First Handbook

If you are keen on historic warfare or the fantastical war machines created for battles in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films, you'll be hooked by a 1455 book by Roberto Valturio on the military arts which is full of wonderfully creative images of military machines, real and imagined.

The Vatican Library's manuscript of De re militari (On matters military) arrived online October 24 and Urb.lat.281 is a real page-turner. Leonardo da Vinci is reputed to have read this and to have been inspired by it to some of his own inventions. On folio 147v we find an astonishing dragon machine with a cannon in its snout, capable of firing incendiary missiles:

That is just part of the image.This particular dragon just happens to have a basket on its head with nine commandoes wearing blue helmets, ready to jump down and hack you to bits.

Who doesn't remember the James Bond Aston-Martin with knives that emerge from the hubcaps? In this book, it's a heavy battle-wagon drawn by oxen that does the same.

On  fol. 168v there's a tortoise, a machine for getting up close to walls and battering them down, and of course it even looks like a tortoise:

Ponder the weird raking fire weapon on fol. 166r:

Or how about some 15th-century Meccano on fol. 144r:

Valturio (1405–1475) (see French Wikipedia) was a man of letters rather than a proper engineer and this handbook is derivative rather than original. It even starts off with a copious list of sources:

De re militari is also remarkable in book history. A couple of dozen manuscripts were made at great cost to be presents to princes (this is Federico da Montefeltro's copy), but 17 years later a print version appeared in 1472 for the new mass market. It is regarded as the first modern handbook on any subject, dealing with the entirety of its topic in a systematic way, and integrating images and text.

A total of 72 manuscripts came online in this batch. Here is the full list:
  1. Pal.gr.14
  2. Pal.gr.265
  3. Urb.lat.81
  4. Urb.lat.96
  5. Urb.lat.248
  6. Urb.lat.281, De re militari (above). Anthony Grafton's Rome Reborn catalog calls the book the most important Renaissance forbear of Machiavelli's Art of War. The St. Louis catalog notes that this copy is dated May 11, 1462 and signed by the scribe Sigismondi Nicolai Alamani.
  7. Urb.lat.410
  8. Urb.lat.423
  9. Urb.lat.674
  10. Urb.lat.732
  11. Urb.lat.740
  12. Urb.lat.763
  13. Urb.lat.772
  14. Urb.lat.774
  15. Urb.lat.789
  16. Urb.lat.793
  17. Urb.lat.797
  18. Urb.lat.812
  19. Urb.lat.814.pt.
  20. Urb.lat.820.pt.1
  21. Urb.lat.823.pt.3
  22. Urb.lat.825.pt.2
  23. Urb.lat.827.pt.1
  24. Urb.lat.827.pt.2
  25. Urb.lat.828.pt.3
  26. Urb.lat.829.pt.1
  27. Urb.lat.829.pt.2
  28. Urb.lat.829.pt.3
  29. Urb.lat.832.pt.2
  30. Urb.lat.836
  31. Urb.lat.837
  32. Urb.lat.847
  33. Urb.lat.848
  34. Urb.lat.850
  35. Urb.lat.854.pt.2
  36. Urb.lat.855
  37. Urb.lat.868
  38. Urb.lat.870
  39. Urb.lat.873
  40. Urb.lat.881
  41. Urb.lat.883
  42. Urb.lat.887
  43. Urb.lat.889
  44. Urb.lat.890
  45. Urb.lat.892
  46. Urb.lat.897
  47. Urb.lat.910
  48. Urb.lat.916
  49. Urb.lat.923
  50. Urb.lat.926
  51. Urb.lat.927
  52. Urb.lat.931
  53. Urb.lat.960
  54. Vat.gr.303.pt.1
  55. Vat.gr.303.pt.2
  56. Vat.lat.855
  57. Vat.lat.897
  58. Vat.lat.920
  59. Vat.lat.922
  60. Vat.lat.923
  61. Vat.lat.947
  62. Vat.lat.951
  63. Vat.lat.960
  64. Vat.lat.963
  65. Vat.lat.996
  66. Vat.lat.1002
  67. Vat.lat.1028
  68. Vat.lat.1031
  69. Vat.lat.1032
  70. Vat.lat.1043.pt.2
  71. Vat.lat.1089
  72. Vat.lat.3281, a magnificent old palimpsest containing fragments from a 5th- or 6th-century Vulgate Bible, scribed in southern Italy perhaps as soon as 50 years after the death of Jerome. It was torn apart and re-used in the 12th century for the Achilleis of Statius in Beneventan script (Lowe 1 14, Trismegistos 66110).
This is Piggin's Unofficial List number 74. If you have corrections or additions, please use the comments box below. Follow me on Twitter (@JBPiggin) for news of more additions to DigiVatLib.


Chart Before Jerome

Before Jerome of Stridon produced his revised Latin version of the Christian Bible in about 400 CE, the version that remains in use today, a Latin edition by translators unknown had existed and had been in wide use. The Great Stemma, the world's oldest network diagram, is product of that culture.

My new reconstruction of the Great Stemma appeared several weeks ago, initially in an English translation. Hot off the press today is an update containing the Vetus Latina or Old Biblical Latin text.

Seeing the chart reconstructed to the original shape is amazing enough. Seeing it in its original language from the time before Jerome adds to the verisimilitude. We don't know exactly when the Great Stemma was made. It was certainly before 427 CE. If it was not made before 400, its ignorance of Jerome's work is in no way surprising. It took centuries for the Jerome Bible to establish itself.

Flipping text upside-down and making it land dead centre in every circle or roundel were among the challenges in the initial reconstruction. One of my difficulties this time round was squeezing these Vetus Latina labels, which mostly take the stereotypical form of "Salomon filius David" (Solomon son of David), into the roundels.

It helped to adopt a condensed/narrow font (CSS: font-family: "Arial Narrow", "Helvetica Condensed", Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif;), but many of the labels still burst the confines of the circles. In a handwritten chart, you used to be able to vary the text size or squeeze it close together, or split words in unconventional ways. With modern, regularized, typographical text, that is hardly possible, and I did not want to make the text any smaller or it would not have given the impression the chart used to make, so I have allowed labels to spill when they are too long. Tell me what you think.


Notable Names

Great manuscripts have their own names, usually arbitrarily chosen by scholars and journalists. More than 20 years ago, the US classicist Wilma Fitzgerald came up with the entertaining idea of compiling a directory of all these bizarre names worldwide. She published it in three issues of the Canadian journal Mediaeval Studies.

One might dismiss this as being the codicological equivalent of sports trivia, but classicists and medievalists secretly loved it. I keep the index from one of those articles to help me spot interesting new Vatican digitizations. She later republished the articles as a book, Ocelli Nominum: Names and Shelf Marks of Famous/familiar Manuscripts, which I have not been able to lay hands on, but which fans of the digitization program will often spot in the Vatican Library bibliographies.

Sister Wilma (who died in 2013, here is her obituary) would herself have been entertained to know that of the 115 nameable manuscripts she identified at the Vatican Library for her article, 61 are so far online at the DigiVatLib website and seven more are now accessible at the Bibliotheca Palatina in Germany. When the BAV tops 100 of them, I may offer you a list for your browsing pleasure.

None of the Ocelli manuscripts showed up in the line-up of 50 items digitized this week, but I watch weekly with hope. The posted total is now 5,811 manuscripts online. Here are the latest:
  1. Barb.lat.4022 ,
  2. Chig.L.VIII.304, Letters by Bembo
  3. Ott.lat.2057, Belbello da Pavia's production of Cicero, De Oratore, with Cicero taking notes:
  4. Vat.ebr.54
  5. Vat.ebr.331.pt.1
  6. Vat.ebr.414
  7. Vat.ebr.476
  8. Vat.ebr.688
  9. Vat.ebr.690
  10. Vat.ebr.696
  11. Vat.ebr.697
  12. Vat.ebr.698
  13. Vat.ebr.700
  14. Vat.ebr.708
  15. Vat.ebr.712
  16. Vat.ebr.714
  17. Vat.ebr.715
  18. Vat.lat.246 ,
  19. Vat.lat.324 ,
  20. Vat.lat.867 ,
  21. Vat.lat.896 ,
  22. Vat.lat.903 ,
  23. Vat.lat.912 ,
  24. Vat.lat.916 ,
  25. Vat.lat.921 ,
  26. Vat.lat.926 ,
  27. Vat.lat.929 ,
  28. Vat.lat.932 ,
  29. Vat.lat.952 ,
  30. Vat.lat.958 ,
  31. Vat.lat.982 ,
  32. Vat.lat.983 ,
  33. Vat.lat.988 ,
  34. Vat.lat.994 ,
  35. Vat.lat.1024 ,
  36. Vat.lat.1043.pt.1 ,
  37. Vat.lat.1045 ,
  38. Vat.lat.1063 ,
  39. Vat.lat.1072 ,
  40. Vat.lat.1077 ,
  41. Vat.lat.1084 ,
  42. Vat.lat.1091 ,
  43. Vat.lat.1094 ,
  44. Vat.lat.2669, juridical
  45. Vat.lat.2780, a 1481 manuscript of the Metamorphoses of Ovid with this fine speech bubble:
  46. Vat.lat.3313, a battered old 11th-century Priscian, Institutiones Grammaticae, notable for its Beneventan script (listed by Lowe).
  47. Vat.lat.8204, Il Libro del Cortegiano, by Baldassar Castiglione, one of three (author's?) manuscripts at the Vatican (the others are 8205 and 8206), extensively discussed by Valeria Finucci (1992).
  48. Vat.lat.13748, a scrapbook of many drawings and engravings such as this care for a dead man:
  49. Vat.pers.177
  50. Vat.pers.178
This is Piggin's Unofficial List number 73. If you have corrections or additions, please use the comments box below. Follow me on Twitter (@JBPiggin) for news of more additions to DigiVatLib.

Fitzgerald, Wilma. Ocelli Nominum: Names and Shelf Marks of Famous/Familiar Manuscripts. Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1992.


Greek Gospels

Scholars of the New Testament, which was originally written in Greek, organize the many known early manuscripts by names that refer to the script. That is why Vat.gr.364, an illuminated Gospels from the 12th century which has just been placed online by the Vatican Library, is known as Minuscule 134.

In the nature of such things, it has its own Wikipedia entry. It has elaborate canon tables decorated in gold. The evangelists are shown writing at desks on arms that appear to swivel:

Here is the full list of 19 new digitizations on October 12, which bring the total to 5,762.
  1. Vat.ebr.50
  2. Vat.ebr.51
  3. Vat.ebr.52
  4. Vat.ebr.53
  5. Vat.ebr.618
  6. Vat.ebr.620
  7. Vat.ebr.626
  8. Vat.ebr.635
  9. Vat.ebr.637
  10. Vat.ebr.643
  11. Vat.ebr.644
  12. Vat.ebr.645
  13. Vat.ebr.669
  14. Vat.ebr.672
  15. Vat.ebr.677
  16. Vat.ebr.681
  17. Vat.ebr.683
  18. Vat.ebr.684
  19. Vat.gr.364

This is Piggin's Unofficial List number 72. If you have corrections or additions, please use the comments box below. Follow me on Twitter (@JBPiggin) for news of more additions to Digita Vaticana.


From Larestan

Among the treasures put online this week is the celebrated Vatican Judaeo-Persian Pentateuch. This is a 14th-century translation of part of the bible into Persian from the Aramaic Targum Onkelos.

Vat.pers.61 is written out in Hebrew script, though other contemporary translations from the Mongol era exist in Persian script. I quote from the Encyclopaedia Iranica:
Persian manuscripts were purchased for the ‘Stamperia Orientale Medicea’ by the brothers Giovan Battista Vecchietti (1552-1619), and Gerolamo Vecchietti (1557-ca. 1640) during their several missions to the East commissioned by the papacy... Among the manuscripts brought to Italy by Giovan Battista Vecchietti, mention should be made of a copy of the Judaeo-Persian Pentateuch, preserved at the Vatican Library as MS Vat. Pers. 61 (Rossi, 1948, p. 87). Ignazio Guidi (q.v.) made a preliminary study of it, and Herbert Paper published the text in Latin transliteration (1965-68). 
Vecchietti apparently obtained this fragile old book, which is almost square in format, in the town of Lar, capital of Larestan in Iran, according to Kenneth Thomas.

Here is the full list of digitizations placed online on October 10:
  1. Barb.or.14, Hebrew grammar
  2. Barb.or.82
  3. Barb.or.85
  4. Barb.or.88
  5. Barb.or.98
  6. Barb.or.101
  7. Barb.or.110
  8. Barb.or.119
  9. Barb.or.161
  10. Barb.or.162
  11. Barb.or.163
  12. Borg.turc.79
  13. Reg.gr.31
  14. Reg.gr.36 
  15. Reg.lat.1512, a 14th-century copy of the De Re Militari of Vegetius. According to Charles Shrader, Queen Christina owned numerous of these.
  16. Urb.lat.187, Metaphysica, an Avicenna Latinus of the Renaissance (hat tip for this to Pieter Beullens, @LatinAristotle on Twitter)
  17. Vat.ebr.3
  18. Vat.ebr.6
  19. Vat.ebr.8
  20. Vat.ebr.
  21. Vat.ebr.55
  22. Vat.ebr.56.pt.1
  23. Vat.ebr.56.pt.2
  24. Vat.ebr.58
  25. Vat.ebr.59
  26. Vat.ebr.60
  27. Vat.ebr.61
  28. Vat.ebr.62
  29. Vat.ebr.63
  30. Vat.ebr.64
  31. Vat.ebr.65
  32. Vat.ebr.67
  33. Vat.ebr.68
  34. Vat.ebr.69
  35. Vat.ebr.70
  36. Vat.ebr.73
  37. Vat.ebr.74
  38. Vat.ebr.76
  39. Vat.ebr.77
  40. Vat.ebr.78
  41. Vat.ebr.80
  42. Vat.ebr.81
  43. Vat.ebr.82
  44. Vat.ebr.83
  45. Vat.ebr.84
  46. Vat.ebr.85
  47. Vat.ebr.86
  48. Vat.ebr.88
  49. Vat.ebr.89
  50. Vat.ebr.90
  51. Vat.ebr.91
  52. Vat.ebr.92
  53. Vat.ebr.93
  54. Vat.ebr.94
  55. Vat.ebr.95
  56. Vat.ebr.96
  57. Vat.ebr.97
  58. Vat.ebr.98
  59. Vat.ebr.99
  60. Vat.ebr.254
  61. Vat.ebr.454.pt.3
  62. Vat.ebr.473
  63. Vat.ebr.477
  64. Vat.ebr.480
  65. Vat.ebr.481
  66. Vat.ebr.483
  67. Vat.ebr.488
  68. Vat.ebr.489
  69. Vat.ebr.491
  70. Vat.ebr.495
  71. Vat.ebr.496
  72. Vat.ebr.498
  73. Vat.ebr.507
  74. Vat.ebr.509
  75. Vat.ebr.510
  76. Vat.ebr.511
  77. Vat.ebr.515
  78. Vat.ebr.517
  79. Vat.ebr.518
  80. Vat.ebr.520
  81. Vat.ebr.521
  82. Vat.ebr.522
  83. Vat.ebr.524
  84. Vat.ebr.525
  85. Vat.ebr.526
  86. Vat.ebr.527
  87. Vat.ebr.528
  88. Vat.ebr.529
  89. Vat.ebr.539
  90. Vat.ebr.540
  91. Vat.ebr.541
  92. Vat.ebr.542
  93. Vat.ebr.543
  94. Vat.ebr.545
  95. Vat.ebr.547
  96. Vat.ebr.548
  97. Vat.ebr.549
  98. Vat.ebr.550
  99. Vat.ebr.551
  100. Vat.ebr.552
  101. Vat.ebr.553
  102. Vat.ebr.554
  103. Vat.ebr.555
  104. Vat.ebr.556
  105. Vat.ebr.558
  106. Vat.ebr.559
  107. Vat.ebr.560
  108. Vat.ebr.561
  109. Vat.ebr.563
  110. Vat.ebr.567
  111. Vat.ebr.569
  112. Vat.ebr.570
  113. Vat.ebr.574
  114. Vat.ebr.575
  115. Vat.ebr.576
  116. Vat.ebr.577
  117. Vat.ebr.578
  118. Vat.ebr.579.pt.2
  119. Vat.ebr.580
  120. Vat.ebr.585
  121. Vat.ebr.588
  122. Vat.ebr.590
  123. Vat.ebr.592
  124. Vat.ebr.593
  125. Vat.ebr.594
  126. Vat.ebr.596.pt.1
  127. Vat.ebr.596.pt.2
  128. Vat.ebr.597
  129. Vat.ebr.600
  130. Vat.ebr.601
  131. Vat.ebr.603
  132. Vat.ebr.604
  133. Vat.ebr.605
  134. Vat.ebr.606
  135. Vat.ebr.608
  136. Vat.ebr.613
  137. Vat.ebr.615
  138. Vat.ebr.617
  139. Vat.lat.344
  140. Vat.lat.889
  141. Vat.lat.906
  142. Vat.lat.913
  143. Vat.lat.917
  144. Vat.lat.954
  145. Vat.lat.955
  146. Vat.lat.984
  147. Vat.lat.985, Mich. Angiran's Commentary on the Sentences. Schadt, p. 197 notes 12-13, quotes a curious argument at fol. 161 based on medieval genetics to explain why incest leads to sick babies. The front illumination contains a fine image of a baptism where the tiny altar boy is struggling to hold up the heavy lectionary:
  148. Vat.lat.1000
  149. Vat.lat.1017
  150. Vat.lat.1029
  151. Vat.lat.1058, miscellany including Bonaventura, Lignum Vitae. Those who follow this blog will know that I am interested in tree diagrams, and this contains a diagram presenting people in a tree at fol 28v. This is an exceptionally early adoption of the idea, dating from the 13th century:
    The figure at right is not waving fists in a victory pose. Those are only tendrils. As Hermann Schadt notes, Bonaventura (1221-1274) discussed Christ's cross as a "tree of life" with 12 branches and invited his readers to dwell on and explore this symbolism. The graphic is not a data visualization, but the artistic motif helps to prepare the ground for genealogical trees in later centuries.
  152. Vat.lat.1068
  153. Vat.lat.1087
  154. Vat.lat.1819, Latin translation of Dionysius Halicarnassensis, Antiquitates romanae, lib. I-XI - 15th century manuscript
  155. Vat.lat.1848, Livy, Ad Urbe Condita, 15th or 16th century
  156. Vat.lat.3317, 10th-century copy of Servius, In Vergilium, apparently on Georgics I. Lowe notes its Beneventan script.
  157. Vat.lat.7319, Seneca, Epistulae ad Lucilium, with a fine opening illumination from Brussels
  158. Vat.pers.61, see above
This is Piggin's Unofficial List 71. If you have corrections or additions, please use the comments box below. Follow me on Twitter (@JBPiggin) for news of more additions to Digita Vaticana.

Schadt, Hermann. Die Darstellungen der Arbores Consanguinitatis und der Arbores Affinitatis: Bildschemata in juristischen Handschriften. Tübingen [Germany]: Wasmuth, 1982.


The Goths Got a Long Run

The Goths, an eastern Germanic people, have had a fabulously long run. Of their own culture we know comparatively little, but we know much of the glories of Latin Spain under their rule.

Later, a revival of what was fancied to have been Gothic took medieval art by storm. Of the Gothic Revival in the 19th century (properly a revival of a revival) we find traces in the whole globe. And the Goths who now meet every year in Leipzig to hear Gothic rock music pay their own tribute.

So what are we to make of the Missale Gothicum, a fabulously old book of Christian liturgy made in France about 700 which the Vatican Library placed online this week in one of the major gifts of the year to historical scholarship?
Reg.lat.317 is not Gothic at all and its traditional title is entirely false, as Henry Bannister noted a century ago in his introduction:
... for it is not a missal, but a pure sacramentary, and the word Gothic in its time has borne many different meanings; at any rate, it was so called about five centuries ago, when someone inserted this title at what was then, and is still, the first page of the ms. One cannot say what he intended by it; it may ... have simply meant that to him Gothicum was synonymous with "ignotum" ...
This codex, collected by Vossius and formerly at Stockholm, is of such huge importance that four editions of it have appeared: by Giuseppe Maria Tomasi in 1680, by Bannister in 1917, by Leo Mohlberg in 1961 and most recently and authoritatively by Els Rose in 2004.

Described by Bannister as "the oldest and nearly perfect sacramentary of the Church in the West", the manuscript was presumably written in a Burgundian scriptorium, and was most probably in use in the church of Autun. As an important source of the Gallican liturgy, and of early medieval Latin, a language in a transitional stage, it naturally has its own entry in Wikipedia. Enjoy it now online.

It is among 106 new manuscripts placed online on October 3, bringing the total to 5,585. Here is the full list:
  1. Chig.C.VI.163, autograph by Bernardino of Siena (died 1444)
  2. Patetta.1621
  3. Reg.lat.317, above, TM 66201 in the Trismegistos database.
  4. Urb.lat.151
  5. Vat.ebr.45
  6. Vat.ebr.46
  7. Vat.ebr.47
  8. Vat.ebr.57
  9. Vat.ebr.407
  10. Vat.ebr.438
  11. Vat.ebr.444
  12. Vat.ebr.445
  13. Vat.ebr.450
  14. Vat.ebr.452
  15. Vat.ebr.454.pt.1
  16. Vat.ebr.454.pt.2
  17. Vat.ebr.455.pt.1
  18. Vat.ebr.455.pt.2
  19. Vat.ebr.455.pt.3
  20. Vat.ebr.456
  21. Vat.ebr.457
  22. Vat.ebr.458
  23. Vat.ebr.461
  24. Vat.ebr.462
  25. Vat.ebr.463
  26. Vat.ebr.464
  27. Vat.ebr.465
  28. Vat.ebr.466
  29. Vat.ebr.468
  30. Vat.ebr.469
  31. Vat.ebr.475
  32. Vat.ebr.478
  33. Vat.ebr.482
  34. Vat.ebr.484
  35. Vat.ebr.494
  36. Vat.ebr.497
  37. Vat.ebr.500
  38. Vat.ebr.501
  39. Vat.ebr.502
  40. Vat.ebr.503
  41. Vat.ebr.504
  42. Vat.ebr.505
  43. Vat.ebr.506
  44. Vat.ebr.508
  45. Vat.ebr.516
  46. Vat.ebr.523
  47. Vat.ebr.546
  48. Vat.ebr.564
  49. Vat.ebr.565
  50. Vat.ebr.566
  51. Vat.ebr.571
  52. Vat.ebr.572
  53. Vat.ebr.581
  54. Vat.lat.175
  55. Vat.lat.217
  56. Vat.lat.265
  57. Vat.lat.439
  58. Vat.lat.539
  59. Vat.lat.544
  60. Vat.lat.692
  61. Vat.lat.822
  62. Vat.lat.857
  63. Vat.lat.859
  64. Vat.lat.868
  65. Vat.lat.871
  66. Vat.lat.876
  67. Vat.lat.883
  68. Vat.lat.885
  69. Vat.lat.891
  70. Vat.lat.893
  71. Vat.lat.900
  72. Vat.lat.902
  73. Vat.lat.907
  74. Vat.lat.910
  75. Vat.lat.915
  76. Vat.lat.918
  77. Vat.lat.919
  78. Vat.lat.924
  79. Vat.lat.928
  80. Vat.lat.938
  81. Vat.lat.940
  82. Vat.lat.941
  83. Vat.lat.944
  84. Vat.lat.946
  85. Vat.lat.948
  86. Vat.lat.956
  87. Vat.lat.967
  88. Vat.lat.968, Johannes de Capistrano (patron saint of jurists), Speculum Conscientiae, in 15th-century writing. Lowe: The final fly-leaves, fols. 151-2 (part of a missal), are in a 12th-century Beneventan hand:
  89. Vat.lat.974
  90. Vat.lat.975
  91. Vat.lat.978
  92. Vat.lat.980
  93. Vat.lat.1001
  94. Vat.lat.1015
  95. Vat.lat.1016
  96. Vat.lat.1018
  97. Vat.lat.1019
  98. Vat.lat.1036
  99. Vat.lat.1041.pt.1
  100. Vat.lat.1041.pt.2
  101. Vat.lat.1647
  102. Vat.lat.1742, a 15th-century manuscript of the Orationes of Cicero. Anthony Grafton's Rome Reborn catalog notes of fol. 2v below: Gaspare di Sant'Angelo's manuscript of Cicero portrays the Roman orator and his audience in contemporary dress before a gilt background:
    The image is framed in interlacing white vines or branches, one of the most common ornamental devices of the Italian illuminated manuscript of the Renaissance.
  103. Vat.lat.1766, Quintilian, Epistola
  104. Vat.lat.1860, Livy
  105. Vat.lat.7320, Valerius Maximus, De Dictis et Factis, with this wheel of fortune at fol. 145v:
  106. Vat.lat.10305, Giovanni Battista Natali, with many sample drawings like this baby
This is Piggin's Unofficial List number 70. If you have corrections or additions, please use the comments box below. Follow me on Twitter (@JBPiggin) for news of more additions to DigiVatLib.


Secret of Oldest Infographic Revealed: A Grid

Things have been quiet on this blog and my Twitter stream because I have been working on a major project: a complete reconstruction of the oldest known conceptual infographic in the world: the fifth-century Latin Great Stemma.

When I first announced its rediscovery in 2011, I presented a rather freely drawn plot of it (see this in my article in Studia Patristica or archived on my website as an swf (Flash) file):

This time round, I am trying to do something much harder: to replicate the chart without any accommodations to modern assumptions, showing it precisely as it was intended by its designer.

The result (link) is the layout that the designer would have saved if the SVG mark-up language had existed in the fifth century. Not only are the lines, circles and text in the precise locations where the design called for them to be positioned. These positions also allow us to observe the design's hidden concepts and rules. This new drawing is not an impression of the late antique original: it is an encoding of the design itself.

The starting point for my revision was wise counsel from a great infographics teacher and practitioner, Raimar Heber of Germany. Raimar has just published a textbook (in German, Rheinwerk Verlag) of best practices in infographics and it looks very good indeed from the page samples.

In 2011, Raimar offered to do a retro-engineering experiment: he world accept an imaginary design brief and visualize the data of the Great Stemma as one of the world's leading professional art editors would design it today. He drew up a graphic sampler. One frame of it pitched a grid as the basis of the visualization. Chains should be laid out in the horizontal and vertical, he argued, with shoots allowed at 45-degree angles if the going got tough.

For a long time, I was sceptical about this. It sounded too 21st century to me. There is only one manuscript of the Great Stemma where straight lines and right angles stand out (Plut 20.54 in Florence), but one tends to assume that was just the obsession of an over-neat scribe.

But in spring this year I began re-analysing every substructure of the Great Stemma using a selection of the best manuscripts. This involved no less than 30 separate investigations, listed here as a "detail views".

For the first time I noticed something.

The manuscripts contain many vertical columns of roundels (the circles containing names). If one counts how many members there are in such rows, one comes up unusually often with the number 10. There might for example be a column of eight connected roundels, in a place where two others above them block the area overhead. Or there are long chains which bend to the left or the right at the 10th member in many manuscripts.

So as an experiment I worked to trim all 100 of so columns of the Great Stemma so that each was 10 elements high. If you array that many columns side by side it naturally appears gridlike.

This alignment became a new paradigm. Not only is this pattern harmonious, but it also provides a simple and logical explanation for so many bulges, interlocks and elbows in the manuscripts. I am convinced it is the lost original pattern that the designer used. So Raimar's insight turned out to be spot on.

On reflection there would have been good reasons to use a grid. Firstly, it makes designs easier to read. That is an imperative of then and now.

Secondly, it makes a design much easier to hand-copy, which is no longer an imperative now, but was an important concern before the rise of printing. If you draw a grid where the written data expand neatly in two dimensions, and prescribe moreover that certain squares be left blank, you have a robust model for copyists to work from. We should study whether a similar method may have been used to copy the Peutinger Table, mappaemundi and other late antique charts by hand.

Take a look at my new reconstruction, which translates all of the 5th-century design into a (gridlike) pixel coordinate system. This design is not drawn by hand, but as output from a new database I have built, where all the crossing points in the grid have been recorded, along with the roundels, texts and connectors that pertain to those crossings. Other scholars may offer their own editions in future, but I would argue that the Piggin Stemma is the most accurate reconstruction on the available evidence.

A contemporary buzzword is digital humanities, which often is simply watered down to mean storing and searching old documents as scans in databases. True digital humanities work is something more: it means recasting historic creative work from its original analog expression to a digital expression which remains absolutely congruent with the artist's or writer's intentions, but yields more insight.

I have tried to make this chart even more accessible by translating its text into English and by supplementing it with explanatory plaques and interactive visual effects (look for radio buttons like those above). Tell me if it works like this and how you think it might be further improved.