Check out rarities from Vatican library

January 08, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Alove letter of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn, written while he was still married to Catherine of Aragon.

A two-volume, illuminated 15th-century bible that took four years to make.

Drawings of sunspots by Galileo.

A 16th-century view reconstructing the ancient city of Rome and measuring 6-by-6 feet.

A 9th-century copy of Plautus which is the only source for 12 of his 16 plays.

These are among the treasures of learning from the Vatican Library in Rome that go on view at the Library of Congress in Washington today.

"Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library and Renaissance Culture" is the title of an exhibit of 171 manuscripts, books, maps and related rarities from one of the world's greatest repositories of learning.

Unlike its great art treasures, the Vatican Library is open to scholars only, not to the general public. As a result, according to Princeton scholar and the show's curator, Anthony Grafton, "Most of these objects have not been on public view before."

The Vatican Library contains 75,000 manuscripts, 2 million printed books, and 100,000 prints, maps and drawings. It does lend objects on occasion, but this show is different from other shows in which it has participated, Mr. Grafton says. "It offers a comprehensive look at the Vatican and the library that has never been done in this way before.

"It tries to bring out what an extraordinary civilization renaissance Rome was, how much the book was considered the repository of all wisdom, and that it had to be made beautiful as well as functional."

It also brings out that the renaissance popes and scholars who built the library were not just collectors of works pertaining to religion. "They were extraordinary patrons of learning," says Mr. Grafton.

In his essay in the exhibit's accompanying book he emphasizes the lengths to which they were willing to go to search out and revive the knowledge of the past. "Convinced that they could find the best models for literature, the soundest philosophy, the most accurate history, and the best guidance for conduct in the accumulated wisdom of the Greeks and Romans, the Bible, and the writings of the fathers of the Church, they turned to books for the knowledge that they considered most worth having. . . . They ransacked private and institutional libraries across Europe, searching in monasteries above all for rare texts that had been copied and studied in antiquity and the early Middle Ages but had fallen out of fashion in the era of scholasticism. They also translated into Latin the works of Greek poets, philosophers, and historians, many of which had been unknown in the West since ancient times."

To illustrate how widely their interests ranged, the show is

divided into 10 sections, including humanism, nature, archaeology, mathematics, music, medicine and biology.

The show was the brainchild of the current Librarian of Congress, Dr. James H. Billington, and his deputy, Dr. Declan Murphy, Mr. Grafton says. "[Dr. Billington] is a traveler, knows the pope quite well, and [Drs. Billington and Murphy] wanted to do something dramatic."

The occasion for the show is the reopening of the Library of

Congress' Great Hall, closed for renovation for three years, where the show is being held. It is billed as a tribute to American assistance to the Vatican Library in cataloging and other operations in the 1920s and 1930s.

This is to be the first in a series of exhibitions on the world's great libraries. The next will be on France's Bibliotheque Nationale, in 1995.

If some of the show's objects are crucial works, such as a translation of Thucydides on which all subsequent editions were based, there are also the delightful surprises -- that love letter of Henry VIII, for instance.

And what does it say? "It's just an affectionate letter," says Mr. Grafton, "telling her how loyal he is and that he looks forward to their next meeting." Henry wrote the letter to Anne some time before their marriage in 1533. Three years after that, as the world knows, he had her beheaded.

TREASURES of the VATICAN LIBRARY

Where: Great Hall of the Library of Congress, First Street and Independence Avenue, S.E., Washington.

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. Through April 30. (Closed Jan. 18-20).

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