Fixing the Bibliotheca Clementino-Vaticana.

Emily McConville has a recent Observer story about a guy with an interesting job:

The Vatican library provides invaluable resources for Department of Classics professor Joseph Amar, but in the course of his study, he has worked to correct discrepancies in one of the library’s manuscript catalogs, he said.

Using manuscripts from the first centuries of Christianity, Amar said he studies the writings of early Christian thinkers. Many of the manuscripts he studies reside in the Vatican Library, collected over many centuries and cataloged in the Bibliotheca Orientalis Clementino-Vaticana, an 18th-century tome that lists the authors of documents, their publication dates and descriptions of their contents, Amar said.

[...] Amar said as he delved into the texts over the course of his career, documenting the ideas of early Christian thinkers and studying everything from the content of manuscripts to handwriting styles, he noticed that the Vatican Library had a record-keeping problem. Until recently, he would find the documents he needed ⎯ often the only copies in existence ⎯ stacked on shelves, unorganized and unprotected.

Amar also found serious discrepancies between the manuscripts themselves and the catalog that was supposed to guide the scholars researching them, he said. Some descriptions misidentify the author of a text or the date of its publication, Amar said. Others misrepresent the manuscript’s argument, in what Amar called a “Catholicizing tendency.”

[...] Part of Amar’s job is to correct these errors, he said. In addition to his research on the time period itself, Amar works as a consultant for the Vatican Library, pointing out where the manuscripts and the Bibliotheca Orientalis Clementino-Vaticana differ.

[...] Amar’s work has taken on new significance in the digital age. In addition to improving its organization, in recent years, the Vatican Library has begun to digitize its oldest and rarest documents. Whereas the Bibliotheca Orientalis Clementino-Vaticana was once the only source of information on a text, the library can now update the description on the Web, incorporating Amar’s research, he said. The project involves many scholars who are largely in charge of the digitization in their own fields.

You’d think, or at least I would have thought, that over the centuries they would have done more to get their catalog in shape, but better late than never. At any rate, there’s an interesting tidbit at the end:

Amar said the process often leads to new discoveries. For example, scholars believed for centuries that Jacob of Edessa, an influential Biblical scholar, had written a commentary on the Book of Genesis ⎯ but no one could find it. Meanwhile, a catalog contained a misidentified Genesis commentary, Amar said. By comparing that manuscript’s writing and handwriting style with Jacob’s known works, Amar said he was able to correctly attribute the commentary to him.

There’s some speculation here as to what that commentary might be. (Thanks, Paul!)

Comments

  1. GeorgeW says:

    I have a friend who is a retired university librarian. Years ago, one of his duties was curating the pornography collection. In this connection, he visited the Vatican library which has (or had at that time) the greatest pornography collection in the world. I suppose that, in order to condemn sin, one must first be able to recognize it.

    He never commented on their record keeping, but I will ask him next time I see him.

  2. Vatican library which has (or had at that time) the greatest pornography collection in the world.

    Imagine! An entire generation of priests thinking that all women have two staples in their belly!

  3. marie-lucie says:

    the greatest pornography collection in the world

    Old French libraries had a semi-secret section called l’enfer ‘hell’ where such works were kept away from unauthorized eyes along with ‘indexed’ books. I am sure that this is the case at the Vatican. Gaining access to the inferno saves the curious the trouble of searching among the regular stacks for titillating books.

  4. You’d think, or at least I would have thought, that over the centuries they would have done more to get their catalog in shape

    Why?

    Others misrepresent the manuscript’s argument, in what Amar called a “Catholicizing tendency.”

    Demonstrates nicely why there wasn’t any interest in proper record keeping.

    On the subject of pornographic collections the one in Oxford featured in Stephen Fry’s The Liar.

  5. Why?

    Don’t most people with collections want to know what they have?

  6. marie-lucie says:

    But they think they know, especially if the collection has been increasing for centuries.

  7. Don’t most people with collections want to know what they have?

    The Vatican is not “people”.

    “If those books are in agreement with the Quran, we have no need of them; and if these are opposed to the Quran, destroy them.”

  8. marie-lucie says:

    Sili: If those books are in agreement with the Quran…

    Replace “Quran” with “Bible” and that is just what Christian missionaries to Meso-American said and did. The Maya drawings looked diabolical to them, so into the flames they went.

  9. marie-lucie says:

    Sili: Don’t most people with collections want to know what they have?

    Of course, that’s why they make or commission catalogues, but the person(s) making up the catalogues do not always have the required expertise, especially when the works to be catalogues were written/translated/copied in many different languages both ancient and modern, often using differrent writing systems, and at different time periods, so that the work of cataloguing ideally would need to be distributed among a number of experts and also regularly reviewed as new studies arise and even new documents are found. Doing research in archives and similar collections often means finding errors of classification and even identification, and sometimes evidence of forgery, even if the period covered is only a few decades. With an enormous collection covering many centuries and many languages, like the Vatican’s, the possibilities for errors of many kinds are endless.

  10. J.W. Brewer says:

    Does the journalist really mean to suggest that until this fellow came along all researchers in the field just naively assumed that the characterization of the underlying MSS in an 18th century secondary source was complete and reliable in accordance with late 20th / early 21st century scholarly standards? Because that sounds really implausible. It is more likely that people were keenly aware of the limitations/biases of that particular secondary source but that previously no one who found that inconvenient had the inclination or resources to undertake to produce an alternative.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    Journalists are eager to present any research as new and exciting, and they don’t have the time or expertise to acknowledge and evaluate previous work in the same area. So they present as completely new something which might only be an update on something already known.

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