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Vatican Library going high-tech, though bugs and mystery manuscripts still a problem

Posted: Friday, June 11, 2004

VATICAN CITY (AP) Dealing with bug infestations, normal wear and tear and even the occasional thief, keepers of the 15th century Vatican Apostolic Library face an ever-challenging task. Their latest step to keep their invaluable collection intact has been to employ some 21st century technology.

Officials have started implanting computer chips in the 1.6 million books in the Vatican's collection. The chips communicate via radio wave with hand-held monitors, so librarians can tell if a book is missing.

''That is no small thing, because a book that's out of place is as if the book is lost,'' says Ambrogio Piazzoni, the library's deputy prefect.

The technology has been around for a few years. But the Vatican believes its ''Pergamon'' system named for the ancient city in modern Turkey that housed one of the Old World's greatest libraries marks the first time that the system has been applied to a library catalogue on a large scale.

It's the latest advance for the Vatican Library, which was started by Pope Nicholas V in the 1450s with an initial 350 Latin manuscripts. By the time Nicholas died in 1455, the collection had swelled to about 1,500 codices and was the largest in Europe.

Today, the Vatican Library is known for its collection of manuscripts the one-of-a-kind, often beautifully illustrated handwritten books that predate the era of the printing press. With about 65,000 manuscripts, the Vatican collection is one of the best in the world, said John Lowden, director of the Research Center for Illuminated Manuscripts at the University of London's Courtauld Institute.

''I think there are probably three really supreme ones: the Vatican, the Bibiotheque Nationale de France and the British Library,'' said Lowden, who specializes in Byzantine and medieval illuminated manuscripts.

One of the library's most important pieces is the ''Codex B'' the oldest known complete Bible, which dates from about 325 A.D. and is believed to have been one of the 50 bibles Emperor Constantine commissioned.

The library also is home to 300,000 medals and Roman-era coins, although many of the most valuable pieces were lost when Napoleon took them to France.

The Vatican's riches have also been its vulnerability in recent years.

In 1996, Ohio State University art history professor Anthony Melnikas was sentenced to 14 months in prison after admitting he smuggled pages torn from a 14th century Vatican manuscript that once belonged to Petrarch. Prosecutors say Melnikas stole the pages during a research visit in 1987.

The library today is housed in a series of frescoed halls inside Vatican City that are open to scholars who request permission to do research. None of the items in the library can be checked out, and rules for researchers working there are strict: no pens, food or even mineral water are allowed in the manuscript reading room.

Scholars also must know exactly what they're looking for, since the manuscript collection like those of other great libraries is not entirely catalogued. In fact, only about 15,000 to 20,000 manuscripts have been logged so far since the modern process began in 1902, Piazzoni says.

''Which means that if we continue with the same criteria of cataloguing, we can assume that we'll finish in three and a half centuries,'' he says.

The process for cataloguing a manuscript is far more difficult and time-consuming than that of cataloguing a book, since the authorship may be unknown or faked, there are no copyrights, and key pieces of the document may be missing entirely, he says.

Delio Vania Proverbio, one of a half-dozen Vatican researchers responsible for cataloguing manuscripts, offers a case in point. From his desk drawer in one of the reading rooms, Proverbio pulls out a small, notebook-sized Turkish manuscript containing economic data about the Ottoman Empire in the mid 1600s.

It's missing the first eight pages and the last few pages. There's no author listed, date or index. Yet it's full of nuggets of information that might be of interest to scholars so much so that Proverbio has produced 10 pages of catalogue information and he's only halfway through.

How long has it taken?

''Two months, I'm ashamed to say,'' he says.

A new system, giving a much briefer summary of the text, may allow librarians to have a complete outline of the collection within 40 years, but the more painstaking, traditional process will continue.

The fact that manuscripts are still not catalogued has produced some nice surprises: In December, a scholar discovered an unknown Greek comedy by Menandro, the 3rd century B.C. author, while reading another manuscript. The Menandro text had been erased from the parchment it was originally written on and another text had been written over it a common practice at the time. But traces of the original Menandro survived in the fibers of the parchment, and are now being restored.

''These are true contributions to the growth of humanity,'' Piazzoni says.

Aside from the manuscript backlog, the Vatican Library is also bedeviled by a problem common to other keepers of old books: bug infestations. Every so often the Vatican has to disinfect its collections.

The Vatican reported in 2002 that it had had ''serious problems'' with one particular infestation of paper-eating xylophagous insects in a few of its manuscript collections.

Then, there is a human problem.

''Each time we take a manuscript and use it, simply by opening it my breath, humidity, my temperature ruins the manuscript. Little by little, but it ruins it,'' Piazzoni says.

But simply keeping the manuscripts in a temperature and humidity controlled room forever isn't the answer, he says.

''The job of a library like ours is twofold,'' he says. ''It's that of conserving that which we have received from the past for the future ... But we are also the future of yesterday. We have the right to read and to study things that have arrived from the past. So I must find the right balance.''

On the Net:

Vatican Library: http://bav.vatican.va



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