A portrait of Constantius II from 354, via two intermediaries

As manuscripts of the Vatican come online, it becomes possible to look at items previously known to us only from poor-quality photographs.  This is a good thing.

Years ago I made an online edition of the Chronography of 354, an illustrated luxury manuscript made for a Roman aristocrat in 354 AD, and transmitted to us by copies.  The pictures exist in various versions, mostly derived from a Carolingian copy now lost.  The best set, in monochrome, are preserved in Vatican Ms. Barberini lat.2154 B.  Sadly the full colours of the ancient original are not preserved; but the renaissance artist did his best to copy the Carolingian original.

Here’s one of the illustrations, on folio 13, depicting Constantius II, in the uncharacteristic pose of money falling from his hand.  Somehow one suspects that this charmless man did look rather like this.  (It is a pity that, as with other Italian stuff put online, the image is defaced with a watermark screaming “mine! mine! mine!!”)

Let’s not shout at the Vatican library for digitising microfilms

The Vatican library digitisation has made a bit of a left turn lately, and I’ve certainly complained about it, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this.  Instead of the high quality brand new full colour photographs, they’ve started to digitise vast numbers of rather rubbish quality microfilms.

Today a correspondent from the library gently took me to task for this, and I admit that I accept the reproof.

It’s easy for us to forget that the Vatican state has no tax base.  The whole enterprise relies upon the generosity of people who do not live there.  We are accustomed to thinking of the mighty Roman Catholic Church as a rich institution, and so it is; but mostly in things like the roof of the Sistine chapel, which are actually a responsibility and a drain on resources, rather than a source of profit.

Among this, the digitisation of the Vatican manuscripts is a mighty expense.  It has been paid for by donations, notably from the Polonsky Foundation, to whom the world now owes a huge debt.  But the digitisation can only go forward with the support of donations.

What the Vatican library has chosen to do, in the meantime, is to make as much of its manuscript collection available as possible.  They may not be able to afford to rephotograph everything just yet.  But they can afford to scan the microfilms, for which they used to charge a pretty sum – so they are being generous here – and make these available online for free to us all.

To their credit, this is what they have chosen to do.  I think we should applaud, not criticise.  Would that other libraries, like the British Library, or the Bodleian, would do the same.  It does give us some access to the manuscripts right now.

Well done, the Vatican Library.  They have lost a revenue stream, in order to benefit us all.  We should be grateful.

If you, reading this, are a wealthy man, please consider whether you could do anything so easily beneficial to scholarship as to sponsor the digitisation of the Vatican library.  If you are an ordinary mortal, like myself, please consider donating at the link here.