2015-05-27

Arabic Treasures

While the bulk of the manuscripts at the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (BAV) are in Latin, there are also extensive collections in Arabic and other West Asian languages.

Since I do not read Arabic -- apart from having a rusty ability, obtained in the course of journalism 30 years ago, to transliterate from the script -- I will rely here on notes provided at Rome Reborn, an exhibition of Vatican manuscripts in 1992 at the US Library of Congress in Washington.

One of the great treasures highlighted at that show was the Memoir on Astronomy or Tadhkira fi'ilm al'haya written by Nasir ad-Din at-Tusi, who was among the first of several Arabic-language astronomers who modified Ptolemy's models based on mechanical principles in order to preserve the uniform rotation of spheres.


The Vatican has a 14th-century Arabic manuscript of it, Vat. ar. 319. The Rome Reborn exhibition notes (online at the St. Louis University Library) say that the figure above is his ingenious device for generating rectilinear motion along the diameter of the outer circle from two circular motions.

This page, now digitized, to be zoomed in and enjoyed, is 28v. There is some biographical data on the astronomer at Musicologie.org.in French, and an extensive discussion on Tusi's discoveries in Frederick Starr's Lost Enlightenment, published 2013 and partly readable on Google Books.

Should you be wondering why the opening shown at Rome Reborn, fols. 29 recto and 28 verso, seems to be in backwards order, blame a long-ago Vatican librarian. Most of the BAV manuscripts seem to be numbered next-page-to-the-right regardless of language, though most oriental manuscripts are read right to left and turned next page to the left.

Vat. ar. 319 has been online for some time, and is not one of the newest batch, but it makes a suitable introduction to the May 26 uploads at Digita Vaticana comprising 14 manuscripts, all non-Latin. With their publication on the portal, the front-page total rises to 2,022.
If you can further identify any of these, please add a comment below.

2015-05-22

Memories of Old St Peter's

The 4th-century Old Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome and nearby buildings were gradually demolished in the 16th century to make way for the grand St. Peter's which opened in 1626 and which we know today. What had been there previously was far less grand: here is St. Peter's Square and the entrance to the old forecourt:

The Vatican archivist, Giacomo Grimaldi, was charged with recording what had been destroyed. Among the losses was a huge wall mosaic by the Renaissance artist Giotto, the Navicella (literally "little ship"), which showed Christ walking on water. Grimaldi sketched it:


Much of his documentation, together with drawings, is to be found in a codex at the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Barb. lat. 2733, which dates from 1620. You can now leaf through it online. The St Peter's exterior is shown at folio 152v (although I screen-shotted above an enhanced composite from the Met guide to the Vatican) and the Navicella is at folio 147r.

This compendium is among the most interesting items to be digitized and uploaded on May 21. Here is the full list:
Above is October from the Chronograph of 354 (Barb.lat.2154 above). Also released earlier in the week:
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As always, if you know more about any of these items, please add an note in the comment box below.

2015-05-21

Past the 2,000 mark

This week, Digita Vaticana, the project to bring the 83,000 manuscripts at the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (BAV) in Rome to the internet as digital facsimiles, passed the 2,000 mark, an important milestone in democratizing a key collection that is part of the collective memory of western culture.

The digitizing project posted 22 more codices, maps and drawings on May 21, 2015 to bring the posted total on its index page to 2,008.

In reality, the effective total of BAV digitizations to date is much higher, because the Bibliotheca Palatina Digital, a German scholarly project in Heidelberg, has digitized and issued online at least 1,770 additional manuscripts from Rome which are not counted in the BAV's tally.

The Palatine Library of Heidelberg was taken to Rome from Germany as war booty in 1623 and while the German-language and most of the Greek manuscripts were ultimately returned, the Pal. Lat. series remains in Rome. The German project aims to rebuild the pre-1623 Heidelberg Library virtually, that is as a web portal which contains complete digital images of every book that was once in the German university library and is still in existence.

It would appear that 247 of the codices in the Pal. Lat. collection are simultaneously visible on both Digita Vaticana and in Heidelberg. For the rest, the German site offers the sole access.

A third organization, the Polonsky Foundation, is actively working alongside Digita Vaticana and Heidelberg, digitizing Greek and Hebrew material from the BAV. 

Establishing a more accurate total of the BAV digitizations is not entirely easy because the different lists do not match up. Estimates can however be proposed.

Polonsky's published list of nearly 250 Greek digitizations conducted so far is less complete than the tally published by the BAV. For example, on May 9, Polonsky's Oxford office failed to list Barb. gr. 6 as digitized. I have not checked how current its list of the 35 Hebrew digitizations is, but we will assume the Polonsky Foundation has about 285 works to its credit.

Heidelberg's Pal. lat. numbers top out at 2,026. One can never be quite sure that one has not overseen possible gaps in its series, though a browse suggests that this is a complete sequence. So we will use that number for Heidelberg.

We must subtract from the Digita Vaticana subtotal those items that overlap with Heidelberg's collection. We will also break out those items which are the work of the Polonsky team. We thus arrive at the following sum: 

Heidelberg (estimate)2,026
Polonsky (estimate)   285
Digita Vaticana own efforts (calculated)      1,476
Total BAV items online        3,787

This raises a curious aspect to which I adverted in a earlier post (in which I was harshly critical of the BAV, and am now pleased to say that I was proved wrong.) From the very beginning, Heidelberg has been far ahead in the race to digitize the BAV's stocks. Close scrutiny shows that Rome's home-grown project with NTT Data as its main sponsor still lags behind the Heidelberg achievement. Digita Vaticana is somewhat less glorious than might appear at first glance.

Reader Jens Finke has suggested I list some of the Heidelberg manuscripts on my blog, and I will consider doing this in future as time allows.

This is, by the way, my 19th post dealing with Digita Vaticana. To see the previous posts, tap the DigitaVaticana label in the concept cloud at right. Follow me on Twitter (@JBPiggin) for more news.

2015-05-15

Dominic's Fiddle

When the Frauenkirche in Dresden was raised in 2005 from the rubble, the few blackened stones left after the February 1945 fire-bombing were proudly incorporated amidst the new sandstone for all to see (2008 picture below). But when an Irish scribe named Dominic interspersed the "wrong" Latin text in a Vulgate bible, he doubtless hoped nobody would notice.


Working between 600 and 800 CE at a monastery in the godless wastes of North Italy, Dominic had been assigned to write out a bible now known as the Codex Ottobonianus and digitized a few days ago by Digita Vaticana. You can see Ott. lat. 66 here.

The model he was copying from must have been torn or partly illegible. Resourcefully, Dominic copied the missing bits from an Old Latin bible in his library that dated back to before the 400 CE translation by Jerome of Sidon. Naturally, he does not draw any attention to the places where he has woven in the obsolete phrasing, but after this fiddle, his autograph on folio 112v, "Pray for me, Dominic the Priest" (orate pro me Dominico Prbitero), must have been tinged with a heartfelt hope that he would never be caught:


In the end, the truth did come out. The codex is a godsend for those interested in what Latin Christians read before Jerome came along. Like the sooty stones in the Frauenkirche, its scattered old phrases are now prized as links to the far past.

In the science of Vetus Latina scripture, the Codex Ottobonianus is designated Beuron number 102 among the rare surviving witnesses to the Old Latin Genesis (see my list of Beuron numbers) and has been exhaustively analysed by biblical scholars. But it is also a key source for Jerome's text. Now everyone can see this valued book with ease.

Here is what Bonifatius Fischer's Vetus Latina edition of Genesis (Freiburg, 1950) has to say about the codex, which I am adding here since it is lacking in the BAV online bibliography:
296 ff; 32,5 x 27,5 cm; 2 Kolumnen zu 31 Zeilen; Unziale des 7./8. Jh. "Written apparently in North Italy. The scribe Dominicus signs on fol. 112v: ORATE PRO ME DOMINICO PRBITERO SCRIPTORE. The occurrence of the Insular symbol for 'autem', the use of red dots with the capitals, and the type of figures in the illustrations suggest some Insular centre in Italy." (E.A. Lowe).
Die Hs enthielt den Heptateuch oder Oktateuch in Vulgata, heute bricht sie bei Jdc 13,20 ab; außerdem fehlt zwischen fol. 6 und 7 ein Blatt mit Gn 6,9-7,11. In den Vulgata-Text sind immer wieder Stücke aus der Vetus Latina eingesprengt, und zwar:
  • Gn 37,27-35;
  • 38,6-11;
  • 41,1-4. 14-21;
  • 46,15-17. 30;
  • 48,13-14. 20-Schluß von Gn;
  • Ex 10,13-15;
  • 11,7-10;
  • 15,1-2;
  • 16,16-17,10;
  • 19,13. 22-24;
  • 20,17-18;
  • 22,30-27,5;
  • 29,44-45.
Andere Textstücke fehlen in der Hs einfach. Um eine solche Lücke auszufüllen, sind die Blätter 66 67 und 68 mit Vulgata-Text (Ex 4,19-6,27) nachträglich eingefügt worden. Weiterhin zeigen einige Fehler der Hs, daß die Vorlage der Hs alt war und noch Scriptura continua hatte: iaridesi statt iair id est, hi est amecum statt hic sta mecum, uidis eas statt ut discas usw.
Wir gehen also wohl nicht fehl mit der Annahme, daß die alte Vorlage der Hs teilweise unleserlich war, wohl auch ganze Blätter verloren hatte. Der Schreiber half sich, indem er die Lücken mit einem ihm zu Gebote stehenden altlateinischen Text von Gn und Ex ausfüllte; zu Lv scheint er einen solchen altlateinischen Text nicht mehr gehabt zu haben; deshalb sind dort die Lücken geblieben. In Gn 37,33-35 entstand ein merkwürdiges Gemisch aus Vulgata und Vetus Latina, da der Kopist hier die in seiner Vorlage noch lesbaren Wörter aus der Vulgata übernahm und den Rest aus seiner altlateinischen Bibel ergänzte.
Die Hs ist in der neuen römischen Vulgata-Ausgabe als einer der drei Hauptzeugen unter dem Sigel O benützt.
Of the principle Genesis source, cod. 403 at Lyons, France, almost nothing is online. A future project on this blog is to survey Vetus Latina material that has been digitized so far.

2015-05-13

Souvenirs of the Sinai

One of the manuscripts digitized this week by Digita Vaticana is Ott. gr. 424, Rome's bit of a Greek-language codex that is now dispersed in three places. The curious story of how it came to be thus dismembered was related a few months ago in an article by Pasquale Orsini. (Follow the link to read it on Academia.edu. The text is in Italian.)

The Vatican codex was part of the second volume of a collection of homilies by the patristic author Gregory of Nazianzen. It seems to have been copied in the ninth century, possibly in Constantinople, and it later entered the library at the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai in Egypt.

A large chunk of it was taken from there between 1718 and 1721 by a Maronite priest, Andrea Scandar. In Rome, Scandar deposited five books he had taken from St Catherine's including this item.

One very much doubts this was a legitimate removal (there's now a project to trace purloined Sinai manuscripts). A couple more folios were souvenired from Sinai in 1844 by the German Lutheran scholar Konstantin von Tischendorf, who is best known for spiriting away much of the Codex Sinaiticus Greek Bible from the same library. Tischendorf's folios of Gregory's Homilies are now in Leipzig, Germany. "His" folios are bound in Cod. gr. 69 there, but have not yet been digitized.

In an interesting piece of scholarly detective work, on which I rely for the account above, Orsini has now identified more folios that are still at St Catherine's. We might see them digitized some day too.


The full list of five digitizations on May 11 and 13, which brings the front-page total to 1,985:
  • Barb.lat.387: Orationes septem sancti Gregorii papae with fine 15th-century illuminations. The picture above shows John the Evangelist on Patros. The eagle (John's symbol) is holding his ink supply. It's your guess as to why this Italianate John needs to tickle one nostril with a feather. Perhaps the artist just meant that hand to be held to John's ear, waiting for the word of God to arrive, ready to stab quill-pen to papyrus to take dictation, but the composition is unfortunate.
  • Barb.lat.4295: shows coats of arms, from the library of Federico da Montefeltro
  • Borg.ill.1: this seems to be a bilingual Croatian-Latin text with glossary containing a church history and scriptures in Croatian (in a form of Cyrillic script) by the 17th-century Croatian archbishop Andrea Zmaievich
  • Ott.gr.424: Gregory of Nazianzen, as described above
  • Ott.lat.66: the Codex Ottobonianus, copied in North Italy in the 7th or 8th century: it contains the Heptateuch in the Vulgate version interspersed with portions in the older Vetus Latina text. See the next post.

2015-05-04

Bath Time at Pozzuoli

Among the 21 manuscripts uploaded May 4 to the Digita Vaticana library portal is a codex, Ross. 379, with images of group visits to the various thermal baths at Pozzuoli in southern Italy.

These illustrate a didactic poem, De Balneis Puteolanis by Peter of Eboli. This was a widely read guidebook in Latin verse to medicinal bathing written in about 1220. The information about the alleged health benefits of the various waters in the volcanic zone is probably Late Antique and the poem continues to be of interest to historians of medicine.

The pictures supposedly describe the experience of visiting a spa in the High Middle Ages (replete with ribald scenes of men who have somehow managed to gatecrash ladies' pools). I have no prior knowledge of this, but presume De Balneis was often purchased by the wealthy on account of its explicit images of nude people rather than for its scientific knowledge.


A rapid web search informs me that Ross. 379 is one of ten or more extant illuminated manuscripts of this poem. Gallica has a Parisian manuscript, BNF Lat. 8161, of the same, while e-Codices has the Bodmer's. Raymond J. Clark's 1989 article in Traditio on the poem is unfortunately behind a firewall. Of interest to mystery fans: there has been a claim that bathing images in the Voynich Manuscript, a strange fantasy book which no one has ever managed to decode, resemble those in De Balneis.

Here is the full list of releases:
From Urb.lat.2, a fine Florentine painting of Solomon pretending to have a baby chopped in half as a way to determine a dispute between two mothers:


The BAV site now has 1,980 manuscripts online. There are often no descriptions at all. As always, if you can contribute information about any of these manuscripts, use the comments pane below.

2015-04-29

Pliny's Natural History

Among the new arrivals online at the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana on April 29 is a fine Renaissance copy of Pliny's Natural History, Borgh. 369. This fifteenth-century copy is not one of the ancient manuscripts used to establish the critical editions of Pliny (see a list by Roger Pearse), but it is evidence of the humanist enthusiasm to rediscover the great classical Latin authors.

Here is how the artist fancied Pliny in expository mode:
Also new is Vatican Vat. lat. 3375, a late sixth-century Neapolitan codex excerpting the works of Augustine of Hippo. It is acopy in half-uncial of an anthology that had been composed just a generation earlier by Eugippius of Naples and is an important link to Christian culture at the end of late antiquity.

We also have what looks like a couple of chaps with paunches, receding hippie hairlines, and glass steins in the hand. But I am guessing they are actually sirens. They appear in Barb.lat.409, which is a liturgical office for the feast day of King Louis of France (1214-1270), after he had been made a saint.

A further portolan chart, Borg. Carte. naut. V, is in this batch, but sadly the resolution is so low that it is impossible to read the text. Reader Jens Finke points out that a just-about-readable black-and-white image of this appeared in Heinrich Winter, "The Fra Mauro Portolan chart in the Vatican" (Imago Mundi, 16 (1962), pp. 17-28, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1150299.)

Here is the full list: 
That makes 88 in all. Please add any contributions by way of the comments pane below.