Virgil, the Vatican, and Bytes

detail from 1,600-year-old edition of the ‘Aeneid’; image courtesy Vatican Apostolic Library

“Of arms and the man I sing” is the English translation. In the original Latin it’s “Arma virumque cano.” With those words Virgil (70-19 BC) opens his famous epic poem Aeneid. It tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan who after the Greeks defeated Troy travels, Odysseus-like, to Carthage, the underworld, and finally Italy, where he founds Rome. Think of Aeneid as a creation myth for the Roman empire. It is Aeneas we have to thank for ravioli and La Traviata.

The epic is considered Virgil’s masterpiece and the pinnacle of Latin literature. In my Latin studies, if my memory is charitable, I might have gotten through the first of the poem’s 12 books. Translating the prose of Caesar and Seneca was far easier than Latin poetry. George Bernard Shaw thought enough of the Aeneid to plunder it for the title to his 1894 play Arms and the Man.

Revolution is not too strong a word for how computer technology over the last four decades or so has impacted societies everywhere. Like real revolutions of the corporal and bloody type, which have a history of eating their young, the digital revolution has generated many unforeseen and unintended consequences. Did the engineers who invented the Internet and email ever in their wildest dreams imagine that their nascent technology might one day skew an American presidential election, perhaps decisively. That would have been the stuff of science fiction. Well, welcome to our new world. Tomorrow Donald Trump will be inaugurated as America’s new President. If only that were fake news.

One of the many sectors that the digital age has massively impacted is museums, libraries and performing arts organizations. G. Wayne Clough, head of the diverse Smithsonian Institution (and former provost of the University of Washington), has devoted much thought to this subject. Several years ago Clough published his ideas in a free e-book, titled Best of Both Worlds: Museums, Libraries, and Archives in a Digital Age.

Virtually every museum in the world as well as many major performing arts organizations are venturing into this digital territory. The Metropolitan Opera has digitized many of its archives and made them available online. Ditto the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Want to study the Met’s version of Cezanne’s Card Players painting (he painted five)? Just visit the Met’s website, type Cezanne Card Players into the search box, and presto, three French workers playing cards appear before you.

One reason I have been following this trend is that a plotline in my new play, Das Ende, involves digitizing Richard Wagner’s archives in Bayreuth, Germany (home of the Richard Wagner Museum and the annual Bayreuth music Festival). I hope I’ll be forgiven for taking broad literary license with those archives.

A notable recent example of this digitizing trend comes to us courtesy of the Vatican. The Vatican Library, established in 1475 by Pope Nicholas V, is one of the world’s oldest, biggest and most heavily guarded libraries. To give you some idea of the Library’s vastness, holdings include some 80,000 manuscripts, 400,000 coins and medals, and 1.1 million books. Its fragile texts range from Sandro Botticelli’s 1450 illustration of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, to 111 pages of manuscripts containing poems, technical notes, and preparatory sketches by Michelangelo.

That library is in the midst of a mammoth effort to digitize its collections and make them available free to anyone with Internet access. Among its 80,000 manuscripts is the “Vergilius Vaticanus” or “Vatican Virgil,” which was digitized and put online last year. Dating to around 400 A.D, it is one of the Library’s oldest documents to be digitized so far. The delicate manuscript consists of 76 surviving pages and 50 illustrations.

“Our library is an important storehouse of the global culture of humankind,” Monsignor Cesare Pasini, Prefect of the Vatican Apostolic Library, said in a statement. “We are delighted the process of digital archiving will make these wonderful ancient manuscripts more widely available to the world and thereby strengthen the deep spirit of humankind’s shared universal heritage.”

With the world’s current refugee crisis and the global trend away from globalization, any reminder of our “shared universal heritage” takes on added importance.

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