morison, “A Tally of Types”, (1999): 22.

Imprint — the paragon of normality — inspired Untitled Serif.

Series 110 is Plantin Regular, 113 is Light, 194 is Bold, 236 is Bold Condensed.

Typographic colour is the overall impression from a block of text.

Stanley Morison, “A Tally of Types”, (1999): 23.

H.D.L. Vervliet, “The Garamond Types of Christopher Plantin”, Journal of the Printing Historical Society, No. 1 (1965): 17.

Max Rooses, “Index Characterum Architypgraphiae Plantinianae” (1905)

A typographic Figwit moment if ever there was one. Yeah, I live very close to the Weta Cave, how can you tell?

James Mosely, “Granjon’s Gros Cicero”, forum post, 1 January 2009. What a way to kick off the new year!

Monotype Corporation, “Twenty-one Classic Type Faces”, undated.

Stanley Morison, “A Tally of Types”, (1999): 24.

Matthew Carter, “Galliard: a modern revival of the types of Robert Granjon”, Visible Language Vol. 19, Issue 1 (1985): 77–98

I’m fairly certain it’s digitised from the Monophoto phototype version, but happy to be corrected.

They also reference italic cuts of classics like Sabon, where I assume the truncated tails allowed for better fitting.

I’m quite a fan… see Heldane and Signifier.

Galleries Libraries Archives and Museums. I know it’s poor form to use an acronym before the full description… but how great is GLAM?

Then again… I’ve never poured molten lead and I’m happy to call Klim a “type foundry”.

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