News

Vatican to Digitize 41 Million Pages of Ancient Manuscripts

by Laura C. Mallonee on April 3, 2014

Doors leading to the Salone Sistino, a reading room for printed books in the Vatican Apostolic Library (courtesy of the Vatican Library)

Doors leading to the Salone Sistino, a reading room for printed books in the Vatican Apostolic Library (via Vatican Library)

What happens when a wide swath of history — previously only explored by white-gloved librarians and erudite historians — is made available to anyone with a solid internet connection? Thanks to the Pope, we’ll soon find out.

The Vatican Apostolic Library has announced it will digitize all 82,000 manuscripts in its 135 collections with the help of a Japanese IT company. That’s 41 million pages spanning nearly 2,000 years of church history that will soon be clickable, zoomable, and presumably, printable. When all is said and done, you’ll be able to read the Psalms handwritten across 13th-century vellum on your iPhone — so long as you speak ancient Greek.

Page from 'Codex Vaticanus,' one of the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Greek Bible, kept in the Vatican Library (image via Wikipedia)

Page from ‘Codex Vaticanus,’ one of the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Greek Bible, kept in the Vatican Library (image via Wikipedia)

The news comes just months after the Polonsky Foundation funded the digitization of 1.5 million pages from both the Vatican and the Bodleian libraries, as we wrote about here. (The first batch of those manuscripts went online in January; take a look). While the earlier project is limited in scope, covering only Greek and Hebrew manuscripts and a selection of early books, the latest effort will preserve the remainder of the Vatican’s entire collection, reaching from the 2nd century into the 20th.

NTT DATA, the firm hired for the job, is starting out with a manageable chunk of some 3,000 works, to be scanned and uploaded over a four-year period. Once that first round is digitized, you’ll be able to spend screen time with Botticelli’s wonderfully weird illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy, which he drew for Lorenzo the Magnificent (the patron who had the artist’s painting “Primavera” hanging in his house). You’ll also be able to peruse the illuminated Urbino Bible, a remarkable Florentine miniature commissioned by Federico da Montefeltro, whose curious profile Pierro della Francesca famously depicted.

A page from the Urbino Bible (courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Page from the Urbino Bible (via Library of Congress)

The hallowed library has been stocking its bookshelves since 1451, when it was founded by Pope Nicholas V — you know, the guy who issued the Papal Bulls condoning the slave trade. And since separation of church and state has never been the Vatican’s strong suit, the digital archive will have much relevance beyond the world of Christendom.

For example, the first phase will include 11 graceful watercolors of Japanese dancers dating from between the 16th and 18th centuries, a pre-Colombian Aztec book, an illuminated Hebrew manuscript from the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, and 73 fragments from an early Kufic Qur’an. If those aren’t old enough for you, how about a volume of Virgil dating to 400 CE, once studied by the painter Raphael? It contains one of the few surviving examples of illustration in a Roman text.

Whether the new digital archive is merely an inevitable outcome in our technological age or another step by Pope Francis to try to make Catholicism more accessible, it’s an exciting project for those who want to explore world history firsthand. Who knows what discoveries lie in wait for the bored, bright kid who loses himself in that online trove?

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