From the Vatican Virgil (c. 400) (all images courtesy the Vatican Library)

In Rome, around the year 400, a scribe and three painters created an illuminated manuscript of Virgil’s Aeneid, illustrating the ancient hero Aeneas’ journey from Troy to Italy. 1,600 years later, the Vatican has digitized the surviving fragments of this manuscript. Known as the Vergilius Vaticanus, it’s one of the world’s oldest versions of the Latin epic poem, and you can browse it for free online.

The digitization project is part of a years-long effort by Digita Vaticana, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Vatican Library, to convert the library’s manuscripts into digital format. Founded in 1451, the library is home to some 80,000 manuscripts and texts, including drawings and notes by the likes of Michelangelo and Galileo. Digita Vaticana’s goal is to convert these “40 million pages into 45 quadrillion bytes,” according to its website.

In addition to the Aeneid, the Vatican Virgil also contains scraps of Virgil’s second major poem, Georgics, about agriculture and the tensions between nature and humankind. Composed of 76 surviving pages with 50 illustrations, some of them badly damaged, Vergilius Vaticanus is only a fragment of the full manuscript. The beginning pages are entirely lost. If the manuscript contained all of Virgil’s canonical works, which most manuscripts of its time did, it would originally have had about 440 leaves and 280 illustrations.

From the Vatican Virgil (c. 400)

Written by a single master scribe in rustic capitals, an ancient Roman calligraphic script, and illustrated by three different painters, Vergilius Vaticanus is one of only three illuminated manuscripts of classic literature. Granulated gold, applied with a brush, highlights meticulously colored images of famous scenes from the poem: Creusa as she tries to keep her husband Aeneas from going into battle; the islands of the Cyclades and the city of Pergamea destroyed by pestilence and drought; Dido on her funeral pyre, speaking her final soliloquy.

To digitize the Vatican Virgil, as well as 3,000 other manuscripts, Digita Vaticana joined forces with Tokyo-based information technology firm NTT DATA. They used a specialized scanner to prevents damage to the delicate, ancient manuscript: It uses ultraviolet-free rays and cradles the book so that individual pages can be scanned without fully opening the book binding. The scans are then uploaded into the library’s database alongside metadata about the images and story.

The process of digitizing such ancient, delicate material is a tedious one: Digita Vaticana expects it will take 15 years and 50 million euros (~55,536,750 USD) to scan 80,000 ancient manuscripts. To help raise funds for the ongoing project, Digita Vaticana will give printed reproductions of “Vatican Virgil” to the first 200 donors who give at least 500 euros (roughly $533 US).

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From the Vatican Virgil (c. 400)

From the Vatican Virgil (c. 400)

Browse the entire manuscript of Vergilius Vaticanus here.

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.

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