July 9, 2011

Judge Arthur Tompkins on The Codex Aureus of Lorsch and the De Arte Venandi in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (Part I)

The Sistine Hall of the Vatican Library
by Judge Arthur Tompkins

The Pope's personal library - Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana – was founded, in accordance with the direction of Pope Nicholas V, by Pope Sixtus IV in 1475. For the first little while (a few centuries) it was accessible only to His Holiness, and "eminent scholars". But in 1883 it was opened to all "qualified readers", by Pope Leo XIII, who made the admissions process less taxing, and also opened the Secret Archives to appropriately qualified readers.


The Library is not formally part of the Church, but stands alongside the Roman Curia, and "provides useful and necessary services to the Supreme Pontiff, to the Curia and to the Universal Church, in association with the Holy See." It is the personal and inalienable property of the Pontiff and, as such, it is not a public institution.

Admission is by advance approval only (unless, presumably, you are the Pope), and is available to "qualified researchers and scholars, and learned persons known for their writing and scholarly publications”, who must provide a letter of introduction from their home institution, certified proof of their home address, and a formal identification document (e.g. passport).

All of this is by way of preamble, to explain why, at 8.30 a.m. on a very sunny Thursday in early July, I was having coffee and breakfast in a small cafe close by Ponte d'Angelo, resplendent in the early morning sun with Bernini's towering sculptures standing resolute under the stern gaze of the hulking pile that is Castel Sant’Angelo. I was waiting until the Library's admissions office opened, and I had my documents ready to flourish at (I was secretly hoping) a resplendently uniformed Swiss Guard, thus to gain admission to the Vatican City through Porta Santa Anna, and from there on into the Library.

I had come to inspect two manuscripts, both originally part of the Bibliotheca Palatina, the Library of the Princes of the Palatine founded in the 1430s by the Elector Louis III, both of which had been taken from Heidelberg after the city fell to the army of the Catholic League in 1622, (along with much else from the library), transported across the Alps and given as a gift to the Pope by the Maximilian of Bavaria. In particular, I wanted to see, on the frontispiece of each volume, the Wittelsbach Coat of Arms, and an inscription recording the making of the “gift”.

Having finished breakfast, I crossed the Tiber in the shadow of Castel Sant Angelo, and walked up Mussolini’s ill-fitting Via della Conciliazone into St. Peter’s Square. The queues to enter the basilica were already slow moving, and lengthening., just through Bernini’s colonnade and to the right.

Cortile del Belvedere
Inside Porta Santa Anna, on Via di Porta Angelica, the gate a young Swiss guard in (sadly) a plain blue-uniformed was politely but firmly turning away an enquiring family, but then, when I flourished a printout of the email I had received a few months earlier from the Library’s Admissions Director, Dr. Giuseppe Ciminello (who I was later to meet in person), and asked in my best Latin, “Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticano?”, he politely directed me to a small, glass-sided office. My passport was photocopied and retained, and I received back the photocopied page and a ”Visitatore Biblioteca No. 153” lapel badge. I was directed onwards into the heart of the Vatican, through a distant archway and into the Cortile del Belvedere.

At the end of the courtyard, to the right, were two doors, and upon entering the grander of the two a porter talking on a telephone waved me along a short corridor to the "Segretaria" office. There was a little waiting area, with six straight backed chairs, outside a firmly closed door, and a marble plaque detailing, in Italian and in English, crucial dates in the history of the Library on the wall. The recorded timeline ranged from the first mention of the Library, in a written document in 1451 by Nicholas V, though various relocations, reorganizations, relocations, building projects, and the like, down to 20 September 2010, when the Library reopened after “an extraordinary closure” lasting fully three years.

The plaque included reference to the recent provision of “new technologies, new elevators, and a remodeled entrance hall” - presumably the one through which I had just passed. Sadly, I thought, the remodeling had not extended to “New and helpful instructions posted in numerous strategic locations”, as I had time enough to read the marble plaque from top to bottom, thoroughly and twice, given that there was nothing else to do but sit and wait and wonder what was going to happen next. I was, perhaps fortunate, that I had, quite by accident, chosen a seat with a view of the marble plaque on the opposite wall – my companions, who arrived in dribs and drabs as I sat and read, and were seated opposite, were not nearly so lucky. They had to make do with staring at a blank wall.

There was no indication as to how long I, and the four others who had silently joined me as I sat there, were expected to wait. Eventually, however, after about a ten minute wait, a bespectacled gentleman (who turned out to be my email correspondent Dr. Ciminello) opened the door a little, and beckoned to the applicant to my left (who, to be fair, had been sitting there quietly and patiently, when I had arrived, so was in front of me in our little queue) into the inner sanctum. About 10 minutes later she emerged, and it was my turn.

Dr. Ciminello spoke English well, which was a relief to me as my Italian is rudimentary at best. My letter of introduction was scrutinized, and I completed a form with the required details on it, supplemented immediately thereafter by the taking of a digital photograph, and was given a photo ID card complete with magnetic strip.

I had earlier provided the call numbers of the two manuscripts I had come to consult - Pal. Lat. 50, for the Codex Aureus of Lorsch, created around the end of the 8th century at Lorsch Abbey in Germany, and written almost entirely in gold lettering, and with numerous full page illuminations including a famous one of Christ in Majesty; and MS Pal. Lat. 1071, for "De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus", literally “The Hunting of Birds”, a Latin treatise on ornithology and falconry written in the mid thirteenth century by Emperor Frederick II, and dedicated to his son Manfred, in two volumes and containing handwritten annotations by Manfred.
Christ in Majesty, from
 the Codex Aureus of Lorsch

Along with a few others, both of these volumes had originally, in 1622, been in the Library of the Palatinate located in the University Cathedral in Heidelberg, and both were looted following the taking of the city by the army of the Catholic League, led by the Emperor Maximilian, carried over the Alps aboard a 200 strong mule convoy, led by one Leo Allitius, a Greek-born scholar sent expressly for the purpose by the Pope.

I received a somewhat hurried and complex set of verbal instructions, which had me lost after the first couple of sentences, as to the procedure now to be followed. I left the Segretaria, and the next applicant was admitted and the door closed behind them.

I had understood enough to know that the next step in the process was a visit to the locker room. The online instructions I had read, (and which had also been given to me in the Segretaria, in printed form) directed me that in no circumstances were pens, ink, scissors, knives, razor blades, food, drink (although the rules did refer, somewhat cryptically, to a Library’s Bar) or anything of a like kind were to be taken into the reading Rooms, and no photographs, reproductions, film or sound recordings of any kind were to be made. I found the locker room, but then struggled unsuccessfully with the electronically secured lockers, there being no instructions posted, until another reader, obviously a veteran of the process, took mercy on me and told me that I had first to go and register my swipe card back with the porter talking on the telephone by the front door. When I retraced my steps to the front door, he was indeed still talking on his phone, and but duly waved a scanner handset at my card. I then returned and place the card on a small, relatively inconspicuous magnetic reader box on the wall of the locker room, at which point my allocated locker, number 41, obediently opened.

I deposited my belongings, and clutching my laptop (without case, as per the instructions), pencils, a sharpener and eraser, and some paper, I went in search of the lift that I had understood would take to the Manuscript Reading Room.

There was, again, no apparent sign to guide me, so after wandering a little in some confusion I returned to Monsieur la Telephonique by the front door, who, thankfully, was now between calls. He pointed down a corridor across the entrance lobby, flanked by two curving staircases, and my by now trusty swipe card duly opened the glass barrier midway down this corridor. After passing several glass display cases, I entered the lift and ascending to the Third floor. I took an initial wrong turning, into the Printed Books Room, at first, but a stern-looking but friendly and quietly spoken librarian redirected me into the Manuscripts Room.

My copy of the Rules had informed me that “The Reading Rooms are equipped with surveillance cameras and with tracking devices which will identify any irregular passage (e.g. into the stacks) by readers, as well as volumes which are moved from one reading room to another or illegally removed from the Library.” I had been warned.

This adventure will be continued tomorrow.

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