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From the Romans to Gutenberg

From the Romans to Gutenberg

Like a single flower in a tangle of weeds, Mainz, one of the oldest and most charming cities in Germany, is frequently overshadowed by its large and bustling neighbor, Frankfurt, 17 miles away along the Rhine.

Above the roofs of the half-timbered houses in the old part of town rise the six imposing towers of St. Martin's Cathedral, easily seen from most Mainz hotels. This Romanesque basilica, dating from 975 A.D. had been constantly rebuilt and restored until the 13th and 14th centuries, when it took its present form. In a combination of styles from nearly every period of European architecture it centers on a Romanesque and Baroque dome rising from the transept.

Originally settled by Romans in 38 B.C., Mainz was a Roman fortress until about 300 A.D. For the next 1,000 years, it was a thriving metropolis of the German empire as it progressed from the medieval period through the spiritual upheaval of the Renaissance.

The 15th century High Gothic period, with the invention of movable type by Gutenberg, brought another era of importance. The city became the seat of government of the archbishops during Baroque times, and by the 19th century, had become a key Rhine fortress.

A centuries-old law prohibits any building from being higher than the nave of St. Martin's Cathedral, thus, no building stands more than four stories high, making it easy for you to find your bearings by looking for the spires of the Cathedral. It's here that you should begin your exploration.

Although badly damaged during World War II, the cathedral and adjacent Diocesan Museum re-opened in 1951 after extensive restoration. The cathedral, itself, houses several important art works, including fragments of the former rood-loft from 1239, with its groups of sculptured figures representing God Judging the World, the Blessed and the Damned, plus several immense, intricately carved choir stalls from the Chapel of St. Gangolph, demolished in 1814. The adjacent Diocesan Museum contains the majestic statue "Madonna von der Fuststrasse," dating from 1250, as well as seven 15th-century tapestries.

After visiting the cathedral, head to the Church of St. Stephen, dating from 990, located on a hill to its south. By 1200, the original building had become dilapidated, and between 1290 and 1338 the Church erected the present-day single-roofed Gothic structure on the original foundation. Severely damaged in World War II, the chancel has been restored with windows by Jewish artist Marc Chagalll, who created windows depicting the Holy Gospel, together with God's message of peace, a symbol of international understanding and Jewish-Christian unity.

Across the city's main square, the Liebfrauplatz, lined with outdoor cafes and charming shops, you'll discover a magnificent Renaissance building dating from 1664 that houses the Gutenberg Museum, which traces the development of writing, printing and books from Babylonian times to the present.

The famous Gutenberg Bible, completed in 1455 and kept in an imposing vault in the center of the museum, is the centerpiece. Around it, like courtiers surrounding their king, are some of the finest masterpieces in the art of printing. Here you'll view the works of Gutenberg's predecessors — handwritten folio volumes from medieval monasteries, early prints from subsequent centuries and later woodcuts, copper engravings and lithographs.

Next to Gutenberg's reconstructed and fully functional workshop, you'll see displayed in chronological order, hand presses and composing and printing machines. The past comes alive as you view a Japanese paper maker's workshop, a monastery scriptorium, and the first newspaper printing press.

A pleasant 10-minute walk along the Rheinstrasse brings you to the Roman-Germanic Central Museum in the Prince Electors' Palace, perhaps the only place in Germany where you'll find complete coverage of Roman culture in Germany.

On this fascinating journey through the past, you'll discover items from Greek and Roman antiquity and superb small sculptures from Egypt, Asia Minor, Greece and Italy, clearly showing the influence of the old Mediterranean cultures on the lands north of the Alps.

Among the museum's 40,000 artifacts is the silver shield of honor of the Roman emperor Theodosius, a Trundholm sun-chariot, a golden death mask from Mycenae, a silver sacrificial vessel from Gundestrup, and Etruscan statuettes.

Mainz, of course, is much more than churches and museums. With its winding streets and compact layout, it's a walking city. Most of the city center is a pedestrian zone, making it easy to wander from place to place. And each of its many squares has its own unique fountain which you can enjoy over a stein of locally brewed beer from one of the many sidewalk cafes.