Rome, moreover, negotiated regularly with Christian churches and non-Christian powers all over the Mediterranean world and beyond, and individuals and small communities from Eastern Christian churches lived in and visited the city. During the sixteenth century the authorities took advantage of these opportunities for scholarship. Even as the Counter-Reformation damaged some areas of study, it promoted others. Rome became one of Europe's most productive centers of Oriental printing and study.

How the Orient Came to Rome

The scholarship done in the curia was not limited to Greek and Roman texts. The popes took a serious interest in Hebrew, the original language of the Old Testament and still the holy language of the Jews. Christian scholars at Rome, as elsewhere in Europe, were captivated by the Cabalistic mysticism of some Jewish commentators on the Bible. Important members of the Curia, like Giles of Viterbo, believed as fervently as any rabbi that each letter of the Hebrew alphabet concealed deep theological mysteries. As the sixteenth century progressed, however, detailed knowledge of the real languages and cultures of the Near East grew, and facts began to displace myths. The Vatican developed one of the greatest collections in the world of Hebrew books, both handwritten and printed. Texts in Arabic and many other languages, from old Church Slavonic and Armenian to Syriac and Coptic, accumulated beside them. The Vatican became a center of what the humanists liked to call "trilingual" scholarship: the study of the Bible in its three great languages, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.

Flavius Mithridates, Good Friday Sermon

On Good Friday 1481, Flavius Mithridates, a converted Jew from a learned Sicilian family, preached this sermon before the pope and cardinals in the Vatican. A good linguist, Flavius dazzled the clerics with his deft pronunciation of Hebrew and Aramaic as he cited Jewish texts to prove that the Jews had known and resisted the truths of Christianity. A clever charlatan, he altered and invented much of the evidence, borrowing from medieval Christian polemics against the Jews.

Flavius Mithridates, Good Friday Sermon. In Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Rome. 1481

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Book of Job, Owned by Pico della Mirandola, with notes in his hand

One Christian scholar who used the help of the learned but tricky Flavius Mithridates was Pico della Mirandola, who here struggles to unravel the secret meanings of the Book of Job.

Book of Job, Owned by Pico della Mirandola, with notes in his hand. In Latin. Fifteenth century

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The Study of Eastern Languages

The church had long encouraged, in theory, the study of languages that might prove useful in converting unbelievers. But as late as the fifteenth century, it had amassed little expertise. The converted Jew Flavius Mithridates impressed the pope and cardinals on Good Friday 1481 simply by his ability to pronounce long passages in Hebrew and Aramaic. In the course of the sixteenth century, Rome became a center for the study of Near Eastern and other little-known languages. Christians (and a few non-Christian prisoners) from the Slavic world, Armenia, Mesopotamia, North Africa, and Ethiopia came to Rome, often on ecclesiastical business. They found eager students who wanted to learn their languages, inventive printers who could cut type following their scripts, and papal support--especially for the publication of the Bible in Syriac, Ethiopic, Arabic, and other languages. Meanwhile the library amassed extraordinary holdings from many languages and from many cultures. The Church Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-45) brought delegates to Italy from many churches and cultures. The books they brought with them proved instrumental to the growth of the Vatican Library and of near-eastern studies in Europe.

Eusebius, Epistle to Carpianus, and other texts

The first Armenian manuscript to enter the Vatican collection in the fifteenth century, this finely illuminated thirteenth-century codex may have been donated by the Armenian delegates at the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-45). It contains a vast miscellany of texts. These are mainly ecclesiastical--the liturgical sections are particularly important for the history of the Armenian church--but there are also texts on chronology, geography, astronomy, mensuration, philosophy, and history. Shown here is the second part of the fifth of the Eusebian canon tables designed to indicate which passages in one of the Gospels are in agreement with the other three Gospels. Their use is explained in the epistle that Eusebius of Caesarea wrote to Carpianus early in the fourth century. The canon tables are a fine example of Armenian manuscript illumination in its heyday between 1250 and 1290, when the center of Armenian art was in Cilicia, between the Taurus mountains and the southeastern coast of Anatolia. Thanks to the presence of the crusaders and their alliances with the Mongols, the Armenians had become acquainted with both western and eastern art, and much of their work is an intriguing combination of the different styles. Among the Cilician illuminators, however, western influence prevailed and their ornamentation acquired a delicacy and refinement which allowed them to compete with some of the best illuminators in Europe.

Eusebius, Epistle to Carpianus, and other texts. In Armenian. Before 1287

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Gospel of Luke 20: 1-8

This tenth-century Egyptian codex was donated to Pope Eugene IV by the Egyptian delegates at the Council of Ferrara-Florence. Translated from a Coptic original, it is one of the earliest Arabic versions of any part of the New Testament, none of which can be dated before the late eighth or ninth centuries. The text displayed is from Luke 20.

Gospel of Luke 20: 1-8. In Arabic. Cairo. A.D. 993

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How this Ethiopic Psalter came into the Vatican Library in the late fifteenth century is still a matter of uncertainty. According to one hypothesis it was brought by the Ethiopian delegates at the Council of Ferrara-Florence, probably from the Ethiopian convent in Jerusalem, but according to another it was donated by Giovanni Battista Brocchi from Imola, who accompanied a Franciscan mission to Ethiopia in 1482. The first folio of the codex shows the First Psalm between two strapwork bands. The manuscript is widely held to have inaugurated Ethiopic studies in Europe and to have been borrowed by Johannes Potken in 1511. It would thus have provided the text on which he based his Psalterium, published two years later.

See Renato Lefevre, “Su un codice etiopico della ‘Vaticana,’” La Bibliofilia 42 (1940):97-107.

Psalter. In Ethiopic. Fifteenth century

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Psalterium David et Cantica aliqua

This Psalter, probably based on the preceeding manuscript, was the first book ever to be printed in Ethiopic, the first book to be printed in Rome in any oriental language other than Hebrew, and the first Psalter to be printed in any language other than Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. Having learned Ethiopic from Thomas Walda Samuel, an Ethiopian pilgrim from Jerusalem staying at Santo Stefano Maggiore in Rome, Johannes Potken had Ethiopic types cut at his own expense by the printer Marcellus Silber from Regensburg. On his departure from Rome two years after the publication of the Psalter, Potken took the fonts with him to Germany.

Potken's edition includes canticles from the Song of Solomon and ends with an Ethiopic syllabarium and a brief comment on it. In the foreward Potken describes how he learned Ethiopic, which he insistently but erroneously calls Chaldean. He goes on to tell of his decision to publish the Psalter and to inform the reader about the land of Prester John. The page on display shows the First Psalm and the beginning of the Second Psalm under a woodcut lacework headpiece.

Psalterium David et Cantica aliqua. Edited by Johannes Potken. In Ethiopic. Rome: M. Silber. 1513

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Psalterium Hebraeum, Graecum, Arabicum, et Chaldaeum, cum tribus Latinis interpretationibus et glossis

Agostino Giustiniani, the member of a patrician family from Genoa, was a Dominican who became bishop of Nebbio in Corsica. A gifted scholar, he was invited in 1517 to France, where he taught Hebrew and Arabic at the University of Paris for five years. During that period he visited England and made the acquaintance of Erasmus. Giustiniani's Psalterium was dedicated to Pope Leo X in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. It was originally intended as part of a multilingual edition of the entire Bible, but the project was thwarted by the limited commercial success of the psalter. Nevertheless, the book was much in demand among orientalists and biblical scholars throughout the sixteenth century and remains a work of remarkable scholarship.

The pages displayed here bear the text of the First Psalm. In parallel columns from left to right, spread across the two leaves, we see the Hebrew text; a literal Latin translation by Giustiniani himself; the text of the Latin Vulgate; the version in the Greek Septuagint; an Arabic version based on at least two manuscripts owned by Giustiniani, one from Egypt and one from Syria; the Aramaic targum; a Latin translation of the targum; and, finally, Giustiniani's own scholia, or notes, in Latin. These notes show how well he was acquainted with the Midrash and rabbinic literature, from which he quotes extensively. Later in the work his glosses on Psalm 19:4 contain the earliest reference in print to the discoveries of his compatriot Christopher Columbus.

Psalterium Hebraeum, Graecum, Arabicum, et Chaldaeum, cum tribus Latinis interpretationibus et glossis. (Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, and Chaldean Psalter, with three Latin translations and glosses). Edited by Agostino Giustiniani. Genoa: P.P. Porro. 1516

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Liber Sacrosancti Evangelii de Iesu Christo Domino et Deo nostro

Johann Albrecht Widmanstetter, who was born near Ulm in Bavaria in about 1506, was a man of singular versatility. Not only was he a scholar, bet he was also a diplomat, a lawyer, and a statesman who spent some time in the papal service and, in 1552, was appointed chancellor of Lower Austria. He learned Syriac from Teseo Ambrogio and in Rome from the Jacobite (Christian) Moses of Mardin, who showed him a manuscript of the Syriac New Testament. After trying in vain to set up a Syriac press in Rome, Widmanstetter and Moses went to Vienna. There, with the assistance of the French orientalist Guillaume Postel, who was teaching at the university and also possessed a Syriac translation of the New Testament, they had Syriac types cut, in imitation of Moses of Mardin's handwriting, by Kaspar Kraft. The first edition of the New Testament in Syriac ever to be printed, the Liber Sacrosancti Evangelii contains a long introduction by Widmanstetter in which he recounts the history of oriental studies in Europe. It was published by Michael Zimmermann.

The undertaking was encouraged and subsidized by the ruler of Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, and Burgundy, Ferdinand I, who began to act as Holy Roman emperor after the abdication of his elder brother, Charles V, in 1555, and truly succeeded to the imperial crown four years later. In addition to increasing the prestige of the Austrian Habsburgs, the edition was also intended to lend support to the Christians in the Ottoman Empire.

The emblematic woodcut shown here is found opposite the end of the Gospel of Luke. It bears the motto In hoc Signo vinces, et conculcabis Leonem et Draconem, translated into Syriac on either side of the cross. The first part of the motto, "In this sign wilt thou conquer," refers to the alleged dream or vision of the fiery cross of the Roman emperor Constantine just before his conversion to Christianity and to his victory over Maxentius in 312. The second part, "the lion and the dragon shalt thou trample," is taken from Psalm 91:13 and frequently referred to triumph over heresy. On the left of the cross is the emperor's helm surmounted by a panache of peacock feathers; on the right are the arms of Austria. Around the foot of the cross hand the insignia of the Order of the Golden Fleece founded by the duke of Burgundy in 1430 and always closely connected with the Habsburgs.

Liber Sacrosancti Evangelii de Iesu Christo Domino et Deo nostro. Edited by J. A. Widmanstetter. In Syriac. Vienna: M. Zimmermann. 1555

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Gospel of Matthew

This, the first Persian manuscript to enter the Vatican Library, may well have been acquired by the Chaldean metropolitan Mar Yosef, who came from Malabar to Rome in 1568 to clear himself of the charge of Nestorianism. Written in the cursive "naskhi" script typical of the Middle East, it is one of the earliest surviving Persian manuscripts of any part of the Scriptures--none are known to be earlier than the fourteenth century. The rarity of the manuscript was quickly appreciated. The Persian scholar Giovanni Battista Vecchietti consulted it when he was in Rome in 1598 and foliated it. It was also read and copied by Tumagen, an Armenian from Aleppo who probably arrived in Rome in the train of Leonardo Abel after his mission to Syria in 1586. The page displayed here includes the opening of the text of the Gospel of Matthew.

Gospel of Matthew. In Persian. Copied by Mas'ud ibn Ibrahim. 1312

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The Tale of Bayad and Riyad

This fragment of the medieval love story of Bayad and Riyad may have been taken from Tunis by the troops of Charles V. It is one of the rarest and most singular Arabic manuscripts in the Vatican collection. Written in maghribi script, it was probably copied in Spain in the first half of the thirteenth century from an eastern manuscript of the Baghdad school. The miniaturist, however, adapted the original illustrations to a wastern setting and changed oriental architectural details to Spanish ones. This codex remains one of the only known examples of Muslim figurative painting in Spain. In the page shown here, we see Bayad receiving a letter from Riyad in the house of three women. The appearance of the house is clearly western rather than eastern.

See Ugo Monneret de Villard, "Un codice arabo spagnolo con miniature," La Bibliofilia 43(1941):209-23.

The Tale of Bayad and Riyad. In Arabic. Spain. Early thirteenth century

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Fragment of a Quran, Sura 33: 73-74

One of the first Quranic manuscripts to enter the Vatican Library, this codex comes from a "madrasa" or mosque school in Tunis and was probably taken when the troops of Charles V captured the city in July 1535. A fine example of the maghribi script typical of northwest Africa and Muslim Spain, the manuscript also contains good illuminations. It is only a fragment of the Auran, from sura 33:31 to sura 35:45 (part 22). The pages shown here bear the last two verses of sura 33 (verses 73-74).

Fragment of a Quran, Sura 33: 73-74. In Arabic. Spain or northwest Africa. Thirteenth century

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Tomar Grigorieann havitenakan (A Gregorian calendar for all eternity)

This Armenian translation of the Gregorian calendar was printed by the Vatican press run by Domenico Basa with the Armenian types which the French typographer Robert Granjon had designed shortly after his arrival in Rome and shown to Pope Gregory XIII in 1579. A copy of the calendar was given to the Armenian patriarch Azarias by Leonardo Abel toward the end of 1584. The title page shows, beneath the title, the coat of arms of Gregory XIII's family, the Boncompagni.

Tomar Grigorieann havitenakan (A Gregorian calendar for all eternity). In Armenian. Rome: D. Basa. 1584

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Evangelium Sanctum Domini Nostri Jesu Christi

The Medici Press was founded in 1584 to produce a polyglot Bible and works in other languages, especially Arabic. Its first great Arabic publication was this edition of the Gospels, bearing the date 1590 on the title page, and 1591 at the end. Two versions appeared, one solely in Arabic and one with an interlinear Latin translation. The Arabic types were cut by Robert Granjon. The 149 woodcuts with which the book is illustrated were probably made by Leonardo Parasole after designs by the Florentine artist Antonio Tempesta, known for the frescoes he painted in the Vatican and numerous Roman palaces. The pages on display here show the first chapter of Mark, verses 1-6, and include three woodcuts depicting, on the right, the Evangelist with a winged lion and, on the left, John the Baptist preaching. The woodcut below pictures the baptism of Jesus Christ.

Evangelium Sanctum Domini Nostri Jesu Christi. In Arabic. Rome: Typographia Medicea. 1590

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Four Gospels

This manuscript is one of the finest surviving Coptic codices of the Middle Ages. Copied in Cairo, it was once in the library of the monastery of Saint Anthony in the desert near the Red Sea south of Suez. It was taken back to Cairo in about 1506 and, thirty years later, was transferred to the church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus in Alexandria. There is was purchased by Girolamo Vecchietti in 1594 for the director of the Medici press, Giovanni Battista Raimondi. It was left to the Vatican Library, together with Raimondi's other Coptic manuscripts, on his death in 1614. This codex includes both a Coptic version of the Gospels, translated from the Greek and written in an uncial script, and an Arabic translation. The manuscript begins with Eusebius's epistle to Carpianus and also contains the Eusebian and Ammonian canon tables. In the Byzantine tradition each Gospel is preceded by a historical preface stating when and where the Gospel was written, making the codex of particular interest.

The manuscript is richly illustrated and illuminated, partly by the scribe Georgis and partly by another artist. The ornamentation frequently shows Islamic influence, but the illustrations are Byzantine in style. The pages on display show the opening of the Gospel of Mark (verses 1-3) on the right. On the left is the Evangelist writing the first word of his text, and beside him stands the archangel Michael.

See Jules Leroy, Les Manuscrits coptes et coptes-arabes illustres (Paris: Paul Geuthner, 1974), 148-53.

Four Gospels. In Bohairic Coptic and Arabic. Copied by Georgis. Cairo. 1205

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Giles of Viterbo, Explanation of the Hebrew Alphabet

Many Christian intellectuals believed that the medieval Jewish mystical tradition of the Cabala provided powerful truths about the Bible by identifying the secret meanings of the Hebrew letters in which it had been written. Here Giles of Viterbo, an important member of the curia, explains the secrets of the Hebrew alphabet to cardinal Giulio de' Medici (later Pope Clement VII).

Giles of Viterbo, Explanation of the Hebrew Alphabet. In Hebrew and Latin. Late fifteenth century

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Tamil mantiram (Tamil prayers)

While inspecting the famous Palatine Library of Heidelberg, confiscated as spoil of war by Maximilian I, Elector of Bavaria, and presented to Pope Gregory XV in 1623, the papal librarian Allacci wrote Cardinal Ludovisi that amongst the notable objects was "a mass of palm leaves" ("uno mazzo di palme") whose language and content he did not know. It was a small collection of Christian prayers in Tamil entitled Tamil mantiram (Tamil prayers), which could be either the work of missionaries of the Counter-Reformation or an older composition from the ancient Christian communities in South India. The accompanying note, of unknown date, labels it as "carmina in lingua japanica" (songs in the Japanese language), which shows the difficulty of identifying works in "exotic" scripts before the additional growth of Oriental studies in the nineteenth century.

Tamil mantiram (Tamil prayers). In Tamil. South India. ca. sixteenth century

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Vitae 13 sanctorum (Lives of the thirteen Saints)

By the time of the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic church had become suspicious of vernacular translations of the Bible and missionary literary efforts were more likely to be directed towards such genres as lives of the saints, catechisms, and controversial works. Some of these were preserved in Rome because they were written there, some because they were sent back there as testimonies of the missionaries' labors, and some because it was planned or hoped that they be printed and they needed to be vetted for theological correctness. The anonymous Vitae 13 sanctorum, written on palm leaves in Tamil, a language spoken in Southern Indian and Sri Lanka, is a verse work on the lives of the Apostles. It appears to date from the seventeenth century, before the papacy of Pope Alexander VIII Ottoboni (reigned 1689-1691) whose arms appear on the European leather box made for it.

Vitae 13 sanctorum (Lives of the thirteen Saints). In Tamil. South India. ca. seventeenth century

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Pietro della Valle, Risalah- i Padri Khristafarus Burris Isavi dar tufiq-i jadid dunya. Compendio di un trattato del Padre Christoforo Borro Giesuita della nuova costitution del mondo secondo Tichone Brahe e gli altri astologi moderni (Compendium of a tractate of Father Christoforo Borri, S.J. on the new model of the universe according to Tycho Brahe and the other modern astronomers)

Pietro della Valle translated and condensed the De tribus coelis of Christoforo Borri, S.J., into Persian in Goa, India, in 1624 and into Italian in Rome, in 1631. This is a diagram of Tycho Brache's compromise scheme for a cosmology. The sun revolves around the earth as it traditionally had, but the planets revolve around the sun. Also shown are the locations of several comets whose courses were calculated to cross the courses of two or more planets and proof that they could not be carried by crystalline spheres. The author, Pietro della Valla was a rich Roman noble whose linguistic skills and bravery as a traveller were as remarkable as his circle of friends.

Pietro della Valle, Risalah- i Padri Khristafarus Burris Isavi dar tufiq-i jadid dunya. Compendio di un trattato del Padre Christoforo Borro Giesuita della nuova costitution del mondo secondo Tichone Brahe e gli altri astologi moderni (Compendium of a tractate of Father Christoforo Borri, S.J. on the new model of the universe according to Tycho Brahe and the other modern astronomers). In Persian and Italian. Naqsh script in the hand of della Valle. 1624, 1631

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Ignazio de Jesus, O.D.C., Dictionarium latino persicum (Latin-Persian dictionary)

The Italian missionary priest Ignazio de Jesus (died 1667) dedicated this Latin-Persian dictionary to Cardinal Antonio Barberini (1607-1681), Prefect of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, the new division of the curia in charge of missionary efforts. Unlike the author's Persian grammar, this dictionary was not printed. Father Ignazio lists Latin words alphabetically in the first column, gives the Persian equivalent in a Roman script transliteration (representing sounds not in the Roman alphabet by the addition of diacritic marks derived from the Persian version of the Arabic alphabet), and finally gives the Persian written form.

Ignazio de Jesus, O.D.C., Dictionarium latino persicum (Latin-Persian dictionary). In Latin and Persian. Nasta'aliq script. ca. 1660

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Rubbing from ninth-century stone monument

This is a rare, ink-squeezed rubbing of the top portion of a ninth-century stone monument discovered in 1625 in a Christian graveyard in Sian (Xi`an). Initially studied by Alvaro Semedo, it was later featured in Michael Boym's many writings and in Athanasius Kircher's influential China illustrata.

Nestorian Christians had scattered throughout Asia in the fifth century A.D. and were reported in early sources of Chinese history. This stele, with its long explanation of Nestorian theology and history of the religion in China (with Syriac bilingual transliterations of names), caused a sensation in Europe on its discovery in 1625. The tablature seen here (which capped the nine-foot monument) reads: "A Memorial Stele [honoring] the Flowing into China of the Illustrious Religion from Great Ch`in." Great Ch`in was a traditional Chinese term for the Roman Orient. The original monument exists today in Sian's Museum of Stone Tablets; a full-size replica is in the Musee Guimet in Paris.

Rubbing from ninth-century stone monument. Sian. 1625

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Sluzebnik (Liturgical book) of Isidore of Kiev

This Sluzebnik, owned by Isidore of Kiev, the much-travelled Russian delegate to the Council of Ferrara-Florence, is a collection of liturgical texts and contains notes in his own hand. The texts include the liturgies of John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Philotheus, the Presanctified, and the Presanctified Gifts. Written in a large uncial Cyrillic script of the Russian type, the manuscript is particularly striking on account of its neo-Byzantine ornamentation and its initials, mainly of a geometric, floral design. The text on display is the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.

Sluzebnik (Liturgical book) of Isidore of Kiev. In Russian. Principality of Novgorod Pskov. Fourteenth or early fifteenth century

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Teseo Ambrogio, Introductio in Chaldaicam linguam, Syracam, atque Armenicam, et decem alias linguas (An Introduction to the Chaldean Language, Syriac, and Armenian, and Ten Other Tongues)

A novelty in many respects, Teseo Ambrogio's Introductio is one of the first studies in comparative linguistics to refer to several oriental languages. Although it is mainly about Armenian and Syriac, it also contains information about Samaritan, Arabic, Coptic, Slavonic, and Ethiopic. It is the first occasion on which Syriac was presented to a European readership and on which Syriac types were used. Armenian types, on the other hand, had been employed in Venice as early as 1511. In addition to the features which make the book so important as a work of scholarship, it is one of the rare examples of a book set by dictation.

The pages illustrated show, on the left, the Lord's Prayer in Syriac, taken from Luke 11:2-4 (mistakenly given as Luke 1), with an interlinear transcription of the Syriac in the Roman alphabet and a literal Latin translation. On the right is the Lord's Prayer in Armenian, taken from Matthew 6:9-13, with the same system of interlinear transcription and translation. The Lord's Prayer was widely used as a text for elementary linguistic exercises: the first European Arabists nearly all used it, until Joseph Justus Scaliger expressed his misgivings about its benefits for any practical knowledge of the language.

Teseo Ambrogio, Introductio in Chaldaicam linguam, Syracam, atque Armenicam, et decem alias linguas (An Introduction to the Chaldean Language, Syriac, and Armenian, and Ten Other Tongues). Pavia: J.M. Simoneta. 1539

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