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Research in the times of the internet

· About the discovery of the Vatican manuscript, Baruch Spinoza's 'Ethics' ·

On the afternoon of Tuesday, October 18th, at the Roman headquarters of the National Council of Research a conference took place on the discovery of a Vatican manuscript of Spinoza’s Ethics (Vatican Library, Vat. lat. 12838), which caused a sensation upon its announcement last May. Taking part in the conference were the President of the Council, Francesco Profumo, Tullio Gregory, Marta Fattori, Paolo Cristofolini and Andreina Rita. We publish the beginning and the conclusion of the address of the Director of the Manuscript Department of the Vatican Library.

How is it possible that in a library as frequented and scoured as the Vatican’s, with a centuries-old tradition of intense study by qualified researchers and library experts, a discovery such as the manuscript of Spinoza’s Ethics , which is at the center of this conference, can occur? Should we believe that the Vatican does not know what it has, or in the opposite direction, suspect that it is a depository of yet other secrets, perhaps subversive for the faith, hidden from the eyes of others, in a climate à la Dan Brown? I have met people, not completely naïve, who are firmly convinced for example that the Vatican possesses a very full “enfer” of pornographic works; and amongst the recurring letters which used to arrive at the Library, one of the most frequent was a request by those who wanted to search the Vatican manuscripts for an original letter by Pontius Pilate to Tiberius regarding Jesus. All joking aside, events such as the discovery of the manuscript of the Ethics can be an occasion to reflect on what it means today to search for and find something in the great libraries of conservation (and in the archives), to consider the nature of and debunk some myths; but also to ask ourselves about the possibilities of “discovery” in humanistic research, something normally considered only in the context of natural sciences. To do this, it will be useful to look at four discoveries or “inventiones” at the Vatican Library in recent years which created some sensation. Retracing the steps involved and their modalities, almost without comment, will probably place us in a good position to answer the initial questions…..

The four cases briefly outlined [an unknown comedy of Menandro in the palimpsest Vat. sir. 623 by Francesco D’Aiuto; an autographed text of L’ateismo trionfato by Tommaso Campanella in Barb. lat. 4458 by Germana Ernst; a codex of polyphonic music from the 1500s in Vat. mus. 440 by Arnaldo Morelli and finally, the manuscript of Spinoza’s Ethics , by Leen Spruit and Pina Totaro] present common characteristics. In the processes of each, the elements for their discovery were basically known, visible, and before the eyes of everyone for some time. But to make them truly significant, to light the spark of novelty and discovery, they needed to be put together, to be interpreted, in other words, to make them eloquent through an intelligent reading. To use the ancient Augustinian formula, “accedit verbum ad elementum et fit sacramentum.” The material pre-exists, it is there, ready for whomever wants to handle it; but an external action is necessary, the “verbum”, astute and knowing, so that the “elementum” is transformed into “sacramentum.” Thus, in research, only intelligence (in a very limited measure helped by chance) can enable the discovery of something which, as in the 1992 case of the individuation by Michael McCormick of hundreds of Tironian notes and gloss in Latin and high-German amongst the lines of a celebrated Virgilian manuscript of late-antiquity, the Virgilio Palatino (Pal. lat. 1631), is under everybody’s nose, almost like Edgar Allen Poe’s stolen letter. In an age in which we are all less accustomed to searching because we are spoiled by the possibility of easy and immediate information retrieval without even having to leave our chairs; in the age of the Wikipedia , while worthy of merit and often very useful, and of ever more powerful research engines (which are the death not only of erudition but of research tout court and the consecration of retrieval without effort), the four cases of recent discoveries in the Vatican teach us the beauty, necessity and also the extraordinary potential of humble and tiring research, often not conducted through “remote links” but by assiduous physical presence in the libraries (alas, ever more deserted), amongst the stacks, still taking in hand inventories, paper, manuscripts and typescripts.

Therefore, let us return to frequenting libraries and archives, to re-considering (if possible) rhythms, requirements and modalities of academic life and university formation, to reserving more time for physical presence, one wants to say militancy in the field, in the places of memory. Then, libraries and archives really will reveal their secrets, that are not those imagined by Dan Brown, jealously kept from the eyes of others by a restricted caste of illuminati, but are, more simply, those that reveal themselves to the humble and tenacious researcher who still knows how to read, consult, compare and reflect.




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 28, 2020