German travel destinations

The Germany is Wunderbar guide

Germany holidays: Mainz, cradle of printing

The city of Mainz, located on the river Rhine within Germany’s largest wine-growing region, is best known for its rich cultural heritage, its wine, its carnival celebrations and its most famous inhabitant: the inventor and printer Johannes Gutenberg.

Johannes Gutenberg was born in Mainz in around 1400. Little is known about his early life, but in around 1428 he and his family were forced to flee the city, and by 1434 he’d settled in Strasbourg, which is where he started experimenting with printing. By 1448 he had returned to Mainz again and is known to have borrowed money over the next few years to continue his work, setting up first a small printing workshop and then a larger one, probably at the Humbrechthof. Today you can still see the stair tower of this building just a few streets away from the city’s impressive 1,000-year-old cathedral.

With more funds behind him from relatives and partners, Gutenberg continued to develop his fledgling technology, and, by 1455 at the latest, he had printed his most famous work, the 42-line Bible (so-called because it had 42 lines in each printed column), using his revolutionary invention: the movable-type printing press. This was his method of hand-casting movable type out of a metal alloy, and it allowed him to make many identical copies quickly and easily. At the city’s Gutenberg Museum, one of the world’s oldest printing museums, visitors can watch a fascinating printing demonstration on a reproduction of the original printing press.

Revolutionary cost-cutting

So what was so significant about his invention? Well, up until then books had either been handwritten or printed using woodcuts, both of which were expensive and time-consuming methods. Gutenberg’s printing press, however, could print 42 lines in one go. This faster production time meant that the price of books sank, so that lower-class people could now afford them too. Literacy increased and a whole new way of communicating and sharing information began.

Traces of Gutenberg and his invention can be found all around Mainz, from the name of its university (Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz) to the Gutenberg Monument – a statue of the inventor holding a Bible and print types, located on a square that also bears his name. A commemorative plaque can be found in Schusterstraße at the spot where he was born – the Hof zum Gutenberg, today a pharmacy. At Liebfrauenplatz, a large square home to Mainz’s weekly market, cuboid stone sculptures that resemble movable type make up the Type Monument. Surrounded by flower beds, the nine pieces spell out the name ‘Gutenberg’ on one side.

The city also commemorates Gutenberg with an annual, four-day event called Johannisnacht. Over a long weekend at the end of June, locals and visitors alike can enjoy printing and calligraphy events, a large book market and exhibitions at the Gutenberg Museum. In fact, it is here at the museum that the most tangible Gutenberg legacy is to be found: two copies of the original 42-line Bible, which beautifully showcase the revolutionary achievements of this great inventor of whom Mainz is so proud.

The city’s tourist authority has more information.

Looking for more? See other destinations in Western Germany

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