The Gutenberg era: 569 years ago movable type printing was born

The Gutenberg Bible is the first book printed in Europe using movable type. In 2001 it was included by UNESCO among the Memories of the World, the heritage of documents that humanity has inherited from the past.


Understanding where some of the technologies that we take for granted today came from always holds surprises. The stories of the inventions that have changed human society are full of curious and complex events, accidental discoveries, rivalries, failures: a stratification of anecdotes and characters that deserve to be rediscovered.

Without a doubt, printing is one of the inventions that has contributed most to shaping human cultures and the world today. Making an immense amount of knowledge available to an ever-widening public has, in fact, given a considerable boost to human evolution.

It is known that the invention of printing is to be attributed to the German Johannes Gutenberg, goldsmith and printer from Mainz, who developed it between 1445 and 1450. Before him in China, between the 8th and 10th century, a printing system based on engraved wooden tablets had been invented. However, xylography, as we call this printing method today, was still unknown in Europe. Hence the undisputed attribution of the paternity of movable type printing to Gutenberg; hence also the beginning of what Marshal McLuhan called in 1962 the "Gutenberg Galaxy", the fundamental premise of what McLuhan called the "Global Village".


How does movable type printing work?

Gutenberg began testing his printing press around 1450. The movable type system he developed allowed him to compose texts and print them on pages of paper made of hemp fiber. Thus were born small experimental books, such as the Latin grammar of Donato.

The workmanship was all manual. In order to compose each line of text, it was necessary to select the characters one by one(forged in soft and meltable metal and obtained in relief from a matrix) and position them in a form placed on the plane of the press. Once the lines of a page had been composed, the form was inked using brushes made of horsehair. At that point the page of moistened paper was positioned, which a wooden board moved by a wooden screw (press) pressed against the form with the characters. It seems that in the printing house of Gutenberg there were more presses, and that there worked even a score of workers.


The "Forty-two-line Bible": Gutenberg's immortal effort

The Gutenberg Bible (or "Forty-Two Line Bible") is actually the first book printed in Europe using movable type. Only in 2001 was it included by UNESCO among the Memories of the World. It was printed in Mainz starting from February 23, 1453 and consists of two folio volumes of 322 and 319 sheets (for a total of 1,282 pages) and reproduces the text of the Vulgate, the Latin Bible translated by St. Jerome in the fifth century. For it, Gutenberg designed fonts that imitated the Gothic script, the most widely used in Germany at the time. Forty copies were printed on parchment and 140 on Italian hemp paper. The work went on for three years.


Troubled years to give us a heritage of humanity

Despite being considered today one of the greatest inventors in history, Gutenberg had several financial troubles, even ending up in poverty. This is because at that time, since there were no patent protections, any new technology could be copied and improved by anyone. Johannes Gutenberg was recognized for his merits only a few years before his death, when the archbishop of Nassau welcomed him to his court and paid him a decent salary.

The Gutenberg Bible is one of the most valuable books in the world. The value of a complete copy is around 10 million dollars, but there are only 22 intact copies. Of the 49 copies currently in the possession of European and U.S. institutions, only two are in Italy, more precisely in Vatican territory. The Vatican Library in fact owns a copy in parchment and a copy in paper, but both are incomplete.