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570th Anniversary of Gutenberg Bible -- Mainz printing Museum

30 Sept: On this day in 1452, the first section of the Gutenberg Bible was finished in Mainz, Germany, by the printer Johannes Gutenberg.
Early codices were produced by hand by monks in scriptoriums, working with pen and ink, copying manuscripts one page at a time so that even a small book would take months to complete and a book the size of the Bible, rich with color and illuminations, would take years.
Gutenberg's genius was to separate each element of the beautiful, calligraphic blackletter script commonly used by the scribes into its most basic components — lower case and capital letters, punctuation, and the connected ligatures that were standard in Medieval calligraphy — nearly 300 different shapes that were then each cast in quantity and assembled to form words, lines, and full pages of text.
He also invented a printing press to use his type, researching and refining his equipment and processes over the course of several years. By 1450, his movable-type printing press was certainly in operation.

It is unclear when Gutenberg conceived of his Bible project, though he was clearly in production by 1452. He probably produced about 180 copies — 145 that were printed on handmade paper imported from Italy and the remainder on more luxurious and expensive vellum. Once complete, the Bibles were sold as folded sheets, the owners responsible for having them bound and decorated, so that each surviving copy has its own unique features like illumination, dashes of color, marks of ownership, and notes and marginalia.

Only four dozen Gutenberg Bibles remain, and of these only 21 are complete, but what Gutenberg created went far beyond the reach of those volumes. By beginning the European printing revolution, he forever changed how knowledge was spread, democratized learning, and allowed for thoughts and ideas to be widely disseminated throughout the known world. In his time, Gutenberg's contemporaries called this "the art of multiplying books," and it was a major catalyst for the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and even the Protestant Reformation. (Two out of three ain't bad, ha.)

Mark Twain wrote in 1900, in a congratulatory letter to mark the opening of the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz: "What the world is today, good and bad, it owes to Gutenberg. Everything can be traced to this source, but we are bound to bring him homage ... for the bad that his colossal invention has brought about is overshadowed a thousand times by the good with which mankind has been favored."

Today the Mainz museum is an important spot to learn the history of printing -- have you been? Any tips or observations? Easy to find?

Posted by
2386 posts

In 2019, I saw a small but fine exhibit on this at the Firestone Library in Princeton. You can still visit it online.

Posted by
9010 posts

Have been to the Gutenberg museum in Mainz several times and can highly recommend it. Their copy cost them well over 1 million euro when they bought it and it is stunning. The museum itself is really interesting.
Maybe we can get Rick to stop by Mainz sometime, so he can see why this is such a great city to visit and stop telling his readers that it isn't worth their time.

Posted by
109 posts

Thanks for the reminder! My alma mater, University of Texas, Austin has one of the complete copies. I have happy memories of taking study breaks and going over to the Harry Ransome Center to look at it. The illumination is beautiful.

Posted by
542 posts

Yes,went there in August while on a river cruise. Visited the museum. I thought Mainz was a wonderful town. It was an unscheduled stop for us because of low river water levels and I’m glad we had opportunity to go there.

Posted by
4252 posts

I'm going to have to put it on the list. On my recent visit to Canterbury Cathedral, our guide told a story that I can't remember the details, but essentially it was a specific story of how the Church of England and the Pope took advantage of the invention to politicize their views.

Posted by
506 posts

Just remember that most museums in Mainz (as well as in many other places) are closed on Mondays. Sadly, that was my only day in Mainz--so I guess I'll just have to return some day!

Posted by
29 posts

The Nordic Bible Museum in Oslo has one page from a Gutenberg Bible on display. A fun museum to visit if you are visiting Oslo.