The Ingenious Impressions: The Coming of the Book exhibition at the Hunterian Art Gallery has generously been loaned a replica of the Gutenberg press by Martin Andrews and Alan May from the University of Reading. They also treated us to two practical printing demonstrations and shared their research into how the press would have been designed and built in the fifteenth century. As lecturers in Typography and Graphic Communication they have extensive knowledge about the incunabula printing revolution.
The invention of the Gutenberg press was pivotal to the spread of printing in the 15th century. Blockbook printing predated movable type but this was slower and more laborious as each page had to be carved individually from wood. The outlines and details have been printed and then hand coloured. A great example of this is the xylographic block book Apocalypse at the beginning of the exhibition where the images incorporate the Latin text and all made from the same piece of wood (also see the book of the month entry for this book). The key difference with the Gutenberg press was that the same type could be repositioned to create different pages from the Bible. This made printing much quicker and able to spread throughout Europe like ‘a benign epidemic’ as Stephen Fry described it as in his documentary The Machine that Made Us.
Each letter was separately cast at great speed and positioned to the words of text. All the black lettering was printed first and then the type was cleaned for sections of red ink if required. It was suggested that Gutenberg had a copy of his Bible which he would refer back to when setting up the next page of print. Alan concluded in his research that Gutenberg used a one-pull press which could print one page of text at a time. Later (better documented presses) were two-pull presses which were better supported at the back. This meant that two pages could be set up at once and pressed one directly after the other (an even quicker method.) However, the layout of the folios was quite complex when just printing one page at a time. As the Bible was printed in sections, when Gutenberg was printing the first page he would also need to know the text which would be on the last page of the section, so they could be printed next to each other. This way, the pages would be in the right order when folded in half. Errors in printing can often provide information about the method of printing. Martin and Alan explained that a faulty piece of type on two adjoining pages means they must have been printed separately on a one-pull press, where the same type has been used twice. A section of the exhibition was designed to show signs of incunable book production.
Decoration of the page came afterwards and blank spaces were left in the printed text. To begin with initials were illuminated but later they were more commonly woodcuts. One of the books on display, Albertus Magnus: De animalibus, has an initial and border decoration which was cut from a parchment manuscript and adhered to the printed page.
After the talks, we were given the chance to print a page from the Gutenberg Bible on the replica press and cast a piece of movable type from lead. What do you think of the results? See other upcoming blogs about the exhibition, its design, the cradles, conservation and the illuminations.
Categories: Special Collections