The kind of typographic, or letterpress, printing invented by Gutenberg and his contemporaries in Mainz in 1450 introduced an entirely new technique. It used movable type made of metal that the typesetter could assemble as he wished. This hand-printing technique required three main components:

  • Movable type made of an alloy of lead, tin and antimony
  • Oil-based ink (thicker than the ink used by copyists)
  • A printing press similar to the screw presses used in the Rhineland vineyards

Each letter was embossed on a steel punch that was imprinted on a copper matrix.  It was then placed in a mould and lead alloy was poured over it. This produced sets of letters that were absolutely identical.

The typesetter took the letters from a case and arranged them in a composing stick according to the text placed on the copyholder on top of the case.

The printer then placed the forme, the set of pages to be printed at the same time, on the horizontal press stone. He used a horsehair brush to cover the forme with ink and placed it under a platen, a movable plate on a vertical axis that he pulled down with a bar. The platen pressed the sheet of paper against the forme and the characters left their imprint.

Gutenberg’s former associates were quick to open new print shops. During his lifetime presses were started up in the Mainz and Rhineland regions by Mentelin (Strasbourg, 1459), Pfister (Bamberg, 1460), Zell (Cologne, 1466), Ruppel (Basel, 1468) and Zainer (Augsburg, 1468).

La Commedia de Dante, imprimée par Johann Numeisteri, le 11 avril 1472

La Commedia de Dante, printed by Johann Numeisteri, 11 April 1472

Johann Neumeister’s travels across Europe prove how mobile the early typesetters were. Around 1460 he left the elderly Gutenberg and travelled to Italy. He was in Rome in 1464. He published the first printed edition of Dante’s works in Foligno in 1470. He returned to Mainz in 1479 and travelled to Albi in 1480. He finally spent time in Vienne (France) before settling in Lyon in 1485.