The manuscripts and printed books that came to rest in the Vatican Library tell many stories. They help to explain the development of Renaissance thought and art, scholarship and science, in Rome and elsewhere. They shed light on the history of the universal Roman church and on the city in which it flourished, on the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation--even on the history of Western efforts to understand and convert the peoples of the non-Western world. They describe the new education, art, and music of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; they show how the curia reached beyond the bounds of Europe, to the Islamic world and even to China; and they reveal some of the conflicts that flared up when the accomplishment of church policy and the pursuit of new knowledge could not both be carried out.
Rome now is one of the grandest cities in the world. Millions of pilgrims and tourists come every year to admire, and be awed by, its treasures of architecture, art, and history. But is was not always this way. By the fourteenth century, the great ancient city had dwindled to a miserable village. Perhaps 20,000 people clung to the ruins despite the ravages of disease and robber barons. Popes and cardinals had fled to Avignon in southern France. Rome was dwarfed in wealth and power by the great commercial cities and territorial states farther north, from Florence to Venice. In the Renaissance, however, the popes returned to the See of Saint Peter. Popes and cardinals straightened streets, raised bridges across the Tiber, provided hospitals, fountains, and new churches for the public and splendid palaces and gardens for themselves. They drew on all the riches of Renaissance art and architecture to adorn the urban fabric, which they saw as a tangible proof of the power and glory of the church. And they attracted pilgrims from all of Christian Europe, whose alms and living expenses made the city rich once more. The papal curia--the central administration of the church- -became one of the most efficient governments in Europe. Michelangelo and Raphael, Castiglione and Cellini, Giuliano da Sangallo and Domenico Fontana lived and worked in Rome. Architecture, painting, music, and literature flourished. Papal efforts to make Rome the center of a normal Renaissance state, one which could wield military as well as spiritual power, eventually failed, but Rome remained a center of creativity in art and thought until deep into the seventeenth century.
The popes had always had a library, but in the middle of the fifteenth century they began to collect books in a new way. Nicholas V decided to create a public library for "the court of Rome"--the whole world of clerics and laymen, cardinals and scholars who inhabited the papal palace and its environs. He and Sixtus IV provided the library with a suite of rooms. These were splendidly frescoed, lighted by large windows, and furnished with elaborate wooden benches to which most books were chained. And, unlike some modern patrons, the popes of the Renaissance cared about the books as well as about the buildings that housed them. They bought, borrowed, and even stole the beautiful handwritten books of the time. The papal library soon became as spectacular a work of art, in its own way, as the Sistine Chapel or Saint Peter's. It grew rapidly; by 1455 it had 1200 books, 400 of them Greek; by 1481, a handwritten catalogue by the librarian, Platina, showed 3500 entries--by far the largest collection of books in the Western world. And it never stopped growing, thanks to bequests, purchases, and even, sometimes, military conquests.
From the start, the library had a special character. It included Bibles and works of theology and canon law, but it specialized in secular works: above all, the Greek and Latin classics, in the purest texts that the popes and their agents could find, for the popes and their servants saw these as the most powerful source of knowledge and counsel that the world possessed. The Vatican Library, in fact, became a center of the revival of classical culture known as the Renaissance. Its librarians were often distinguished scholars. Historians and philosophers, clerics and magicians visited the collections and borrowed books from them. By 1581, when the French writer Michel de Montaigne visited Rome, the treasures of the Vatican had become a mandatory stop on any well-informed traveller's Roman itinerary. To his delight, Montaigne was shown ancient Roman and ancient Chinese manuscripts, the love letters of Henry VIII, and the classics of history and philosophy (many of which can be seen in this exhibition). Then, as now, the Vatican Library was one of the greatest in the Western world.
These three views of Rome let us follow the city's revival. In the first, from the fourteenth century, the city appears devastated. Large uninhabited areas stretch across the center, and only a few neighborhoods--above all, the Borgo, around the Vatican, and Trastevere--are thickly settled. By the sixteenth century, the population has begun to recover; it went from around 20,000 at its lowest point, to over 100,000 by the time that the armies of the emperor Charles V sacked the city in 1527. New palaces in the city and country estates spreading up the surrounding hills reflect the growth of prosperity and the efforts of cardinals, ambassadors, and others to make the city splendid once again.
Image of Rome in the fourteenth century
This plan of Rome from the fourteenth-century Satyrica historia of Paolino of Venice, offers a comprehensive view of the city. It shows dense settlement in the Borgo and Trastevere near Saint Peter's, but isolated buildings elsewhere, especially in the southern part of the city. Though the view is schematic, it is far from arbitrary or inaccurate. One can easily find Saint Peter's, the Capitoline, the Pantheon (in the center), and many other landmarks and also see how deserted much of the ancient city was.
Image of Rome in the fourteenth century. Parchment. 1330-40
Ugo Pinard, Plan of Rome
This fine printed plan gives a sense of the growth of the city in the Renaissance, as central districts of Rome filled out again as popes, cardinals, and pilgrims spent lavishly. Streets were straightened. Bridges were laid across the Tiber. Dignitaries built fine palaces in the city center and gardens and villas on the hills.
Ugo Pinard, Plan of Rome. From A. Lafréry, Speculum Romanae magnificentiae 1555
Antonio Tempesta, View of Rome in Twelve Parts (parts 3, 4, and 12 of this map are unavailable)
In the 1580s, Sixtus V, a cantankerous and determined pope, tried to clear the Roman streets of their thousands of prostitutes. Though he failed at that, he succeeded in reorganizing streets and plazas. The Piazza del Popolo, where long straight streets converge and an obelisk provides a focus for marching pilgrims, is only one of the centers that he created for the public ceremonies so important in Counter-Reformation Rome.
Cicero, Orationes (image unavailable)
Gaspare di Sant'Angelo's manuscript of Cicero portrays the Roman orator and his audience in contemporary dress before a gilt background. The image itself is framed in interlacing white vines or branches, one of the most common ornamental devices of the Italian illuminated manuscript of the Renaissance. The text was written by Petrus of Middelburg.
Cicero, Orationes (image unavailable). Parchment. Fifteenth century
Henry VIII of England, Assertio septem sacramentorum adversus Martinum Lutherum
Henry VIII, a monarch with a fine classical education, supposedly wrote--or at least signed--this defense of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church against Martin Luther. He did add, in his own hand, the couplet seen here, in which he presents the book to Pope Leo X. The manuscript was shown to famous visitors to the Vatican Library as early as the sixteenth century.
Henry VIII of England, Assertio septem sacramentorum adversus Martinum Lutherum. In Latin 1521
Henry VIII of England, Letter to Anne Boleyn
The Vatican Library also acquired Henry's loving letters, in both English and French, to Anne Boleyn. The letters, though undated, predate their marriage early in 1533 and presumably come from the period, toward the end of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, when he made Anne Boleyn pregnant and tried unsuccessfully to induce the Vatican to grant him a divorce from Catherine. In 1536 Anne herself would be executed, on a dubious charge of adultery.
Henry VIII of England, Letter to Anne Boleyn. In English and French. England, before 1533
This spectacular two-volume Bible was produced for the papal mercenary and duke of Urbino, Federigo da Montefeltro, by the Florentine book dealer Vespasiano da Bisticci. The scribe was Ugo Comminelli of Mézières; but the illuminations, by David and Dominico Ghirlandaio and others, make this book one of the finest works of art of the fifteenth century. Shown here is a miniature of the Apocalypse.
Urbino Bible. In Latin. Parchment. 1476-78
Galileo Galilei, Sunspot observations
Galileo helped to create a new science partly because of his extraordinary skills as an observer, which enabled him to create and use the first telescope. These drawings represent sunspots-- whose existence proved that the sun was not the perfect, unchanging body that traditional Aristotelian cosmology considered it to be. Galileo's work received strong support for a long time from Maffeo Barberini, the future Pope Urban VIII, though his Dialogues on Two World Systems and Copernican views would eventually be condemned by Rome.
Galileo Galilei, Sunspot observations. Paper. 3 May 1612
Johannes Rossos wrote the Greek text and Bartolomeo San Vito the Latin of this codex of Homer's Iliad and a companion version of the Odyssey. The illustrations, by a north Italian artist, draw on the archaeological scholarship of Paduan antiquaries to represent the Greek and Trojan heroes in convincingly rendered ancient armor and costumes (though the ship and tents in the middle of the Latin page are clearly modern). Here we see the priest Chryses, rendered as an ancient pagan, spurned by Agamemnon and avenged by the god Apollo, who shoots down the Greeks. Sadly, time or funds ran out, and most later images in the series are either merely sketched in or entirely omitted. The illustrations shown summarize Book I of the Iliad.
Homer, Iliad. In Latin and Greek. Parchment. 1477
Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, Alternate Design for the Piazza di San Pietro
The architects of baroque Rome created some of the most dramatic spaces of Western Europe. The piazza before Saint Peter's was one of the most contentious, as well as the most successful, of these. Scholars as well as architects argued over the shape it should take, whether or not it needed formal openings, and many other issues. But the result was perhaps Bernini's most famous creation. These drawings show some of his struggles with the many problems posed by the site.
Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, Alternate Design for the Piazza di San Pietro. Paper. Seventeenth century
Papal blessing from A. Lafréry, Speculum Romanae magnificentiae'
The greatest Roman building project was, of course, the new church of Saint Peter, the great dome of which symbolizes the papacy to this day. This engraving shows the great church still under construction, the dome unfinished, and gives a good sense of the scale and duration of the undertaking.
Papal blessing from A. Lafréry, Speculum Romanae magnificentiae'. 1555
Petrarch, Bucolicum carmen
The great Italian poet Petrarch notes here that he wrote this manuscript of his Latin bucolic poem, modeled on that of Virgil, "with his own hand"--manu propria. In an age of manuscripts, intellectuals often served as their own scribes, and many of them took pleasure in writing a fine hand.
Petrarch, Bucolicum carmen. In Latin. Parchment. 1357-62
Aldo Manuzio, Rules of the Modern Academy
Printers as well as scribes preserved the classics by combining scholarship and artistry. Aldus Manutius, an erudite scholar as well as an elegant printer who published many first editions of Greek texts, described on this unique printed sheet what was perhaps more a dream than a reality. He calls for those concerned with preparing and correcting editions of the Greek classics in his shop in Venice (many of whom were Greek emigres) to speak only classical Greek. Those who fail to do so must pay fines, and when these have sufficiently accumulated, they are to be used to pay for a "symposium"--a lavish common meal (the rule states that it must be better than the food given printers, which was legendarily meager). The Renaissance ideal of the publishing house as a center of learning emerges vividly.
Aldo Manuzio, Rules of the Modern Academy. In Greek. Paper. ca. 1500
The Vatican Library developed rapidly. These documents let us watch it grow. The catalogues show how the thousands of manuscripts were organized and stored. Most were not shelved, but chained to what were called "benches,"--actually tables with benches attached to them. Each of these was dedicated to a particular subject. Readers working in the library had to study the books in place. But it also operated a circulating system. Readers could sign books out, but they also had to take the chains that had held them to the table (a forceful reminder to bring them back); and the pope himself might write a recall notice if important texts were kept away too long. One could also lose one's privilege for climbing over the tables instead of walking around them or for other offenses. Pico della Mirandola, the brilliant 23-year-old philosopher who wrote a famous "Oration on the Dignity of Man," lost his privileges when his dissident theology shocked the papal curia.
Inventory of the Library
This inventory drawn up by L. Parmenio clearly shows the cataloging method used in the early years of the library. Books were grouped by subject on banchi, or benches, to which they were chained. Unlike modern card files, such inventories were difficult to add to since new books could be listed only at the end of each section, not in order.
Inventory of the Library. 1518
Second register of loans
For some time the Vatican let its library books circulate. Borrowers entered their names and the titles of the books they took out in registers like this one, and the librarian crossed out the entry when the books came back. The borrower had to take the chain as well as the book, no doubt to remind him the book was not his. In this case, the brilliant philosopher Pico della Mirandola takes out--and returns--the works of Roger Bacon.
Second register of loans. Paper. Fifteenth century.
Parchment from tavoletta
At each banco, lists like this guided the reader to the exact item he needed.
Parchment from tavoletta. Sixteenth century
Charles Borromeo, Receipt for the return of twelve books
Even saints had to return their library books.
Charles Borromeo, Receipt for the return of twelve books. Paper. Sixteenth century
Index of the library under Paul III
This index, a very extensive one, was used in the library until 1620--powerful evidence for the continuity of the basic procedures developed in the fifteenth century. But as the Counter-Reformation took hold, censorship began to affect the library as well as outside publishers. Some of the pages of this index record books--such as Lorenzo Valla's attack on the Donation of Constantine--being removed after they were listed on the Index of Forbidden Books.
Index of the library under Paul III. Sixteenth century
Lorenzo Valla translated the Greek historian Thucydides for Nicholas V. His final note, shown here, attests that this copy was deposited in the Vatican in 1452 to serve as a master against which all others could be corrected. Already, in the middle of the fifteenth century, the library was conceived of as a public collection of scholarly books. Both Lorenzo Valla and the scribe, Iohannes Lamperti de Rodenberg, signed this splendid copy. The margins of the text contain numerous corrections and explanatory notes by Valla.
Thucydides, Histories. 1452
Any great library offers many different kinds of historical experience. The Vatican is especially rich in Greek and Latin manuscripts--the hand-written copies that preserved the classics of the ancient world. In the margins of many of these texts one can meet medieval and Renaissance readers, trying to correct, understand, and sometimes argue with their texts--a conversation between ancient writers and modern readers that has gone on for millennia, and shows every sign of continuing. Other manuscripts let the visitor watch brilliant writers, original thinkers, and great political figures at work, making discoveries, revising their work, or simply writing a love letter. In each case, the original documents let the modern viewer taste the varied flavors of the past with a directness and vividness that no modern history can match.
The Historia Augusta is an amusing collection of lives of the Roman emperors written in the fourth century A.D. The texts purport to be the work of six distinct historians, but were composed, according to most modern scholars, by a single forger. They describe many curious details of court life and provide apparent quotations from original documents, which interested many medieval and Renaissance scholars. One of the many remarkable qualities of the Vatican's manuscripts is the richness of the marginal notes in which generations of scholars discussed and evaluated their content. In the section displayed here, Petrarch calls attention in a marginal note to one of the quoted documents.
Historia Augusta. In Latin. Parchment. Ninth century
Virgil, Georgics and Bucolics (The Palatine Virgil)
This spectacular manuscript, written in Italy in a large rustic hand, may have been completed before the fall of the Roman empire, and thus is physically as well as intellectually part of the classical heritage preserved in the Vatican (to which it came as booty after Catholic armies sacked the Protestant stronghold at Heidelberg in 1623). It may have been preserved for some time at the Carolingian court, a vital center for classical studies in the early Middle Ages, and certainly it was studied and copied actively by Carolingian scholars. It came to rest at Lorsch by sometime in the ninth century.
Virgil, Georgics and Bucolics (The Palatine Virgil). In Latin. Fifth or sixth century
Giovanni Tortelli, De orthographia
Pope Nicholas V, the real founder of the Vatican Library, also supported many scholarly enterprises. This fine presentation copy of Tortelli's critical Latin lexicon praises the pope lavishly, not only for his learning but also for his patronage of scholars, his support of translations from the Greek, and his project to create a great library, which Tortelli describes as "the most splendid that has ever existed."
Giovanni Tortelli, De orthographia. In Latin. ca. 1450
Bartolomeo Platina, Lives of Jesus and the Popes
Bartolomeo Platina, librarian under Sixtus IV, compiled this set of sometimes quite critical biographies of the popes. This presentation copy of Platina's work contains corrections in his hand and a splendid miniature, shown here, of his and the library's patron, Sixtus IV. The scribe was Bartolomeo San Vito.
Bartolomeo Platina, Lives of Jesus and the Popes. In Latin. Parchment. ca. 1474
Giovanni Michele Nagonio, Prognostichon Hierosolymitanum
Giovanni Nagonio, a papal functionary who wrote celebratory verses like these for many European monarchs, here celebrates the triumphal entry of Julius II into Rome after his victory over the Bolognese. Combining Roman and papal imagery, the miniature shows Julius next to his nephew, Francesco Maria della Rovere, who wears golden armor. The Bolognese appear, presumably, as the gloomy barbarians in chains who accompany his float. On the facing page one sees a self-satisfied pontiff, ringed by short celebratory texts. Nagonio's poems, which fill the rest of the book, reach a self-parodic level of flattery.
Giovanni Michele Nagonio, Prognostichon Hierosolymitanum. In Latin. Parchment. 1507
This immense print shows the ancient city not, as Pietro del Massaio had, as a bare stage decorated by the great ruins and buildings that survived into modern times but as a living community, its public spaces, columns, and colonnades separated by block on block of private residences, which Ligorio recreated from his knowledge of ancient reliefs.
This fine Carolingian manuscript of the Roman comic poet Plautus, like many others of the Latin classics, was brought to Italy by the bookhunter Poggio Bracciolini, who entered notes in it and copied it, as did Niccolo Niccoli. The latter's copy in turn gave rise to many other manuscripts which were studied, imitated, and performed in Rome and elsewhere. The revival of secular drama in Renaissance Europe largely stems from the discovery of this work. As for this manuscript, Nicholas of Cusa brought it to Rome, where it passed through the library of Cardinal Giordano Orsini into that of the Chapter of Saint Peter's, who gave it to Pope Leo X.
Plautus, Comedies. In Latin. Ninth century
Giorgio Ghisi, The Last Judgment
This print of Michelangelo's Last Judgment conveys both something of the artist's power (described by his contemporaries as terribilita) and something of the new religious mood of the 1530s, as the Catholic Reformation began to mutate into the new, militant Counter-Reformation of the mid-sixteenth century.
Giorgio Ghisi, The Last Judgment
Lodovico Lazzarelli, De gentilium deorum imaginibus
Lodovico Lazzarelli, one of the many late fifteenth-century Italian intellectuals who were fascinated by the wisdom they thought to lie concealed in the myths of Greek (and Egyptian) pagans, here describes the cosmos, the planets and the arts in a lovely illuminated manuscript prepared for Federigo da Montefeltro. On display is the devouring image of Saturn, the melancholy planet feared by such astrologers as the Florentine Marsilio Ficino. The earth appears surrounded by angels, and Lazzarelli clearly sees no contradiction between his Christian faith and his fascination with ancient wisdom.
Lodovico Lazzarelli, De gentilium deorum imaginibus. In Latin. Parchment. After 1471
Giorgio Ghisi, Delphic sibyl (Image of Sistine Ceiling)
The synthesis between pagan and Christian revelations took on visible form in the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo's ceiling showed not only Hebrew prophets but pagan prophetesses, the sibyls, such as the one illustrated here. Many curial intellectuals--notably the influential Giles of Viterbo--believed that the sibyls had prophesied the coming of Christ. This print is one of a great many made by artists who hoped to convey something of the power of the Sistine ceiling.
Giorgio Ghisi, Delphic sibyl (Image of Sistine Ceiling)
Agostino Steucho, De perenni philosophia
Agostino Steucho, a Vatican librarian in the mid-sixteenth century, presented Pope Paul III with this copy of his elaborate treatise On the Perennial Philosophy. He argued, on the basis of copious evidence exhaustively examined, that the best Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, the ancient Chaldean sages, and the sibyls had all concurred in teaching the central importance of piety and worship. He illustrated this "perennial philosophy" with what he described as "flowers picked from all of philosophy that give off the scent of divinity" and presented this handsome copy of his text to a pope whose concern for the buildings and libraries of Rome he warmly praised.
Agostino Steucho, De perenni philosophia. In Latin. Parchment. ca. 1540
Guglielmo Sirleto, Revision of the Breviarum Romanum
The liturgical calendar, the breviary, and the liturgy all needed to be pruned and reformed. Guglielmo Sirleto, Vatican librarian, worked on all these projects. He marked up a printed edition of the Roman breviary, introducing radical cuts and changes into long-standard texts. Here he expunges a passage about why Saint Jerome failed to become pope and calls for the addition of material about his library.
Guglielmo Sirleto, Revision of the Breviarum Romanum. In Latin. Paper. Late sixteenth century
Protestants claimed that the Vulgate, or Latin translation of the Bible, often misrepresented the original Hebrew and Greek. A committee was appointed to revised it. When Pope Sixtus V characteristically became impatient with the slow progress, he produced an edition by fiat in 1590, choosing variant readings as brusquely as he straightened the streets of the city. The text rapidly proved an embarrassment and after his death was suppressed, but annotated copies like this one, which belonged to Father (later Cardinal) Toledo, S.J., survive. Two years later, the Sixto-Clementine revision did become the Catholic standard.
Sixtine Vulgate. In Latin. Paper. Rome: Typographia Apostolica Vaticana. 1590
Byzantine theological texts
This volume of anti-western Byzantine theological texts should contain 329 written leaves, but it now ends at leaf 220. A collation note on the back of page 220, shown here, states "Sunt in hoc volumine folia scripta 329, videlicet folia scripta cccxxviiii." According to Mercati, the later part of the text was burned by the librarian Sirleto.
Byzantine theological texts
G. Guerra, Procession of 1587 to Mark the Erection of the Cross at the Top of the Vatican Obelisk
One of Sixtus's most ambitious projects was to move the enormous Vatican obelisk to its present position in front of Saint Peter's. Though Michelangelo refused this task ("What if it breaks?" he asked), Domenico Fontana carried it out. The formal procession that accompanied the erection, exorcism, and rededication of the Vatican obelisk in 1587 is commemorated here.
G. Guerra, Procession of 1587 to Mark the Erection of the Cross at the Top of the Vatican Obelisk. Engraving