Verona’s Biblioteca Capitolare is an institution famous for the antiquity and preciousness of its manuscripts, so much so that the paleographer Elias Avery Lowe (1879-1969) defined it as “the queen of the Ecclesiastical collections.” In comparison with other libraries, it may lay claim to being the most ancient in the field of Latin culture.
In fact, it had its origin in the fifth century A.D. as an outgrowth of the scriptorium (or library workshop), which the priests of the Schola majoris Ecclesiae, or cathedral chapter canons (hence, capitolare) used for the composition of parchment books written on sheepskin, for the instruction of future priests, and for their disciplinary and religious formation.
One of these, Ursicinus, who held the minor order of Lector at the Veronese Cathedral, transcribed both the Life of Saint Martin, composed by Sulpizio Severo, as well as the life of Saint Paul, the hermit of Thebes, compiled by Saint Jerome. At the end of the Codex 38 (XXXVIII) Ursicinus declared to have completed his work on “August 1, 517” at which time Teodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, ruled Verona.
This note, although simple in its form, is of extreme importance, for it shows us a hierarchically-structured organization for liturgical and cultural activity at the beginning of the sixth century. But the Capitolare also possesses other codices, older than that written by Ursicinus, which trace the origin of the library to at least a century earlier. Particularly notable are the palimpsest 40 (XL) of Livy and Virgil, of Saint Augustine’s De Civitate Dei [City of God] which dates from the author’s own time (the beginning of the fifth century), and the palimpsest Codex 15 (XV), unique in the world, which contains the Institutions of Gaius. Besides the antiquity of the Capitolare, these manuscripts, together with others, testify also to continuity across the medieval centuries.
In fact, every successive century is represented by a certain number of codices. But the golden epoch of the scriptorium’s activity lies in the ninth century. The Carolingian Renaissance is worthily represented by the multi-dimensional figure of Archdeacon Pacificus. The inscriptions (epigraphs) above the central door of the left wall of the cathedral speak of him particularly. These were examined by Muratori in his Dissertazione n. 43. Versatile in all fields of human knowledge, he gave an impulse to the scriptorium in which 218 volumes were composed. This figure is truly considerable for those times when seventy volumes constituted a rich library. Also in the tenth century, one of the worst for its civic and religious decadence, the Veronese scriptorium carried out its work with dedication. Witness to this was Bishop Raterius, who, in spite of numerous difficulties found in the Veronese milieu, endowed the schola and did not hesitate to regard Verona as the “Athens of Italy.”
Following the millennium, calligraphic activity is exemplified by Stephen the Cantor, that is, the master of the cathedral chapel, who has left us an autograph book (Codex 94), called Carpsum. It provides a precious liturgical and musical anthology for the knowledge of religious customs of our city.
From 1200 to 1700
Towards the beginning of the 1200s, the scriptorium assumed the shape of a true and proper library or environment for study, consultation, and conservation. The motives for this transformation were various. By then the library perhaps possessed such a number of volumes regarding various branches of human knowledge that it was no longer necessary to produce new ones. Or rather it may be supposed that manuscripts may have be lent to the old parishes, which needed to be supplied with cultural assistance for the formation of the clergy. The relation written on the right cover of Codex 63 (LXIII) is a witness to this, wherein the parishes of Caprino, San Giorgio (of Valpolicella?), and Calavena were cited as having been resupplied with further manuscripts. The Biblioteca Capitolare was certainly a place of culture. It is significant that in 1320 Dante Alighieri was invited by the cathedral chapter (and thus by the Biblioteca Capitolare) to hold a conference in the canonical church of Sant’Elena. Here he presented the Quaestio de aqua et terra. In 1345 another great literary figure, Petrarch, came to be invited by a Veronese friend of his, Guglielmo da Pastrengo, to consult the books of the capitolare. There he found a codex unknown until then, the letters of Cicero to Atticus, Quintus and to Brutus.
With the invention of printing around 1450, the first printed books entered the capitolare. These are the incunabula, or volumes printed from 1450 to 1500. The canon and librarian, G. Paolo Dionisi, degreed in canon and civil law, gave the capitolare a substantial number of manuscripts and incunabula, predominantly of a juridical character, in 1501.
The site of the library in those years was found in a room on the ground floor of the east side of the Chapter cloister. In 1625 it was thought to use these rooms for the new hall for the canons’ meetings. It was planned to organize the library material in a new setting, to be built above the canonical sacristy. In anticipation of the new construction, the librarian, Agostino Rezzani, placed codices and printed books inside the upper cornice (cymatium) of cupboards in a nearby room and edited a catalogue of the manuscripts, but he died a short time later. He was struck down by the plague of 1630, which reduced the Veronese population by two-thirds. He took the secret of this hiding place to the grave. Only in 1712 did the meticulous research of Scipione Maffei and canon Carlo Carinelli bring these antique treasures back to light. The news of the find aroused surprise and enthusiasm in the literary world, which frequently knocked on the door of the capitolare to examine the materials. Because of this, the chapter decided in 1725 to build the new home of the Biblioteca Capitolare on the western side of the cloister. Later, in 1781, it was enlarged through the generosity of the bishop, Giovanni Morosini, who met half the required expense.
Meanwhile, the library’s patrimony continued to increase through numerous donations on the part of Veronese families and famous personalities, such as Maffei, Bianchini, Muselli, and Dionisi. Such a great richness aroused the cupidity of Napoleon Bonaparte, who carried away thirty-one codices and twenty incunabula to restock the National Library in Paris. Only two-thirds of these were returned after the fall of the emperor in 1816.
From 1800 until now
Throughout the nineteenth century an intense philological activity developed, especially on the part of German scholars, who brought the famous palimpsests back to light. These books on parchment were almost all written during the fifth century but scraped off in the eighth century to regain the use of the parchments, which were later used to write another text. The leaves of these codices, treated with chemical reagents in the nineteenth century, allowed the scraped primitive text to be read.
The Biblioteca Capitolare also passed through sad times. The flooding of the Adige in 1882 soiled eleven thousand manuscripts of the Chapter Archive with mud. On January 4, 1945, during the last period of the war, bombs smashed the large hall, razing it to the ground. Fortunately, Monsignor Giuseppe Turrini, librarian at the time, who since 1922 had worked to clean and catalog the mud-filled parchments from the flood, had provided for saving the manuscripts and incunabula from the aerial attacks. These constituted the most precious part of the patrimony of the Biblioteca Capitolare. The other volumes, buried by the rubble, were, for the most part, later recovered.
In the immediate post-war period the library was rebuilt and expanded to permit the organization of other donations of books. These included the libraries of Monsignor Giuseppe Zamboni (with the manuscripts and correspondence of the Veronese philosopher), of Count Francesco Pellegrini (interesting for the history of medicine), of professor Luigi Simeoni (for medieval history), and of the Giuliari family (with examples of the famous printing house).
On April 16, 1988, Pope John Paul II received the homage of all the representatives of Veronese cultural institutions in the Great Hall of the capitolare where he addressed them in an important talk. A few facts will show the importance of the capitolare: 1200 manuscripts, 245 incunabula, 2500 sixteenth-century, and 2800 seventeenth-century works, and more than 70,000 further volumes, to which are added in a continuous and necessary updating, encyclopedias, dictionaries, specialist publications, and periodicals. A laboratory functions within the library for the restoration of ancient codices. In recent years the library’s activity has been directed towards collaborative work with other cultural institutions in the city and towards increasingly frequent contacts with those from foreign countries and overseas. Further, a policy has begun to spread knowledge of the inestimable patrimony enclosed in its walls; a patrimony which even today is in part unexplored and rich in promise.
When was the Italian language born…
When was the Italian language born? Everyone knows that it emerged from spoken Latin which through changes, deformations, and even influences of other dialects gave rise to our language. But not all know that the oldest phrase in the Italian language is contained in the so-called “Veronese Riddle”, written at the top of folio 3r in codex 89 (LXXXIX). This volume is a Mozarabic prayer book, that is, a book of liturgical prayers used in Spain and written in Visigothic characters.
After various misfortunes, it came to Verona from the Iberian peninsula, where a scribe, perhaps, to test his pen, wrote:
Separeba boves, alba pratalia araba, albo versorio teneba et negro semen seminaba.
I separated the oxen (the two fingers of the hand),
I ploughed the empty fields (the pages of the book which were originally blank)
I held a white plough (the goose quill), and
I spread the black seed (the ink).
Now everyone can guess that this refers to the scribe beginning his work.
Codex 55 (LV) hands down to us the work, De Summo Bono (On the Highest Good) of Saint Isidore in writing of the eighth century. But folios 61r through 99 of the volume are a palimpsest. The oldest writing is from the fifth century and contains fragments of the Didascalia Apostolorum (The Teaching of the Apostles). It is a liturgical relic of exceptional value. It is the only document in the Latin language which carries down the most ancient example of the Canon of the Mass, whose original came from the first half of the third century. This text was erased during the eighth century so that the treatise of Saint Isidore could be copied over it; a plain sign that the copyists (usually priests) knew that part so well that they could eliminate it. This fact constitutes a refutation of those who factiously argue that the palimpsests prove the destructive activity of classical culture by churchmen in the middle ages.