The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, April 15, 2001
'Art and Soul

Gutenberg and his ‘new art of writing’
By B.N Goswamy

ONE knows something about the Gutenberg Bible, that great and early monument to the vision of one of the most celebrated of all inventors in the western world. Not more than 49 copies of this invaluable work survive today, but in 1454, when the Bible was printed, something like 180 of these were produced, most of them on paper and just a few — close to 30 — on parchment. It had taken Johannes Gutenberg and his team of dedicated craftsmen nearly three years to finish the work, but, in the end, it looked magnificent, each of the great Bible’s 1300 pages carrying 42 lines, and nearly 2800 characters, all exquisitely balanced, blacks and whites harmoniously structured, all punctuation marks etc. exceeding, where necessary, the width of the column by just a fraction so that the optical impression was one of perfect evenness. When the Bible was put on sale at Frankfurt in October of 1454, each of its copies looking exactly like the others with no possibility of scribal errors and distortions now creeping in, the Church was understandably ecstatic, with Johannes Gutenberg being hailed, in a papal letter, as a vir mirabilis, a truly extraordinary man. This inventor of the printing press had produced a nova ars scribendi, a new art of writing.

I was very interested in reading — when I got the chance recently — something about the manner in which the printing of this Bible came about. Printing it was not by any means Gutenberg’s first encounter with matters religious. With a background in seal-making and engraving on gold, this enterprising man from the German town of Mainz had started, in fact, with making "pilgrim mirrors". These were small, polished semicircular pieces of glass or crystal set in moulded frames made of tin alloys, which simple-minded pilgrims believed had absorbed the healing rays of the Christian reliquaries at the famed pilgrimage site of Aachen. As a commercial venture, this met only with partial success, and there were many troubles the business ran into. But Gutenberg had other skills: as a goldsmith, he had learnt how to cut letters and symbols on to jewellery, and this technical proficiency, which involved using mirror images, he decided to put to use for starting what would later be called a ‘printing press’.

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How exactly the idea came to him is not fully recorded, but one knows that he had to contend with major problems from the very outset. In the matter, for instance, of finding the right metal for casting let-

ters which could be used again and again. He experimented with pewter hardened with large quantities of antimony, but the mixture shrank when it cooled and pulled away from the matrix. The letters formed were imperfect.

But then Gutenberg’s experience with lead in mirror manufacturing came in handy, and he tried a combination of lead, tin, and antimony. The proportions worked out, his formula (5 per cent tin, 12 per cent antimony, and 83 per cent lead) was so successful that it continues to be used nearly unchanged in casting today. Characters can be perfectly cast with this alloy, because it expands when it cools, exactly what is required. But even with this technical problem taken care of, Gutenberg’s trials were not over. For, in the ambitious project of producing the Bible, much money was involved, something that the inventor did not have. A financier — Fust by name — was found but, for reasons unrecorded, he decided to call in his loans leading to a complicated legal settlement by which Gutenberg had to hand over the Bible printing workshop, and possibly some printed copies of the Bible, to the financier. The going was rough.

However, in the midst of all this, Gutenberg had come up with some inspired ideas about combining art with the science of printing. For hundreds of years, Bibles had been written with hand, whole scriptoria within countless monasteries being dedicated to the task. There were ordinary manuscripts, of course, but also some splendid ones, as one knows, exquisitely scripted, and embellished with illumination. In contrast to these, the Bible turned out by the new technology, however accurate and clean looking, could only have looked bare, devoid of visual interest. Gutenberg thought therefore of a device. The initial letters of passages, routinely decorated in hand-written manuscripts, should, he decided, be filled in after the printing, and coloured by hand. Even the raised lines in red, which can be found on almost every page, were filled in by the rubricators, who received special pre-printed pages containing only those lines left out during printing with the portions that needed to be written in red. This part was done in special workshops in and around Mainz, the German town where Gutenberg had set up his press, but the effort was worth it. Copies of his Bible, as they emerged from all this effort, looked sumptuous, visually inviting. Exactly as readers might have wished them to. This was work that no one was going to forget for a long, long time.

Not much money might have come to Gutenberg from all this. But he had the satisfaction at least of being recognised in his own lifetime. Banished once from the city of Mainz, he was now accorded the honour of being named a courtier at the court of the Archbishop, and endowed with an annual allowance of wine, corn and clothing for the remainder of his days. Which meant till 1468, as it turned out, for that was the year in which he died.

Other visionaries

It is interesting to go through the list of names which are, along with Gutenberg’s, associated with printing in the early years of its history. At the top, in this, stands William Caxton, who belonged also to the 15th century, but appeared on the scene a little later than his German predecessor. But then, in the midst of all this, one forgets that there was movable letter printing in the East too, and there it appeared far earlier than it did in the West. Of a different kind than the one that Gutenberg was to invent in Mainz, and capable of somewhat limited use, the invention of this kind of printing was long credited to China. But now one hears of the Koreans having done it well before the Chinese. Apparently, there are things to be discovered yet….


This feature was published on March 25, 2001