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Treasures from the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana – Litterae

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Treasures from the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana Litterae

Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vatican City

The Vatican Library is known not only for its superb collection of Bibles but also for its equally magnificent collection of literary and scientific manuscripts. A selection of 12 leaves presents the most significant secular manuscripts.

The Vatican Library as a Treasury of Secular Books 

Those who are familiar with the first Vatican book box set Biblica will imagine that the latter form the very heart of the Holy See’s collection of books: the wonderful world of magnificently bound Bibles is without doubt THE prime domain of the Vatican Library. Only cognoscenti know, however, that the Vatican also possesses an outstanding collection of manuscripts of works of literature and science. The founder of the library, Pope Nicholas V. (1447 – 1455), was an important humanist and collector of books. The present collection Litterae underlines the importance of the secular manuscripts for the Vatican Library. 

A Papal Confession of Humanism and Universality 

Pope Benedict XVI himself expressed the principle of a cosmopolitan attitude in a personal message of greeting: “From its very beginnings it (= the Vatican Library) has maintained the inimitable, truly ‘catholic’, universal openness towards all that mankind has produced over the centuries: all that is noble, right, sincere and amiable (see Phil 4,8)… The Vatican Library is not a theological or predominantly religious library; true to its humanist origins and in accordance with its vocation it is open to that which is human; and so its purpose lies in the service of culture.” Over the centuries the Popes have turned their attention beyond the spiritual in the narrow sense towards the “truly human”, and have collected books which serve the search for truth: conscious or unconscious, religious or secular. 

Litterae 

The twelve facsimile sheets assembled in this cassette represent the most important secular manuscripts in the Vatican Library. The selection was made according to two criteria: the manuscripts which were considered were those which are either of great importance for the handing down of manuscripts by classical authors, or those which are of great significance in the history of book art and illustration. The manuscripts extend over a period of over 1,000 years. The oldest manuscript represented in this boxed set is the famous Vergilius Vaticanus fragment from the fourth to fifth century, with texts from the Georgics and the Aeneid. In addition to another Virgil manuscript (sixth century), other highlights of the collection include a facsimile sheet from the Falconry Book of Frederick II (thirteenth century); a scene from Dante’s Divine Comedy illustrated by the great Sandro Botticelli (fifteenth century); and the astrological table from a Byzantine Ptolemy manuscript (eighth to ninth century). The astrological table was also used as the model for the real gold gilt brass plate decorating the box containing the sheets. 

The Boxed Set 

The facsimile boxed set is produced in a limited edition of 1995 copies and is entitled “Great Libraries of the World: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana – Litterae”. It contains twelve sheets printed on both sides and mounted in passepartouts. They were meticulously produced after the originals in the Vatican Library with the great attention to detail. The sheets were finished with real gold where this could be historically justified. The box itself measures 380 × 520 × 87 mm and is covered with green cowhide. The box is decorated with a relief reproduction in gilt brass of the circular astrological table (Byzantine Ptolemy manuscript, 8th – 9th century). It was produced exclusively for the Vatican boxed set. 
A companion commentary volume explains knowledgeably and clearly the history of the Vatican Library and the selected sheets. It was edited by Dr. Christine Maria Grafinger, curator of manuscripts in the Vatican Library.

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