Explore 5,300 Rare Manuscripts Digitized by the Vatican: From The Iliad & Aeneid, to Japanese & Aztec Illustrations


Hun­dreds of years before vast public/private part­ner­ships like Google Arts & Cul­ture, the Vat­i­can served as one of the fore­most con­ser­va­tors of cul­tur­al arti­facts from around the world. In the era of the Holy Roman Empire, few of those works were avail­able to the mass­es (except­ing, of course, the city’s con­sid­er­able pub­lic archi­tec­ture and sculp­ture). But with over 500 years of his­to­ry, Vat­i­can Muse­ums and Libraries have amassed a trove of arti­facts that rival the great­est world col­lec­tions in their breadth and scope, and these have slow­ly become pub­lic over time. In 1839, for exam­ple, Pope Gre­go­ry XVI found­ed the Egypt­ian Muse­um, an exten­sive col­lec­tion of Egypt­ian and Mesopotami­an arti­facts includ­ing the famous Book of the Dead. We also have The Col­lec­tion of Mod­ern Reli­gious Art, which holds 19th and 20th cen­tu­ry impres­sion­ists, sur­re­al­ists, cubists, expres­sion­ists, etc. In-between are large pub­lic col­lec­tions from antiq­ui­ty to the Renais­sance.


When it comes to man­u­scripts, the Vat­i­can Library is no less an embar­rass­ment of rich­es. But unlike the art col­lec­tions, most of these have been com­plete­ly inac­ces­si­ble to the pub­lic due to their rar­i­ty and fragili­ty. That’s all going to change, now that ancient and mod­ern con­ser­va­tion has come togeth­er in part­ner­ships like the one the Library now has with Japan­ese com­pa­ny NTT DATA.

Their com­bined project, the Dig­i­tal Vat­i­can Library, promis­es to dig­i­tize 15,000 man­u­scripts with­in the next four years and the full col­lec­tion of over 80,000 man­u­scripts in the next decade or so, con­sist­ing of codices most­ly from the “Mid­dle Age and Human­is­tic Peri­od.” They’ve made some excel­lent progress. Cur­rent­ly, you can view high-res­o­lu­tion scans of over 5,300 man­u­scripts, from all over the world. We pre­vi­ous­ly brought you news of the Library’s dig­i­ti­za­tion of Virgil’s Aeneid. They’ve also shared a fine­ly illus­trat­ed, bilin­gual (Greek and Latin) edi­tion of its pre­de­ces­sor, The Ili­ad (top).


Fur­ther up, from a sim­i­lar time but very dif­fer­ent place, we see a Pre-Columbian Aztec man­u­script, equal­ly fine­ly-wrought in its hand-ren­dered intri­ca­cies. You’ll also find illus­tra­tions like the cir­ca 17th-cen­tu­ry Japan­ese water­col­or paint­ing above, and the ren­der­ing of Dante’s hell, below, from a won­der­ful, if incom­plete, series by Renais­sance great San­dro Bot­ti­cel­li (which you can see more of here). Begun in 2010, the huge-scale dig­i­ti­za­tion project has decid­ed on some fair­ly rig­or­ous cri­te­ria for estab­lish­ing pri­or­i­ty, includ­ing “impor­tance and pre­cious­ness,” “dan­ger of loss,” and “scholar’s requests.” The design of the site itself clear­ly has schol­ars in mind, and requires some deft­ness to nav­i­gate. But with sim­ple and advanced search func­tions and gal­leries of Select­ed and Lat­est Dig­i­tized Man­u­scripts on its home­page, the Dig­i­tal Vat­i­can Library has sev­er­al entry points through which you can dis­cov­er many a tex­tu­al trea­sure. As the site remarks, “the world’s cul­ture, thanks to the web, can tru­ly become a com­mon her­itage, freely acces­si­ble to all.” You can enter the col­lec­tion here.


Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Botticelli’s 92 Illus­tra­tions of Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy

15,000 Col­or­ful Images of Per­sian Man­u­scripts Now Online, Cour­tesy of the British Library

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

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