Most people would recognize the name from the well-known site Project Gutenberg, where many classical books can be read for free. Not everybody knows where the name came from, though probably a large part of those who finished school would be able to answer the question about the very first person who invented the printing press. Johannes Gutenberg was born and died in the city of Mainz, Germany (1400-1468). Not much is known about his early life, and there are no reliable portraits of him. It is known that he was an inventor who lived in Strasbourg for several years; he made mirrors which were for some reason very popular among pilgrims, so there was a constant demand. He was also a respected jeweler who worked with semi-precious stones. He created the first moveable printing press and introduced it first in his hometown, printing the first Bible. His invention spread like wildfire, typographers learned from him and carried the new knowledge to their own countries.
Information fur Alle, says the big sign in the Gutenberg Museum, Mainz. This is the biggest discovery which produced a huge impact on the history of Europe. True, the first printed pages probably appeared in China as early as the third century, but at the time nobody in Europe knew about that, nor would they had been able to read the hieroglyphics. With the March of the Renaissance across Europe more and more people realized how important it was to get some education and to share their knowledge. Before Gutenberg books existed only as manuscripts. Looking at the huge machines, I cannot even begin to imagine how he managed to create and polish all the letters of the alphabet in metal, in mirror-image. How he painstakingly assembled each page by hand and made the first prints on paper. How he concocted the necessary paints. He knew not to disassemble the pages so that a new tiny edition or even a new copy could be printed from the same set.
Why weren’t there any portraits of this great master, why isn’t it known where he was buried? At the time, the accepted subjects for paintings were mostly of a religious nature. Kings and queens and some rich people as well as the top members of the church commissioned their portraits for Posterity, as they believed. Worksmiths, artisans were not deemed worthy of such honor. I suspect they did not care much.
In 1900, the grateful citizens of Mainz opened up the Gutenberg Museum to commemorate the 500 anniversary of his birth. Though a statue of some kind or duke is fixed above the entrance, I doubt that many visitors know his name. The tall statue of Johannes Gutenberg near the main cathedral, depicting the master traditionally as a venerable old man with a beard in a floor length robe, stands on the eponymous square. One can see his name everywhere, even on the city tour bus. The museum is past the cathedral on the opposite side. It looks a bit like the gingerbread house from traditional German fairy tales. Inside, one can see the old giant machines, sit on a chair and absorb the impressions not only the exhibits but from the whole experience. Separate rooms with carefully controlled micro-climate house the first Bibles. The large times sit under the glass, displaying their Gothic type and handcrafted illuminations, those bright little drawings which accompany every page. It is not allowed to take pictures anywhere inside, but there is a shop which sells the customary cards and souvenirs.
The whole experience is cleansing and overwhelming. Even a group of teenagers on an outing with their teacher fall silent in the presence of History. I would agree that here, we can see the beginning of the information explosion which led to our present digital age through the centuries.