As curator of books Joel Silver congenially explained to those assembled, the
Gutenberg Bible is "the most famous book on this campus. It's the book everyone
wants to see when they come into the Lilly Library, and it's the book they know the
most about, even though most of what they know is wrong."
Joel Silver, Curator of Books, Lilly Library, with the Gutenberg Bible (The New Testament in the Latin Vulgate, Mainz: Johann Gutenberg, 1455) and long-lost leaf. The Gutenberg Bible, probably the first major work printed from movable metal types in Western Europe, was printed in Mainz, Germany, in the mid-1450s by Johann Gutenberg, most likely with the help of Peter Schoeffler. The Lilly Library's copy contains the New Testament only, and lacked twelve of the 128 printed leaves. It is not known how many copies of the Gutenberg Bible were originally printed, although estimates usually range between a total of 180 and 225. Copies were printed on both vellum and paper. (The Lilly Library copy of the New Testament is on paper.) The copy now at the Lilly Library was discovered in 1828 on a farm near Trier, a small city in the Rhineland about six miles east of the Luxembourg border. It was acquired by Indiana University in 1958 as part of the collection of George H. Poole, Jr. --credit
Many of the copies Gutenberg produced survive today, though most are incomplete. The Lilly Library's Bible is only the New Testament and is missing twelvewell, elevenof its original 128 printed leaves. The story of how the Lilly Library's copy was divorced from its Old Testament counterpart and lost its leaves is, as Silver describes it, "a long and sad history. Not until the eighteenth century did people realize the Gutenberg Bible should be treasured. It didn't say anywhere in the book, 'This is the first printed book.'"
After having been discovered in a German farmhouse in 1828, the Lilly Library's
Gutenberg Bible passed eventually to Sotheby's in London, perhaps transported
there in the 1930s by a Jewish refugee using it as a means to get his money out of
Germany. Then it circulated in America, losing chunks as dealers sold them to
clients and collectors used them to complete other copies. Finally David Randall,
IU's first Lilly librarian, bought the copy for Indiana University in 1958; in 1960, the
Lilly Library opened with its Gutenberg Bible on display.
"We never thought we'd ever get any of the missing leaves," Silver recalls. Then, this past June, a fax came from Christie's in London, suggesting that the leaf 262 about to go up for sale was from the Lilly Library copy. The Lilly Library researched this suspicion by examining the style of the illuminated initials and the rubrication (the red text offering helpful hints to the reader) and purchased the leaf through a London agent. It arrived in Bloomington via highly insured mail, darker in hue than the bound pages and with evidence of repair done over the centuries. Silver describes the opening of the package with understatement: "It was pretty exciting."
Lisa Browar, head of the Lilly Library, says, "Those who fear the demise of the book
should be greatly reassured by the interest and enthusiasm generated by the
acquisition of this missing leaf. The printed book, as we have known it for the past
five hundred years, has been a most effective tool for the democratization of
knowledge and is clearly an important cultural icon. In a market-driven economy,
where the law of supply and demand pertains, it is clear that demand for the book
will continue and the book will remain a viable commodity."
Original leaf from the Gutenberg Bible. Mainz: Johann Gutenberg, 1455. This leaf, which contains II Corinthians, I:1III:18, was acquired by the Lilly Library in June 1997. It is believed to have originally been part of the Gutenberg New Testament now owned by the library and was one of the leaves missing from the Lilly Library's New Testament. --credit
The leaf includes Paul's extolling of "devout and godly sincerity" over "worldly wisdom," but the mercenary character of the item's history doesn't faze Silver. "I've been in rare books for long enough that it doesn't surprise me . . . One of the basic things in the history of books, even the Bible, is that the printers and publishers weren't usually in it only for altruistic purposes." It's been a commercial enterprise, then, from the beginning.
At any rate, none of the buying and selling in its pedigree taints the effect the book
has on visitors as both a historical artifact and a repository of scripture. "Most of the
people who come to look at the Gutenberg Bible can't read itit's in Gothic type,
and it's in Latin," Silver observes. "But they know that they're looking at the
Gutenberg Bible, and they approach it with reverence."
As one young man at the gathering noted, there is always the chance, however slim, that the newly bought leaf does not belong to the Lilly Library's copy; all Silver can categorically confirm is that it doesn't seem to belong to any of the other forty-seven extant copies. If the enthusiasm at the Lilly Library that night is any indication, however, most people are willing to employ a little faith: their leaf was lost, and now is found.--Eric Pfeffinger
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