Berlin: Europe`s first printed book, a bible made by Johannes Gutenberg between 1452 and 1454, leaves Berlin this Saturday under tight security for an exhibition in Seoul, South Korea.
"It will be the high point of an exhibition of world heritage documents," said Barbara Schneider-Kempf, director general of the State Library of Berlin, who will fly to Seoul with the bible, which will sit in a special case, occupying its own airliner seat next to her.
The Berlin Bible, printed on vellum and still in top condition, has never left Germany before. It has only been on public display once since the state library was re-established after World War II.
"It will be special because key witnesses to human history from Europe and Asia are going to be brought together in one room," the director said. The show of UNESCO-approved treasures is called "100 Selected Items in Memory of the World."
Korea and Germany have both claimed to be the inventors of metal moveable type. The issue depends on what you define as the key advance.
In 2005, South Korea showed at the Frankfurt Book Fair how Zen Buddhist monks printed a holy book with metal type in 1377. That Korean text, the Jikji Simche Yojeol, is in the National Library of France and is widely accepted as the world`s oldest printed book.
Gutenberg, who lived and worked west of Frankfurt, was apparently unaware of that feat when he devised his own type technology 75 years later.
He printed 180 bibles in all, each one taking about three years to make. This bible is one of that print run.
Most were on paper, but the 30 richest customers demanded vellum. The parchment for the Berlin Bible was made from the skins of 320 goats, four pages per skin.
Gutenberg devised his own reusable metal type, the casting technology to manufacture it, the wooden form to set it in and a hand-tightened wooden press to print pages, based on similar presses used for grapes near his hometown, the German city of Mainz.
Printing triggered a knowledge revolution. It not only ended the error-prone process of copying all books by hand, but also made bound books, and then leaflets, affordable for the masses. Previous printing technology had employed one-off wooden stamps.
A clergyman who later became Pope Pius II recorded his astonishment after meeting Gutenberg, saying he had just met "the most amazing man" who would make bibles "in utterly legible and error-free script, the like of which no scribe could copy".
Today, 49 of Gutenberg`s 1,282-page bibles are still in existence, five of them on parchment. They are the ultimate book collectible. Berlin`s is perhaps the finest of all, because it has exquisite hand-painted decorations and is very well preserved.
"The first owner, perhaps a local ruler here in the Berlin area, obviously locked it up as a great treasure. People back then thought of it as a wondrous thing," said Eef Overgaauw, head of the library manuscripts department in Berlin.
"Work on the rare loan began last year ago. We had two scholars from South Korea here to talk about it. Everything has been planned to the finest detail," said library director Schneider-Kempf.
A specialist company will wrap and pack the bible and move it to the Berlin airport in a specially shock-proof truck. It will be insured for 25 million euros (31 million dollars) and be closely guarded during the trip.
Overgaauw said the security would be provided by specialists who quietly "move hundreds of valuable artworks around the world every day."
In Seoul, no one will be able to touch it: the bible will be inside a glass case, with the temperature, humidity and lighting all set according to international conservation standards.
The temperature must be kept between 18 and 23 degrees celsius.
"Light and air damage old books. That`s why we cannot keep this one on permanent display in Berlin," said Schneider-Kempf. Scholars can only see it in Berlin by application and after providing a good reason.