Latin Manuscripts
Holdings at the Vatican
Essay by Antonio Manfredi
Digitized Items

From a quantitative, qualitative and symbolic point of view, the Vatican Latin manuscripts comprise a greater yet less well-known feature of the Library. The collection counts about 60,000 manuscripts (archival documents are not included in this estimate).

“Latin” manuscripts are books and documents written in Latin – not only documents written in the language used in Rome, but also those in Romance languages and in languages that, generally, use the Latin alphabet. It is a wealth that is not only material but also historical and cultural, and is a distinctive and characteristic feature of the Vatican Library.

The Vatican Library is one of the most ancient European Libraries, and is at the service of the Pope’s institutions. In keeping with its linguistic and geographical inheritance – “the Eternal City”, mother of many cultures – the Library’s mission is to be universal.

The Vatican Library was formed under Pope Nicholas V, and due to the influence of Humanism, the Latin collections bring together volumes that may be dated from the 5th – 6th century (for example Virgil and Cicero), to the historical and literary works of the 20th century, and include a breadth of space and time with Latin texts and scripts that depict a two-thousand-year survey of classical and Christian literary works. This heritage has grown slowly, through careful choices made throughout more than five hundred years of complex history, which has been intertwined with Italian and European studies of the early-modern and contemporary age. As a result, the books have become not only individual vehicles of remote or recent works, or ancient graphic heirlooms, but also living expressions of the making of Western culture.

The largest section of the Latin collection, called “Vatican Latin”, is the oldest of the Latin collections in the Vatican Library. It has now reached 15407 shelfmarks – a feature which corresponds with a higher number of book units. Within the “Latin” documents, this is the so-called “open collection”, because it includes the new acquisitions in Latin scripts that gradually join the collection.

The first section, from Vat. lat. 1 to Vat. lat. 4888, is the historical core. It took shape from the original collection prepared by Pope Nicholas V who founded the Vatican Library. He combined about 300 volumes from the private collection of Pope Eugene IV with those of his own personal collection which, as a theologian and humanist philologist, he carefully annotated. He increased the original collection with many books specifically attained for the new Vatican Library. With the incorporation of several prelates’ private libraries and individual purchases, by 1481 the collection already counted over 1200 units and its growth continued up until the 16th century.

When Sixtus V transferred the library to its new seat in around 1590, the Latin collection was prepared and catalogued with an exact librarianship order – by subjects and by authors (Bible, ancient and modern theologians, law, classical authors, medicine etc.), in order to build a real and independent manuscript library. That library was marked by 4888 progressive shelfmarks, corresponding to an accurate cataloguing description that at the time already noticed and indexed authors and works for each volume. This Renaissance order wasn’t changed in following transfers and that catalogue draft is still at the bottom of present studies and modern cataloguing. The modern catalogue started at the end of 19th century. It is an analytical cataloguing and it covers almost half of the entire extension.

The digitisation and metadata projects are, with time, intended to cover almost all of this great original manuscript heritage. The project is now working on the two opening sections: the first 168 shelfmarks are related to biblical contents, the following 510 shelfmarks concern patristic contents. These two valuable collections consist on the one hand of biblical texts and their commentaries (that are the original sources of theological studies), whereas on the other, of an extensive collection of patrology writings that include the oldest Latin Fathers of the Church as well as monastic authors of the early Middle Ages who continued the practice of the patristic-theological method. A bibliographical heritage that spans from the 3rd to the 12th century.

The biblical section also contains luxury exemplars, and all the basic tools for the reading and discussion of the Scriptures, according to the academic standards of the time – the text is either in large or small volumes, with introductions and chapters, and with some Early-Medieval glosses as well as academic and running glosses. In this section, manuscripts are arranged by book typologies, and finely written and illuminated manuscripts coming from Italy and Gothic France, alternate with precious commentaries and glosses. This section is not much studied by codicologists, palaeographers and philologists, but the patristic section is more known, especially by philologists. It shows the great humanist effort to systematically retrieve the oldest patristic and monastic Latin theology. In the patristic section there are important Early-Medieval church fathers and the first manuscript editions of the age of Humanism. From a philological and palaeographic standpoint, this second section, marked by the massive presence of the works of the four major Latin fathers – Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Gregory the Great, with a clear and interesting prevalence of Augustine – is perhaps the most important and interesting within the entire Vatican Library collection.

Metadata now provides the possibility of visually browsing many of these precious biblical and patristic manuscripts. Metadata is conceived as an abbreviated catalogue, and built on the Vatican Library analytical one dated 1902, which, in turn, is being accurately checked in terms of textual, codicological and palaeographic data.