Pages from the Gutenberg Bible of 42 Lines

By Otto W. Fuhrmann | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

THE magnificent undated Latin Bible in folio of which this book presents 25 typical pages in facsimile, is known as the "Gutenberg" Bible, or more exactly as the 42-line Bible (in order to distinguish it from one with 36 lines on the page, printed with Gutenberg's types, also undated, but not definitely ascribable to him). The designation as "Mazarin" Bible, used by older bibliographers, is obsolete.

Neither date, place nor printer are indicated in this Bible; yet we know for certain that it was printed from Gutenberg's types in the city of Mainz, between 1453 and 1455. It was undoubtedly begun by Gutenberg but was finished by his apt pupil and associate, Peter Schoeffer.

It was not, as many still think, the first printed book; its very perfection, together with the existence of a number of fragments of earlier work, going back to 1445, disproves that claim. But it was the first large and important book printed in the new technique invented by JOHANNES GUTENBERG--a technique that has remained unchanged in its essential aspects, to this very day.

The Bible is a technical masterpiece, evoking admiration from modern printers; in its time it was a stupendous undertaking.

The invention of printing was neither a gift from Heaven, nor, as a superstitious age believed, the work of Satan. It was the work of a man of vision and tireless energy, of a mechanical genius who, after nearly 20 years of experimentation, found a capitalist to finance the printing and marketing of an edition of a large size Bible in the finest style and of such service books as the Psalter and the Canon Missae.

That man was JOHANNES GUTENBERG, scion of an aristocratic family of Mainz on the Rhine, then one of the most important Free Cities of Germany.

Printing in crude form, by means of woodblocks, carved by hand, was being practiced in his time. The importance of his invention lies not merely in the use of separate metal types that could be composed, locked tightly together and printed, and then be distributed for other use; it lies in the substitution of the metal technique for wood carving: punches and moulds; casting of shapes in accurate dimensions, controlled and uniform in two directions and adjustable in the third (width), in a non-shrinking alloy; a viscous varnish ink instead of water color; a press with various appliances, instead of the rubbing of paper on the back, Oriental fashion. All of these factors must be present, else typographic printing is impossible; together, they constitute the invention of printing.

Aside from mechanical considerations the problem of type construction was complicated by the fact that the scribes had evolved, in centuries of practice, certain standards in letter design, alignment and close fitting. Not only were contractions, abbreviations and ligatures used profusely as space saving devices, but the Gothic style of art had led the scribes to the mannerism of emphasis on closely spaced vertical lines, thus giving a formally written line the effect of a grating. The willfulness of the pen and the playful variations in the shape of individual letters had to be approximated, if not reproduced, on rectangular metal shapes, that would give, optically, the appearance

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