"Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library and Renaissance Culture," a Library exhibition that runs through April 30, is a once-in-a- lifetime chance to see 100 of the most precious manuscripts ever created. The catalog that accompanies the exhibition is a fitting reflection of the exhibition's substance and beauty.
Edited by Princeton history professor Anthony Grafton, Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library and Renaissance Culture is a highly readable scholarly study that further explores facets of Renaissance culture touched on by the exhibition. Comprising essays by seven distinguished curators and augmented by 216 exquisite full-color illustrations, the book provides the reader an opportunity to examine an extraordinary assemblage of treasured manuscripts, maps and books held by the Vatican Library, many of which have never before been seen by the general public.
The tour of Renaissance culture provided by Dr. Grafton and his seven guest curators examines in depth a different aspect of the Vatican Library's collections, including the role of music, medicine, geography, mathematics, astronomy and other exact sciences as well as the manuscripts and texts brought back by papal emissaries from Constantinople, Cairo, Ethiopia, Russia, China and Bulgaria. What surprised the curators, in fact, was the breadth of knowledge that was preserved, some of it undermining the papacy whose power it was meant to enhance.
The Vatican Library was founded in 1451 by Pope Nicholas V, who donated his own 1,160-book collection to begin what Dr. Grafton calls "the central public library for humanist scholarship." Today, it remains the richest collection of Western manuscripts and printed books in the world. With additional vast collections of non-Western books and manuscripts, it is truly a treasury for all humankind. Among the collections are 8,000 books printed before 1500, when, according to Dr. Grafton, "scribes, illuminators, binders and printers prided themselves on creating books as physically splendid as they were substantively illuminating."
Both the exhibition and the catalog for "Rome Reborn" were made possible by a special friendship that was forged between the Library of Congress and Vatican Library in the 1920s. This relationship is examined in some depth by Father Leonard E. Boyle, prefect of the Vatican Library, whose generous opening remarks set the high tone for this publication.
Heir to the humanist tradition of open scholarship that originated with the Renaissance popes, the Library of Congress began with Thomas Jefferson's determination to ground the world of public affairs in the world of learning. He backed this up with his own collection of books, which today forms the core of the Library's own rare treasures.
Now, one more book can be added to that treasury -- Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library and Renaissance Culture. The paperbound edition sells for $25 at the Library of Congress Sales Shop and is also available by mail from Box J, Library of Congress, Washington, DC 20540 (add $5 for postage and handling). A hardbound edition is available from Yale University Press, Sales Department, 92A Yale Station, New Haven, CT 06520. Phone orders can be taken at (203) 432-0967.