5 June 2017

Bari and Florence with the International Itinerant Palaeographic School (15–19 May 2017)

I applied to the very first International Itinerant Palaeographic School having seen a call for 30 fellowships on Twitter, split between two weeks, one in Bari and Florence, the other between Rome and Naples. Funded by Paris Sciences et Lettres, the École Française de Rome, and CéSor (Centre d’études en sciences sociales du religieux), yet taking place in Italy and hosted by Italian universities, the school promised a fascinating insight into the European traditions of teaching palaeography, which are easily held at a distance by those of us accustomed to English models. Given that I have visited Rome in the past, and am likely to do so again, I selected the perhaps less frenetic options, Bari and Florence, and was lucky enough to be invited to attend. Bari is a lively seaside town in Apulia, the ‘heel’ of Italy, with a rich medieval history as a trading port and pilgrimage centre, thanks to a rather shameless, but daring, heist of the relics of Nicholas of Myra, better known as Santa Claus, from Turkey in 1087. It passed from Lombard to Byzantine to Norman control in the course of the middle ages, and consequently preserves some fascinating remnants of cross-cultural collaboration and influence, something that became rather a theme of the conference. The group of fifteen fellows for this half of the school was very international, with representatives from universities in Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Russia, the Netherlands and other places, which led to fascinating chance for discussion and collaboration, with students of Carolingian matters quite well represented! We passed three days in Bari, with the generous support and hospitality of the Aldo Moro University. The first two were given to a conference-style set of lectures on the site of the university, and open to all students there (attendance was quite impressive), entitled ‘Manuscripts and Cultures in the Mediterranean (and Beyond): From Antiquity to the Middle Ages’. The remit of matters covered was just about as broad as this title suggests! Yet, given that three of the planned speakers had pulled out for different reasons, the fact that matters went ahead with various substitutions in place, and so smoothly that we scarcely noticed any difference, was nothing short of heroic.

Pontifical Basilica di San Nicola in Bari.

Encounters with manuscript and papyri yet to come, we approached palaeography in the broadest possible scope, with Filippo Ronconi speaking as ‘the manuscriptologist at work’. He meditated on what it means to approach a book as an object, noting that each encloses a history, indeed several histories, within it: the original gathering of the texts, their transcription, and what happens to the manuscript from that point to the present day. From there, we were treated to presentations by several experts in more specific fields, and a tour of the span of Mediterranean palaeographic culture. Christian Jacob spoke of books in antiquity, and the library of Athenaeus of Naucratius, a second-century Alexandrian in Rome, whose works recording the conversations of his learned contemporaries, including Galen, enclose a virtual Noah’s Ark of citations of lost literature of the ancients. As a medievalist, who has the luxury of existing literary material, it was fascinating to hear how a classicist might approach and reconstruct a library from such a source. Gianluca del Maestro treated us to the obvious corollary to Professor Ronconi’s paper, his being ‘the papyrologist at work’, which came in very handy as we would later examine papyri in Florence. He laid out for us how papyrology moved from ancilla to domina – from servant to other disciplines to a field in its own right – and, particularly fascinatingly, concluded by showing how apparatus from papyri ended up, obsolete, within manuscript books. Given that we had all come to Bari, two further talks on the medieval history of the area were much appreciated. Annick Peters-Custert spoke of southern Italy as a ‘hinterland’ of Greek culture in the medieval world, with unique traditions and a unique history, while Paolo Fioretti discussed the unique cultural melting-pot present in Bari, presenting evidence from the epigraphy of inscriptions to manuscript and documentary forms. On the second day, we heard from specialists outside of Greek and Latin, a great chance to make connections that were more international. First, Valentina Rossi Skyped us from Rome and, using comparisons with other traditions, spoke of the scope of Arabic script over several continents and endurance long after the general abandonment of manuscripts in the West. Then Barbara Lomagistro discussed Slavic material, from the earliest history of the Slavic scripts, to ongoing work to categorise their unappreciated complexities. For the rest of the day, we discussed our own work, and managed to make a host of fruitful connections, with Professor Ronconi’s insights on just about every subject proving particularly useful. In between, there was plenty of time to visit Bari’s beaches and enjoy gelato and Aperol Spritz, of course valuable research into the city’s material culture!

On the third day, we were privileged to have a tour of Bari, led by Professor Fioretti. We walked the city’s Norman walls, and examined the traces of the Byzantine military headquarters around the Basilica of San Nicola, once home of the Katepan of Italy. We were then allowed into the Diocesan Museum of Bari, where we were privileged to view three of the city’s greatest treasures, a selection of the liturgical rolls of Bari. A manuscript form entirely unique to southern Italy, the rolls were read during the ceremonies of Holy Saturday. The most famous, Bari Roll 1, seen in the images below, is a so-called Exultet Roll, used for the blessing of the Paschal Candle, dating from 1025–50.

Close-up of Bari Roll 1, a so-called Exultet Roll used for the blessing of the Paschal Candle, dating from 1025–50.

The Exultets are known for their rich and evocative prayer format, including the wonderful blessing of bees, which praises them as virginal creatures, images of a perfect society. The celebrant read from the roll, and, in the process, allowed the various beautiful images, of Christ, the bees, the authorities to be prayed for, and the ceremony itself, to be displayed to an audience, creating a sort of cinematic show. Bari Roll 3 is also an Exultet, though one with a significant decline in quality, as well as a fascinating testimony to adaptation, with the erasure and re-writing of the prayers, the change from Beneventan to Gothic Script, and the change from the southern Italian rite to the Roman. Bari Roll 2 is contemporary to number 1, and similar to it in richness and beauty, though this roll was used for the blessing of the font before baptism, and included wonderful depictions of the procession and ceremony. We were also able to view a Lombard ‘Morning Gift’ document, brought to the museum especially for us, a relic of an ancient legal tradition still practiced in Bari in the eleventh century, with resonances in social and palaeographic history. It described the wedding of two prominent citizens in Bari, a noblewoman with Byzantine artistry to a local artisan. It was a real honour to see these treasures of the city, bound up in its unique social and cultural history, and Professor Fioretti’s learned discourse helped them come to life.

Bari Roll 1 laid out on the table.

We had a very early start the next morning, so attempted not to imbibe too much of the region’s fabulous red wine, Primitivo, before going to bed. In any case, we all made it onto the train for Florence, travelling right up the length of Italy’s truly stunning coast all the way to Rimini, before turning inland. Before the magnificence of Florence could even sink in, we were allowed into the premier library of the city, Michelangelo’s Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana (below image). Lucia del Corso gave us a guide to the papyrus highlights of the collection, a suite of pieces recovered during Italian excavations in Egypt – from literary jewels, such as part of the unique copy of Callimachus’ Lock of Berenice, to the earthly reality of politics, the Alexandrians’ letter to a Caesar asking for a city council to be set up, and economics, with receipts for the transport of grain. Such extremely rare testimonies to daily life, in such small and often inaccessible fragments, are in some ways extremely different from the manuscripts I am used to, but there were lessons to be found here for any palaeographer.

Inside Florence’s Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana.

It was therefore fascinating to spend the remaining day in Florence with papyri, first at the Istituto Papirologico G. Vitelli, where we were given a walk-through of the history of papyrology as a discipline by the inimitable Guido Bastianini, with one notable highlight being the fabulous fin-de-siècle hat of Medea Norsa, who had directed the institution from 1935 to 1949. A few pieces from the collection were passed around, with Professor Bastianini giving us his own history of interpreting a few, and we were even given the chance to rummage through a box from an exhibition of entirely uncatalogued material. Finally, we took a trip out of Florence into the paradisiacal Tuscan countryside, where, in the Oratory of Santa Caterina delle Ruote, we were treated to a guided tour by Simona Russo of the new exhibition which balanced papyrus and material from the fourth century, the age of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, with the lovely frescos of Catherine by Aretino. Amongst pieces of clothing contemporary to the life of the saint – true treasures – were diagrams and drawings, papyri testifying to the renunciation of Christianity by certain citizens, and one example of the Festal Letter of Cyril of Alexandria, announcing the date of Easter. It was a wonderful testimony to the richness of written documentation, and very much a fitting end to a week dedicated to the power of the written text. Throughout the week we learned how palaeography is not an isolated discipline, but one which conceives of codices or papyri at their profoundest and broadest, taking note of the intellectual, social and deliberate processes which create a text, whether in censorship or out of the desire to make a connection. Here the focus on papyri in the latter days in Florence was particularly useful. The study of their texts is so connected to their materiality, and one cannot escape the circumstances in which they were preserved and found. The Bari Rolls were themselves a uniquely striking example of a manuscript with a specially evolved and evocative form, but they were also loci where cultures and traditions met and combined, another theme of the week’s discussion. In conclusion, I would really recommend this international and itinerant programme, for the chance to engage with all these treasures in the company of experts, but also for the chance to meet palaeographers situated across the discipline at its broadest and most expansive, a true reminder of how much we can learn from each other.

By Arthur Westwell.

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Bari and Florence with the International Itinerant Palaeographic School (15–19 May 2017)
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