1,600-Year-Old Illuminated Manuscript of the Aeneid Digitized & Put Online by The Vatican

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It’s fair to say that every peri­od which has cel­e­brat­ed the lit­er­a­ture of antiq­ui­ty has held epic Roman poet Vir­gil in extreme­ly high regard, and that was nev­er more the case than dur­ing the ear­ly Chris­t­ian and medieval eras. Born in 70 B.C.—writes Clyde Pharr in the intro­duc­tion to his schol­ar­ly Latin text—“Vergil was ardent­ly admired even in his own day, and his fame con­tin­ued to increase with the pass­ing cen­turies. Under the lat­er Roman Empire the rev­er­ence for his works reached the point where the Sortes Vir­gilianae came into vogue; that is, the Aeneid was opened at ran­dom, and the first line on which the eyes fell was tak­en as an omen of good or evil.”

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This cult of Vir­gil only grew until “a great cir­cle of leg­ends and sto­ries of mir­a­cles gath­ered around his name, and the Vergil of his­to­ry was trans­formed into the Vergil of mag­ic.” The spelling of his name also trans­formed from Vergil to Vir­gil, “thus asso­ci­at­ing the great poet with the mag­ic or prophet­ic wand, vir­go.” Pharr quotes from J.S. Tunison’s Mas­ter Vir­gil, a study of the poet “as he seemed in the Mid­dle Ages”:

The medieval world looked upon him as a poet of prophet­ic insight, who con­tained with­in him­self all the poten­tial­i­ties of wis­dom. He was called the Poet, as if no oth­er exist­ed; the Roman, as if the ide­al of the com­mon­wealth were embod­ied in him; the Per­fect in Style, with whom no oth­er writer could be com­pared; the Philoso­pher, who grasped the ideas of all things…

Vir­gil, after all, act­ed as the wise guide through the Infer­no for late medieval poet Dante, who was accord­ed a sim­i­lar degree of rev­er­ence in the ear­ly mod­ern peri­od.

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We should keep the cult of Vir­gil, and of his epic poem The Aeneid, in mind as we sur­vey the text you see rep­re­sent­ed here—an illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­script from Rome cre­at­ed some­time around the year 400 (view the full, dig­i­tized man­u­script here). Begin­ning at the end of anoth­er great epic—The Ili­ad—Virgil’s long poem con­nects the world of Homer to his own through Aeneas and his com­pan­ions, Tro­jan refugees and myth­i­cal founders of Rome. It is some­what iron­ic that the Chris­t­ian world came to ven­er­ate the poem for centuries—claiming that Vir­gil pre­dict­ed the birth of Christ—since the Roman poet’s pur­pose, writes Pharr, was “to see effect­ed… a revival of faith in the old-time religion”—the old-time pagan reli­gion, that is.

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But the care­ful preser­va­tion of this ancient man­u­script, some 1,600 years old, tes­ti­fies to the Catholic church’s pro­found respect for Vir­gil. “Known as the Vergilius Vat­i­canus,” writes Hyper­al­ler­gic, it’s one of the world’s old­est ver­sions of the Latin epic poem, and you can browse it for free online” at Digi­ta Vat­i­ca, a non­prof­it affil­i­at­ed with the Vat­i­can Library.

Writ­ten by a sin­gle mas­ter scribe in rus­tic cap­i­tals, an ancient Roman cal­li­graph­ic script, and illus­trat­ed by three dif­fer­ent painters, Vergilius Vat­i­canus is one of only three illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­scripts of clas­sic lit­er­a­ture. Gran­u­lat­ed gold, applied with a brush, high­lights metic­u­lous­ly col­ored images of famous scenes from the poem: Creusa as she tries to keep her hus­band Aeneas from going into bat­tle; the islands of the Cyclades and the city of Pergamea destroyed by pesti­lence and drought; Dido on her funer­al pyre, speak­ing her final solil­o­quy.

Hyper­al­ler­gic describes the painstak­ing care a Tokyo-based firm took in dig­i­tiz­ing the frag­ile text. Digi­ta Vat­i­cana is cur­rent­ly in the midst of scan­ning its entire col­lec­tion of 80,000 del­i­cate, ancient man­u­scripts, a process expect­ed to take 15 years and cost 50 mil­lion euros.

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Should you wish to con­tribute to the effort, you can make a dona­tion to the project. The first 200 donors will­ing and able to fork over at least 500 euros (cur­rent­ly about $533), will receive a print­ed repro­duc­tion of the Vergilius Vat­i­canus, sure to impress the clas­sics lovers in your life. Should you wish to read the Aeneid in its orig­i­nal lan­guage, a true under­tak­ing of love, you can’t go wrong with Pharr’s excel­lent schol­ar­ly text of the first six books (or see an online Latin text here). If you’d rather skip the gen­uine­ly dif­fi­cult and labo­ri­ous trans­la­tion, you can always read John Dryden’s trans­la­tion free online.

You can vis­it the illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­script online here.

via Hyper­al­ler­gic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

1,000-Year-Old Man­u­script of Beowulf Dig­i­tized and Now Online

Hear Homer’s Ili­ad Read in the Orig­i­nal Ancient Greek

Learn Latin, Old Eng­lish, San­skrit, Clas­si­cal Greek & Oth­er Ancient Lan­guages in 10 Lessons

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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