Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana announces digitized manuscripts

The Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana has finally begun to make public digital versions of its vast manuscript holdings. The first 256 manuscripts went online earlier this week, starting with Ott. Lat. 259 (a collation, combining a 9th c. manuscript of a text by Augustinus with a medieval manuscript of texts by Valerianus Cemelensis and Isidorus) and ending with Vat. lat. 11506 (a 9th c. Cicero). Most of the manuscripts are from the Palatini latini (Pal. lat.) collection.

Looking at the Digitized Manuscripts list can be daunting as it simply gives the BAV fondi /shelfmark and nothing more. No title, no author, no date. Without access to a finding aid* to the Vatican’s manuscript holdings, choosing one to look at is a game of chance—albeit with some beautiful and surprising results.

Most of the manuscripts in this initial batch seem to be Carolingian, but some are Medieval and a few are Renaissance. Both Pal. lat. 11506 and the Augustinius portion of Ott. lat. 259 are written in carolingian minuscule with red rustic capitals for headings. At random I chose five other manuscripts to exam: Pal. lat. 198 (no. 51 on the list) is Liber qui appellatur Speculum by Augustinus in a mediocre carolingian minuscule; Pal. lat. 291 (no. 89 on the list) is De rerum naturis by Rabanus Maurus (1425), written in a very spiky textura with visible ruled lines; Pal. lat. 888 (no. 142 on the list) is a collation of writings by Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, Sallustius Crispus, Gaius and Sicco Polentonus from the 12th to 15th centuries (with the Sicco Polentonus in a poor Renaissance copy of a caroline minuscule); Pal. lat. 1603 (no. 192 on the list) is a collection of writings by Giannozzo Manetti (c. 1450) rendered in a delicate humanist bookhand; and Pal. lat. 1785 (no. 237 on the list) is a 14th c. glossarium from Southern Germany in a rough gothic hand. None are particularly noteworthy from the standpoint of their scripts. But that does not diminish their value for a calligrapher. Ordinary manuscripts can provide more insights into the methods used by scribes to write a particular script than can manuscripts of quality. They also remind us that not all scribes in the past were talented.

Poke around the Digitized Manuscripts page. You may stumble across a gem. Happy hunting!

*The website for Saint Louis University Libraries provides a guide to printed finding aids for the Vatican collections. Copies of these finding aids are commonly available on the reference shelves of manuscript divisions of university and research libraries. The BAV site also contains an online catalogue to the manuscripts (though it kept failing when I recently tried it).