» Ancient writing materials
» The roll
» The codex
» Codex formats
» Scrolls outside Egypt
» Manuscript production
» Parchment and paper
» Format and funcyion The Bible
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It is impossible to establish exactly when the book was invented or first began to circulate. Indeed, none of the forms exhibited here can be considered the embryo of what we have come to refer to as books. Nevertheless, if we narrow our scope to the Laurentian manuscript collection—in itself quite extensive—it would appear that the potsherd on which, probably under dictation, a pupil from the 2nd century BC wrote the ancient verses of one of Sappho’s odes marks the most significant threshold of its history; the fragment represents the longest extant portion of the poem, which may have been dedicated to Aphrodite. The ostracon is a rare medium due solely to the fact that, since it is a fragile material that was not used for anything meant to endure, large quantities have not been handed down to us. The book form we chose as our endpoint—and thus closer to our own era—is a 19th-century Japanese erotic-grotesque scroll expressing a genre that enjoyed widespread and lasting circulation because of its caricatural and entertaining contents. Due to its distant provenance, however, it is a rarity in Italian libraries. Between these two intentionally striking extremes, we have created an itinerary that requires some explanation.
The exhibition has been divided into two separate sections. The first one, the Papyrus Collection, is composed of several documents from the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana’s priceless collection. It offers a virtually complete range: from ostraca to fragments of papyrus rolls with literary, juridical, liturgical and administrative texts; lead and waxed wooden tablets; papyrus and parchment codices; and the fragment of a parchment codex from the 4th century AD, which also serves as a link to the next section. The decision to keep the first section separate from the second one, the Manuscript Collection, is the logical consequence of a historiographic and scientific approach whereby all texts written on papyrus and, by extension, on lightweight portable materials (e.g. metal, ostraca, tablets) come under a specific discipline, papyrology, which has its own codified research and descriptive methods that differ from those used for manuscripts. Furthermore, this decision was dictated in part by the desire to pay a tribute to two milestones that will be celebrated in Florence in June: the centenary of the foundation of the Società Italiana per la Ricerca dei Papiri Greci e Latini in Egitto (Italian Society for the Discovery of Greek and Latin Papyri in Egypt), to which the Biblioteca Laurenziana owes some of its treasures, and the 80th anniversary of the foundation of the Istituto Papirologico ‘G. Vitelli’, which is tied to the Library by enduring friendship, research and working relations.
As its name implies, the second section of the exhibition focuses on the manuscript collection. Those on display have been selected in order to illustrate the relationship between book form and function in the Western world, although there are also examples from the Far East.
From a chronological standpoint, the history of the structure of the book is also marked by other criteria. The codex form—made of parchment and subsequently paper—was eventually adopted, and the examples shown here come from production centres ranging from the monastic scriptorium of Corbie to the imperial one in Constantinople and to high-quality workshops in Italy (and particularly 15th-century Florence), Europe and Asia, the latter represented by a sumptuous Persian manuscript. A pecia manuscript illustrates serial production. The pecia system, which was developed at medieval universities, consisted of the simultaneous copying of separate sections (referred to as pecie, ‘pieces’) of approved university texts. Unusual as it may be, the case of the ‘Danti del Cento’—of which the Library owns one of the original models—is even more intriguing: it is one of the 100 copies of the Divine Comedy that the scribe Francesco di ser Nardo da Barberino supposedly produced so that he could afford to marry off his daughters.
A display case is also devoted to the Bible, the quintessential book, and it presents two antithetical formats: the monumental ‘atlas-sized’ copy from Santa Maria del Fiore, whose dimensions and decoration were designed to convey the importance of this text to the faithful, and the ‘pocket-sized’ version—the inseparable book of devotion—that, according to ancient tradition, Marco Polo brought with him to China.
Giovanni Boccaccio’s miscellany offers an example of an autograph manuscript by a famous writer. The anthology of the works of scientist and intellectual Francesco Redi—part of which also written in the author’s own hand—ends this series, bringing us to the era of the private manuscript collections that accompanied but did not supplant the well-established libraries of printed works.
The last two scrolls date to the modern era (16th–17th and 19th centuries) and are from very distant places: China and Japan. Rare in Florence and at Italian historical libraries in general, these Eastern specimens illustrate the survival of a form that was essentially replaced by the codex in the West, where rolls nevertheless continued to be used chiefly for liturgical and documentary purposes.
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