Day 4: Trip to Mainz

After I posted Sunday’s blog, I began thinking that I should take advantage of my trip to do something I’ve wanted to do for about 20 years: go to Mainz, Germany and visit the Gutenberg Museum … and that’s exactly what I did today. After three days at DRUPA I felt like I needed a break from the intensity of the crowds and the exhausting exhibition floor work.

The trip was about two and a half hours on the train from the Essen Hauptbahnhof (main railway station) near where I am staying to the Mainz Hauptbahnhof. The speedy train stopped only a few times while going through Düsseldorf, Köln, Bonn and Koblenz. Importantly, the train tracks follow the path of the Rhine and there are many fantastic scenes along the river. The cathedral at Köln is one that is especially memorable with its towering steeples. The trip would probably be a lot shorter if it did not follow the river; there are many bends and curves the Rhine. This also adds to the beauty of the view, however. 

Without a doubt, one of the most spectacular sites along the Rhine River are the castles. I don’t believe I’ve actually ever seen a Medieval castle before. Perhaps it was just the cloudy day, but they seemed mysterious and threatening. After all, many of them hang over the edge of the steep crags above the river because they were built by the Kings and Dukes as a means of defending their property. I must have seen a dozen of them without looking very hard … they stand out quite nicely from the landscape around them.

Then my mind began to wander when I realized that there are so many castles that there must be a real estate market in these historic properties. As I drifted further, I thought that if these castles were in America there would be a show on HGTV called Castle Hunting and there would be this extremely wealthy couple meeting with an exasperated real estate agent and saying things like, “We really would like to see something mid-1300-ish. I hear the hardwood floors are to die for” or “Could you show us one that’s been modernized, we really need to have granite counter tops in the kitchen?” or “Does this one have a finished dungeon?” But I’m getting off the subject …

I arrived in Mainz with my map in hand and set out from the Hauptbahnhof to find the Gutenberg Museum. It was about one mile from the station through some winding streets. When I finally located it and went inside, I was struck by two things: there were very few people in the museum and the facility itself was very modest. Now, there are some monumental museums that recognize some people in history who haven’t made one tenth the contribution that Gutenberg made (I won’t mention any names), so the size of the building or the statue or whatever form of recognition is not really the issue. I was surprised most of all I guess by the way the museum seemed hidden away and not really boasted about by the entire city. It was as if this was just another among the many things in Mainz like the cafés and the shops and the other museums. It’s as if they’re conflicted about Gutenberg somehow … I really don’t know what more I can say about this.

The city of Mainz held a celebration in the year 2000 on the 600th anniversary of Gutenberg’s birth. There were exhibitions, multimedia projects, public festivals, cultural events and concerts. The city also published a book entitled: Gutenberg, Man of the Millenium. I believe this to be a true statement and as I’ve read and learned more about Gutenberg, I’ve become more convinced that it’s true.

First of all, people or individuals don’t select the times that they are born in. This is an obvious point. But what is less obvious, in my view, is that the times we live in sometimes have a way of picking up the things we do and take them on a journey that we perhaps never intended or could have intended.

The known details of Johannes Gutenberg’s life are few and far between. With documentary evidence quite meager after 600 years, there are many gaps in his biography. Due to the lack of information, a mythology has been built up about Gutenberg that (1) his ideas about printing came to him “like a ray of light,” (2) that he was a failed businessman and (3) he died in poverty. None of this is true.

What is known is that Gutenberg left Mainz in 1430 due to political conflicts between the patricians and the guilds. Gutenburg, himself a patrician with an inclination toward the guild members, was owed considerable sums by the local government. It is likely that Gutenberg began his project in 1439 while living in Strasbourg. Far from it coming to him in an instant, Gutenberg worked on what he called his “secret enterprise” for some ten years before it was complete and ready for commercial production. The processes involved in the technique were complex and expensive and would have required numerous approaches and attempts. Among them were:
1.) Typeface design
2.) Engraving of patrices
3.) Manufacture of matrices
4.) Creation of the manual metal typecaster
5.) Composition of metal alloys
6.) Ink formulation
7.) Experiments with paper and parchment
8.) The construction of the wooden press machinery

By far the most significant of these, was (4) the invention of the handheld mold for casting metal type. While I was at the museum, I asked if any of the original casting devices were existent and was told that none had been preserved; the ones that were in the museum were recreations from information available about how they were constructed. This information did not include any drawings or schematics. Below is a video of a demonstration given by the museum on Gutenberg’s invention.

It is believed that Gutenberg returned to Mainz in 1448 and it was around this time that the process was finalized and live projects could be produced with his invention. In 1449-50, Gutenberg secured an investment from Johannes Fust and the two became partners, opening the first commercial printing establishment in the world. A rented facility was located, new presses were built, a staff was hired and trained, materials were procured and stored for the purpose of producing the 42-line Bibles that are well-known.

In 1455, there was a business dispute between the two men and Fust sued Gutenberg in court on charges of refusal to pay interest on his loan and embezzlement. In a complex ruling, the court issued an order for Gutenberg to pay a portion of what Fust demanded and the two parted company. The legal dispute with Fust certainly set Gutenberg back as he was unable to pay immediately. Fust kept the Bible inventory, opened up his own printing facility and took the most skilled employee of the firm (Peter Schöffer) with him. However, Gutenberg was not ruined and he continued to work energetically on the development of his technique … he just had a competitor down the road, another first in the industry.

It is believed that Gutenberg continued to produce Bibles and other products such as calendars and letters of indulgence. In 1465, the archbishop of Mainz, Adolf von Nassau, appointed Gutenberg as “gentleman of the court” in recognition for his achievements which he enjoyed until his death in 1468. His invention spread rapidly throughout Europe, led to an tremendous expansion of literacy and is considered a key element in the Renaissance.

June 3, 2008 


One Response to “Day 4: Trip to Mainz”

  1. Very interesting. Seems that you had a quite enlightening trip to Germany.

    Thanks for this write-up. I learned a lot.

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