by Judge Arthur Tompkins, ARCA Instructor and blog contributor
|The Manuscripts Reading Room|
The Vatican Library’s main Manuscripts Reading Room is a light and airy room about 8 metres wide, by about 22 metres long, with beige coloured, plastered walls, a high, vaulted ceiling complete with frescoed oval medallion in its centre, three large windows set into slightly recessed arches on one wall, (looking out
onto a grassed garden area, the Cortile della Bibliotheca), and four more or less corresponding niches on the opposite wall. One of the niches has a bust of Father Ehrle, who seemingly lived from 1845 – 1934 (a past and revered Librarian, perhaps?), and three full-length, female statues. Opposite the entrance door, at one end, is a high desk running most of the width of the room, in front of two large wooden cabinets fitted with interior metal shelves, for returned volumes. Librarians hover, ready to assist, in hushed tones.
On the wall above the entrance door hang portraits of Cardinal Scipionne Cobelluzzi (1618-1626) and Francesco Barberini (1626-1633). Above the main desk there is a bronze bust of “PIO XI PONT MAX”, surmounted by a large crucifix with Christ that looks somewhat similar to the one that hangs in Santa Maria Della Croce in Florence. Above a desk to the left of the entrance door, which remained unoccupied during my stay, hangs a large portrait of an unnamed, seated cardinal.
The Reading Room’s procedure requires initial registration at the desk, which electronically reveals the number of the locker you have been allocated downstairs. Readers are required to write (in pencil, of course, and in block capital letters only) their surname next to the locker number on a pre-printed sheet, and then also to enter the number of the seat they have chosen for the day – in my case #52, at the back right corner of the room, so as to afford me the good view of my fellow readers. An informal head count reveals that the room can accommodate 57 readers – 30 seated at tables of three each, on the right side, and 27 at nine corresponding tables on the left, below the windows.
Each reading space is equipped with a small lectern-like stand for the manuscript being study, with elongated wooden pegs to hold the pages of the manuscript open, and a printed card reminding one, in case you have forgotten, that, among other prohibitions, it is forbidden to use an ink pen of any type, and that only an erasable lead pencil or a personal computer may be used.
I was told that both my requested manuscripts were available to me only in facsimile (I knew that from an earlier email from Dr. Ciminella) but one, it seems was not within easy reach. So I first received the facsimile of the Codex Aureus. A facsimile of the Codex, incidentally, was given by Pope Benedict to Queen Elizabeth of England on 16 September 2010 (although the facsimile he gifted was of the whole work, and included copies of the famous front and back covers, torn off in Heidelberg and still separated from the body of the manuscript), in return for which the Queen gave His Holiness a series of Hans Holbein prints from her collection.
Surprisingly, the facsimile is incomplete. In particular, it omits from the front leaf of the volume is the Coat of Arms of the Bavarian House of Wittelbach, and the Latin inscription:
"Sum de bibliotheca quam Heidelberga capta Spolium fecit et papae GREGORIO XV trophaeum misit Maximiliianus utriusque bauariae Dux &c S
R I Achidapifer et Princeps Elector."
Which translates, more or less, to:
"I am from the Library which, after the capture of Heidelberg, Maximilian, Duke of Bavaria … took as spoil and sent as a trophy to Pope Gregory XV."
The Wittelbach coat of arms, and the inscription, were precisely what I had come to see. Perhaps, in preparing the facsimile, a choice had been made not to include a record, plain to anyone with eyes to see and read, of the taking of the Codex by the army of the Catholic League following the fall of Heidelberg in 1621, during the opening years of the Thirty Years’ War?
Another, less sinister, explanation is perhaps that, given that the original codex was torn in two, and its front and back covers removed, in Heidelberg (for ease of transportation) then the coat of arms and inscription might appear in the missing bits. But that is unlikely, as the desecrating of the manuscript happened, as I understand it, in Heidelberg prior to transportation over the Alps to the Vatican, so that the inscriptions, which were most likely inserted into all the Palatinato volumes, happened after their arrival in Rome.
So where are they? And was there anything else to see which might assist?
Instead of the Coat of Arms and the inscription, the front leaves of the volume are suspiciously blank, except for the pencilled notation “Facs. Bav Pal. Lat 50  [1B) Cms.” Following these blank opening pages, the first page is resplendent with gloriously golden text, set out in two columns on each page, and bordered with both a plain outer gold border and a broader (about 1cm wide) inner coloured border, which varies in colour and patterning from page to page.
Several pages in, there appears a comparative table, with four decorated columns headed MATTHEVS, MARCUS, LUCAS, and JOHANNIS - which are a bit of a giveaway, although the following pages sometimes omit one or other of the names. Then there begins what the gospel of Matthew – given both that the figure depicted in glorious colour on the opening page is strikingly similar to the three St. Matthew Caravaggios I saw a few days ago in. And then there is the word MATHEUM appearing at the top of the following pages, which fairly compelling, I think. The Christ in Majesty illumination appears a dozen or so leaves after that.
The next major illumination is of an apostle surmounted by a horned bull, so I am guessing this is Luke (again, assisted in my scholarly deductive reasoning by the word LUCAM that appears every regularly at the top of the following pages…).
Further on through the volume is an apostle pictured with a large bird above him, and given the helpful word JOHANNON in the now familiar position on the following pages, this is John.
The last 16 pages of the volume, after a page which ends with the words "Explicit Evangelium Secondum Jonhannem", are still in gold lettering, but now in lowercase, rather than capitals, with interspersed red sub headings, red capital letters at the beginning of most paragraphs, and no borders. I have no idea what they are. I am sure others know full well.
The last page is a half page of modern printed German text, very obviously not written in the 8th century, and containing at its base the notation: ISBN 3-85672-066-9.
Thus ends my examination of the Codes Aureus of Lorsch. Returning it to the care of the librarian, I went now in search of the De Arte Venandi…
Judge Tompkin's adventures in the Vatican Library to be continued tomorrow.