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The Vergilius Vaticanus and How It Survived 1,500 Years

The Vergilius Vaticanus and How It Survived 1,500 Years

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The Vergilius Vaticanus  is an illuminated manuscript from the Late Antique period, said to have been created in the 400’s. Containing one of the few surviving fragments of Virgil’s  Aeneid, as well as the  Georgics, and  Eclogues, the  Vergilius Vaticanus  is a unique  artifact and one of the oldest surviving illustrated manuscripts on any subject. Today, the  Vergilius Vaticanus  resides in the Vatican Library.

How the  Vergilius Vaticanus  Ended Up in the Vatican

The Vergilius Vaticanus  is known also as the Vatican Virgil, and is named as such due to it being housed in the Vatican Library. The manuscript has resided in the  Vatican since 1600, when it was bequeathed by Fulvio Orsini, an Italian humanist. Known as the father of modern iconography, Orsini was an antiquarian and collector. He was in the service of the Farnese family, and acquired new artworks for the family’s villa in Rome, the Palazzo Farnese. These included works by  Michelangelo and Raphael. At the same time, Orsini began to collect work of arts for himself, one of which was the  Vergilius Vaticanus .

According to the historical records, Orsini had purchased the manuscript from Torquato Bembo, the illegitimate son of Pietro Bembo, an Italian cardinal and humanist. The elder Bembo had a scholarly disposition and was particularly interested in the Italian language and literature. Bembo wrote one of the earliest Italian grammars, and helped to establish the Italian literary language. Although it is known that Bembo obtained the  Vergilius Vaticanus  during the early 16th century, it is unclear as to whom the cardinal acquired the manuscript from.

Not long before its acquisition by Bembo, the  Vergilius Vaticanus  found its way into the artistic circle of Raphael. It was the illustrations of this ancient manuscripts that drew the most attention. In fact, the  Vergilius Vaticanus  was hugely influential in the realm of Western medieval art. Some of the images were even adapted and copied for artistic purposes. Prior to this, the whereabouts of the  Vergilius Vaticanus  is unknown, and the manuscript must have suffered much deterioration during this time. 

The Vergilius Vaticanus, or Vatican Virgil, was bequeathed to the Vatican by Fluvio Orsini.  (Public domain )

Restoring the  Vergilius Vaticanus

As a matter of fact, in 1524, some restoration was done on the  Vergilius Vaticanus . The manuscript was rebound and, for fear that the artifact would deteriorate further, a pen and ink wash facsimile was produced. The manuscript is also recorded to have been repaired during the 15th century by an anonymous French humanist, who is recorded to have acquired the priceless manuscript. 

Before this, there was another period during which the  Vergilius Vaticanus  seemingly disappeared. The manuscript vanished during the 10th century, and its fate remained unknown for the next five centuries. It is believed that during the 10th century, the manuscript was still mostly intact, but the  Viking attacks and political instability at the time resulted in its disappearance. 

From at least 840 AD until its disappearance in the 10th century, the  Vergilius Vaticanus  was kept at the Abbey of Saint-Martin at Tours, in present-day France. It is speculated that the manuscript could have even been granted to the abbey by the Holy Roman Emperor  Charlemagne from his own  library. This is plausible considering the prominence of the abbey in the Holy Roman Empire, and Charlemagne’s close connection to this monastic establishment. 

The Verigilius Vaticanus  is thought to have remained in Rome for several centuries after its creation, before it ended up in Tours. There is also evidence that during the 6th century AD, some editing and repairs were done to the manuscript.

The Death of Dido, as depicted in the Aeneid in the Vergilius Vaticanus. ( Public domain )

Speculating On the Origins of the  Vergilius Vaticanus

In comparison to the later adventures of the  Vergilius Vaticanus , the manuscript’s early history is obscure. The story we know of today is filled more with speculation rather than fact. It is believed that the manuscript was created in Rome around 400 AD. Apart from that, experts suspect that the manuscript might have been commissioned by a pagan noble. 

This theory is based on the argument that at the time  paganism was being suppressed throughout the Roman world. This was especially so during the reign of  Theodosius, who banned all forms of pagan worship. Therefore, it has been argued that the  Vergilius Vaticanus  may have been commissioned by a pagan noble determined to safeguard one of the most important texts from pagan ancestral culture.

It has also been argued that the manuscript could have been commissioned by a Christian, considering that classical literature was still held in high esteem during the Late Antique period, especially amongst the learned. Since Virgil was the foremost of these classical authors admired by the early Christians, it would unsurprising that a collection of his works was made as an  illuminated manuscript . In order to reconcile the paganism of Virgil with the Christian faith, the ancient poet was transformed into a Messianic prophet.

In short, we have no idea who commissioned the creation of the  Vergilius Vaticanus . Nevertheless, it is clear that whoever did so must have been a wealthy individual. This is due to the fact that the production of such a manuscript, including its many illustrations (or miniatures), would have cost a great deal.

Folio 18v of the Vergilius Vaticanus, depicting the death of Laocoön. ( Public domain )

Analyzing the Surviving Miniatures

Indeed, the manuscript’s illustrations have attracted much scholarly attention. It should be mentioned that the  Vergilius Vaticanus  is extremely fragmentary. It is believed that if the manuscript contained the complete  works of Virgil , the original manuscript would have had 440 folios, and perhaps as many as 230 miniatures. Today, however, only 75 folios and 50 miniatures remain. 

Even though only a portion of the miniatures have survived, they are able to provide some interesting information. For instance, based on analysis of the manuscript, experts believe that it was written by a solitary master scribe. Due to differences in the quality of the miniatures however, it has been suggested that there were three artists producing them. 

The most skilled of the three artists illustrated the  Georgics and Eclogues. These illustrations are characterized by “painterly figures and delicate shading,” according to  FacsimileFinder. By contrast, the least skilled artist illustrated the  Aeneid. This work seems “hurried with bold outlines and little shading.” The illustrations of a third artist are described as “well-executed with an eye for detail.”

It has also been suggested that the miniatures may have been adapted from the illustrations on scrolls. Unlike scrolls, manuscripts have flat pages. Therefore, it is believed that this allowed artists to add backgrounds and frames to their illustrations. Some experts have hypothesized that these miniatures would have resembled Roman wall painting of that period. 

Dido’s sacrifice in Virgil’s Aeneid, one of the miniatures in the Vergilius Vaticanus. ( Public domain )

Digitizing the  Vergilius Vaticanus

In 2016, the nonprofit organization  Digita Vaticana  joined up with NTT DATA to scan and  digitize the Vatican Virgil, alongside 3,000 other ancient manuscripts.  HyperAllergic reported that they used a “specialized scanner to prevent damage to the delicate, ancient manuscript.” This kind of scanner uses ultraviolet-free rays and “cradles the book so that individual pages can be scanned without opening the book binding to a full 180 degrees,” explains  The Washington Post

In a presentation of the  Vatican Library Digital Archiving Project  Msgr. Jean-Louis Bruguès, the archivist and librarian of the Holy Roman Church, highlighted that “the library has become the memory, not only of the Church but of all mankind. Therefore, we have the responsibility to give back this memory to mankind.” Therefore, the fragments of the  Vergilius Vaticanus  that remain are now available online for free at the  DVL DIGIVATLIB website .

Having survived more that 1,500 years, the  Vergilius Vaticanus  is a priceless artifact. Decorated with granulated gold and carefully colored illustrations, the manuscript’s miniatures shed some light on the world of the Late Antique period. The earliest surviving example of an illuminated manuscript on any subject, the story of its survival provides a glimpse into the history of this type of artifact and the fascinating texts stored in the  Vatican Library. 

Top image: Image of a facsimile version of the Vergilius Vaticanus, or Vatican Virgil. Source: Jeremy Norman Collection of Images /  CC BY-SA 4.0

By Wu Mingren

References

Hiser-Remmes, R., 2017. The Vergilius Vaticanus in  Italian Art Society . Available at:  https://www.italianartsociety.org/2017/09/the-vergilius-vaticanus-rome-bav-vat/

Miller, A. R. 2021. “Vergilius Vaticanus” in  FacsimileFinder. Available at:  https://www.facsimilefinder.com/facsimiles/vergilius-vaticanus-facsimile

No name. 2021. “Orsini, Fulvio” in  The Dictionary of Art Historians . Available at:  https://arthistorians.info/orsinif

Norman, J. M., 2021. The Vergilius Vaticanus, One of the Oldest Surviving Illustrated Codices in  Jeremy Norman’s History of Information . Available at:  https://www.historyofinformation.com/detail.php?entryid=1615

Tadel, A., 2021. “Reading Like a Roman” in  Public Domain Review . Available at:  https://publicdomainreview.org/essay/reading-like-a-roman

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2021. “Pietro Bembo: Italian Cardinal and Writer” in  Britannica. Available at:  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Pietro-Bembo

The Vatican Library, 2021. “Manuscript - Vat.lat.3225” in  DVL DIGIVATLIB . Available at:  https://digi.vatlib.it/mss/detail/Vat.lat.3225

The Vatican Library, 2021. “Manuscript - Vat.lat.3225 (Digitised)” in  DVL DIGIVATLIB.  Available at:  https://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Vat.lat.3225

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