Inside the Milberg Gallery: Authenticity

Image of an early printing shop (Lyons, 1499)

La Grant Danse Macabre, one of two surviving copies, contains the earliest depiction of a printing shop (Lyons, 1499).

This series highlights collections included in the "Gutenberg & After: Europe's First Printers 1450-1470" exhibition, now open through Dec. 15 (daily, noon to 6 p.m.) in the Ellen and Leonard Milberg Gallery. To follow is a note from Eric White, Curator of Rare Books: 

One impressive aspect of the “Gutenberg & After” exhibition is the authenticity of it all: 62 items from the 15th century. Although digital enlargements are mounted on the gallery walls for instructive purposes and some bookbindings are somewhat later replacements, no modern facsimiles of the books are standing in as fillers within our historical narrative. Everything displayed in the cases is authentic evidence from its own time that is essential for the study of the origins and early dissemination of Europe’s earliest typographic books.


The first display case begins with authentic evidence of how printing was done in the 15th century. Because no actual printing presses survive from the 1400s, or early written descriptions of the metal type-casting process, virtually everything we know about early printing methods comes from studying the early materials themselves. Therefore, instead of relying on later information, or lore based on theories of what should have happened, the exhibition begins with a trio of items that are strictly authentic material evidence of what did happen: a rare example of a 15th-century printing type (found in a riverbed in Lyons, France in 1868); the only contemporary depiction of a printing press, in a woodcut in the 1499 Lyons edition of the Danse Macabre; and an unused 500-year-old sheet of printed paper that shows how the inked pages of type were arranged on the press before such sheets were folded into a small-format prayer book.


Original materials such as these provide visitors with a basic understanding of the technical challenges faced by Europe’s first printers. The exhibition continues with authentic specimens of the rare survivals of printed matter from the 1450s through early 1470s – produced with paper or vellum and various colored inks, sometimes decorated with gold and colorful pigments, and bound in wooden boards covered with leather – that are the foundations of European printing history.


Note: The Gutenberg & After exhibition is featured online at

Media contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications