BOOK OF THE WEEK
THE LOST GUTENBURG
By Margaret Leslie Davis (Atlantic, £16.99, 294pp)
The Gutenberg Bible, says Margaret Leslie Davis unequivocally, is ‘a masterpiece of world culture… the most beautiful work of printing the world has ever known’.
Only 49 copies are known now to exist, and one edition, held by the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, when put on display, is surrounded by armed guards, with drawn revolvers.
The Bibles were made in 1456 by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany, for distribution to churches, convents and monasteries.
Hitherto, sacred texts were painstakingly copied by scribes, a process that took years. Gutenberg’s innovation was to create a mechanical typeface that resembled traditional monkish calligraphy — and a Bible could be assembled in a few weeks.
The single alphabetical letters, carved from metal, were combined and recombined by hand to make ‘an ever-changing stream of words’.
The lines of words, punctuation marks and spaces were slotted and held in wooden frames, and the blocks of text were then inked and pressed on to the paper or vellum, which was first moistened, the better to hold the pigment.