Hebrew manuscripts from the Canonici collection at the Bodleian

The Bodleian has recently added 32 Hebrew manuscripts to our new collections delivery platform, Digital.Bodleian (see our last blog post for more details). A few of these were already digitized for the Polonsky Project (e.g., MS. Kennicott 3), but most are new additions to this project and to the Bodleian's online collections.

 

At this point in the project, we are focusing on manuscripts from the Bodleian's Canonici collection, formerly belonging to the 18th-century Venetian Jesuit and antiquarian Matteo Luigi Canonici. The Bodleian's Summary Catalogue has this to say about the collection's history:

 

Matteo Luigi Canonici was born at Venice on August 5, 1727, and became a Jesuit in 1743. His natural bent was towards history and antiquities, and when Accademico of the college of St. Catherine at Parma he formed a first collection of medals and books, but in 1768, when the Jesuit order was suppressed in the kingdom of Naples and duchy of Parma, it was confiscated, Canonici, who had retired to Bologna, only receiving a small sum of money in return. Next he collected pictures, but this scandalized his superiors, and he was forced to get rid of them, obtaining in exchange a museum of medals. In 1773 a further supression of the Order took place, and Canonici retired to Venice, where he set himself to study history, and collected coins, statuary, printed books and MSS., chiefly during autumn journeys to Rome, Naples, Florence or elsewhere. He acquired for instance en bloc the collections of the duke of Modena, and the library of Giacomo Soranzo of Venice, which was itself partly derived from the Biblioteca Recanati. He always hoped that the Jesuits would be restored, and intended in that case to make them his heir, but eventually he died at Treviso (in October 1805) without making a will.

 

Canonici's collections passed to his brother Giuseppe, and on his death in 1807 to Giovanni Perissinotti and Girolamo Cardina, who divided them. To the former fell the MSS., then about 3550 in number, and, after many attempts to sell them, the Bodleian became the purchaser of the greater part in 1817, for £5444 5s. 1d., or including incidental expenses about £6030, the largest single purchase ever made by the Library. The formal list of volumes handed over was signed on May 18, 1817, and the books probably arrived later that year.

 

The Bodleian's Canonici collection includes 118 Hebrew manuscripts, which are all—barring necessary exceptions due to conservation concerns—being digitized for the Polonsky Project. The exceptional beauty of these manuscripts testifies to Canonici's skill as a collector, as well as to the discernment of Bulkeley Bandinel, Bodley's Librarian at the time of the Library's purchase of the collection. Most of the manuscripts in the collection fall into the main categories of scriptural, legal, theological and scientific texts, written in beautiful Italian hands and often decorated.

 

Of the 27 Canonici manuscripts currently available on Digital.Bodleian, here are a few highlights:

 

 

MS. Canon. Or. 41 (33 in the Neubauer catalogue)

This is a 14th-century Pentateuch with Hafṭarot, written in Spain in a beautifully pointed Sephardi square script (with the exception of fols. 292-295, which are written in a later hand). In the 17th or 18th century, a reader added copious marginal pen drawings to the first 81 folios. Some of these drawings are narrative (for example, Jacob's ladder on fol. 41r, shown here) but many are purely decorative: drawings of plants, animals, people, the sun, and everyday objects. The edges of these drawings were cut off when the volume was rebound, indicating that they were not always considered a valuable addition to the text, but to the modern reader, who may not be able to read Hebrew, they give a sense of the narrative as well as a vivid insight into the life and imagination of the artist.

 

MS. Canon. Or. 41 fol. 41r
MS. Canon. Or. 41 fol. 41r

 

MS. Canon. Or. 41 fol. 34r
MS. Canon. Or. 41 fol. 34r

 

 

MS. Canon. Or. 55 (Neubauer 1169)

This manuscript is an early 14th-century book of lamentations for the Ninth of Av according to the Western Ashkenazi rite, written in two different Ashkenazi square scripts. Several things set this manuscript apart: it is foliated in Hebrew characters as well as Arabic numerals; it includes marginal notes and corrections in Hebrew and one marginal note in Italian (fol. 3r); the catchwords at the end of each quire are decorated; in some places the parchment was repaired before stretching. But most striking is the beauty of the hand, of the page layout, and of the juxtaposition of large initial words (some incompletely inked in, as on fol. 49r) with smaller text. And there are birds in this one too, surrounding the initial word on fol. 81.

 

MS. Canon. Or. 55 fol. 22v
MS. Canon. Or. 55 fol. 22v

 

MS. Canon. Or. 55 fol. 81r
MS. Canon. Or. 55 fol. 81r

 

 

MS. Canon. Or. 60 (Neubauer 321)

A commentary on the Writings by Rashi, an 11th-century rabbi. For a change of pace, this manuscript is perhaps most interesting from a codicological perspective: it was written on lower-grade parchment, with an obvious distinction between hair side and flesh side. The ink on the flesh side has faded in many places, making this volume a particularly strong case for digitization, as researchers will be able to edit and enhance the images in order to improve readability.

 

MS. Canon. Or. 60 fol. 25v
MS. Canon. Or. 60 fol. 25v

 

There are also several examples of parchment repairs: holes that were created when the parchment was stretched in the preparation process, as well as holes that were stitched up before the parchment was stretched, resulting in a long seam. The thread used to sew up the parchment was usually removed after stretching, but the needle holes are often still visible. On the blank folio 44, one such hole was stitched up before stretching, and another hole was not stitched up but was later repaired with a thinner overlay.

 

MS. Canon. Or. 60 fol. 44r
MS. Canon. Or. 60 fol. 44r

 

Finally, MS. Canon. Or. 60 contains examples of what the Bodleian's conservation department refers to as a sheep window. This is where a layer of the sheepskin (which contains more layers of fat than calfskin or goatskin) has peeled or been accidentally scraped away during preparation, or where stretching has created holes in some layers of the skin but not others, resulting in roundish imperfections in the parchment. In this manuscript, the scribe chose not to write on the sheep windows, but to fill them in with pen decoration to indicate that no original writing was missing.

 

MS. Canon. Or. 60 fol. 7r
MS. Canon. Or. 60 fol. 7r

 

 

MS. Canon. Or. 136 (Neubauer 18)

We will be posting again shortly about other Canonici manuscripts being added to Digital.Bodleian, but this is our last manuscript for today: a late 13th-century Bible, again in an Ashkenazi square script. This manuscript is particularly large (about 35 cm tall) and the text is especially beautifully laid out. The original flyleaves are waste from an earlier quarto manuscript:

 

MS. Canon. Or. 136 fol. 1v
MS. Canon. Or. 136 fol. 1v

 

The manuscript also contains a few examples of geometrical micrography in the Masorah in the lower margins, as well as several carmina figurata, or shaped verses, for example on fol. 287r below:

 

MS. Canon. Or. 136 fol. 287r
MS. Canon. Or. 136 fol. 287r