Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Vergilius Romanus or, The Roman Vergil

The Vergilius Romanus is one of the oldest surviving witnesses to classical literature, having been dated to the latter half of the fifth century. Moreover, it is the oldest complete witness of Vergil’s Aeneid and Georgics, making it a crucial link to the one of the most influential authors in the western world. The manuscript is written on 325mm (about 13”) square parchment in rustic capitals with a medial punctus separating words. The manuscript is illuminated, with flat, linear illustrations unlike other more more naturalist classical painters.

The Vergilius Romanus is housed in the Vatican Library, catalogued as Cod. Vat. Lat. 3867, where it was brought from St. Denis, Paris, some time in the early 15th century. Beyond that, its provenance is uncertain.

As an aspiring classicist with a particular love of the Aeneid, these manuscripts from late antiquity fascinate me to no end. This and the two other Vergil manuscripts, which are housed in the Vatican, are our closest ties to the Roman author and are strong examples of just how delicate our ties to the past can be. Though the Vergilius Romanus is the most complete of the three, all of them show significant wear, as might be expected from a 1500+ year history, and with large swaths of its history unaccounted for, we are fantastically lucky to still have it. These manuscripts are the closest relics we have to Vergil himself. There are even illustrations of the poet confined in the codex, and although those pages weren’t painted until more than four centuries after his death, seeing his depiction creates a personal connection which causes me to cherish his works that much more.

The age of the physical artifact also reminds of the age of the words within, and in doing so creates a line from antiquity to the modern. When I study the works of Vergil, I am studying the same works as folks from antiquity, like the ones who commissioned this codex to be written and illustrated. It is one thing to understand this academically, but when I look at the manuscript, I am looking at the exact same text as these folks from the 5th century and onward. We may not know who held this manuscript for a thousand years following its composition, but it was held by someone who read it and understood it like us, and so we are connected to not only the author, but to every person who handled it and was influenced by it along the way. This manuscript is an embodiment of what the written word is for mankind, a bridge between different worlds, different people, and different times.

When looking at manuscripts like this, I have a tendency to read what I see aloud to get a feel for the text. It’s a way of familiarizing myself with the script and getting a sense of how it might have been read initially. It grants historical context. With poetry especially, this really helps emphasize the verbal component of these works. Though at first the letters may be difficult, with practice reading out loud the flow becomes apparent and the singsong rhythm leaps from the page almost more readily than the words themselves.

On folio 74v, Venus is depicted revealing herself to Aeneas, and it demonstrates a discernible shift in style from the typical Roman depictions, which are much more realistic, showing the body’s contours and shading. When I first saw the illustrations I did not think they were Roman, and according to Ken Dark as published by British Archaeology, they are most likely not, instead being more likely to come from Britain. And although it does not have the same refined curves and proportions which grant dimension, it bears its own beauty. I’m reminded much of later manuscripts, even as far forward as the 15th and 16th centuries, with the way the figures stand and the simplicity with which the face is depicted, either from head on or in profile. It’s curious seeing Venus depicted in this style, which I would be much more likely to associate with biblical figures. Indeed, her haloed and winged form seems to imply Christian influence, which is not something I associate with Britain that early in time. With Christianity well established all throughout the Roman empire, it is not surprising that the church was influential in the area. If it did originate in Britain, this would be the oldest surviving manuscript from the region, and if the work is so influenced by Christian tradition then it is fine evidence of the church’s role in bringing the codex to Britain.

The historical context implied is also of great interest. If the book is from late fifth century Britain then it was made within a century of Rome’s loss of control in the region. The continued influence and accepted value of Vergil’s works which would allow for the creation of this text is testament to what Rome brought to Britain, and what Vergil brought to Rome.

In 2014 the Vatican Library began the process of digitizing a large portion of its manuscripts. Though the Vergilius Romanus has not been digitized, its cousin the Vergilius Vaticanus has been. Created a bit earlier than the Vergilius Romanus, the Vaticanus demonstrates a similar script, having also been written in rustic capitals. If the Vatican Library doesn’t digitize the Romanus soon, examining the Vaticanus will at least give a similar sense of history and allow you to see the script in detail. I don’t know if the Romanus is up for digitization, but I certainly hope so. Otherwise, you may be able to find facsimiles if you dig hard enough, such as John Wright’s The Roman Vergil and the Origins of Medieval Book Design (2002), which provides reproductions of a number of the folia.


  1. One of the things that interests me the most about the Vergilius Romanus manuscript is its origin and journey before arriving in France. There is no definitive information regarding its true origins, some even speculate that it may have originated in Ireland because of textual similarities to Irish commentaries on the texts. However one of the more commonly accepted theories is that it originated in Britain. A few aspects of the manuscript lend support to this theory. Not only are this manuscript’s illustrations beautiful, they also lend clues to its history. As Liam mentioned, the illustrations represent a break with the more realistic Roman style but two later, probably 5th century, styles. The depiction of Venus revealing herself to Aeneas, folio 74v does seem to suggest a Christian influence, although she is wearing traditional Roman dress. It is interesting to consider the cultural impact of Virgil in the 5th century especially in respect to the Christian tradition. Although Virgil himself was not Christian and does acknowledge the existence of many gods, it seems the work resonates with the Christian ideals of obeying heavenly command above all and eschewing the temptations of the mortal world in favor of single minded determination to serve the will of the gods. We may never know the true origins and details of the Virgilius Romanus’s journey, but this manuscript lends a fascinating look at the evolution of bookmaking techniques and the influence that Rome held even in regions no longer part of its empire, if this manuscript did indeed originate in Britain.

  2. I find it interesting that although the Vergilius Romanus is such an important book, the illuminations included are poorly done, with inaccurate portrayals of the human body. If this book was so important, why was such an amateur artist hired to illuminate it? Obvious assumptions revolve around the owner of the book having a low monetary status, but this does not make sense because of the gold trim around the edges of the pages. Another answer could be that, since the illuminations were done by two artists, the second artist was an apprentice to the first artist and was given the rare opportunity to help illuminate the book, maybe as a reward for something or as practice for future illuminations. Whatever the case, my point is that it seems unlikely that such an amateur artist would be allowed to illuminate the book if it was that important. So even though we hold the Vergilius Romanus to such a high level of importance today, how important was it actually at that point in time, and what evidence could be provided to prove that level of importance?

  3. @Tagendk: The 'accuracy' of portrayals of the human body is a complex topic. If artists had no access to dissection experiences, or to models by those, like the Geeeks, who had, it was hard to conceptualize shoulders and hips, in particular, because of their unique structural qualities, and those of the overlayered muscles surrounding them, running in all directions, which afford the widest possible range of motion. Even Piero della Francesca, whom no-one I know of considers a slouch, gets the shoulders wrong in the Fogg's 'Hurcules,' a thousand years later. Artistry is not only or ever to do with making a 'photographic reproduction' (our modern term), but with balancing many aspects of the visual elements used to create a coherent piece of work.
    We want to be able to evaluate a work on its own terms, to see what the artist's intention was and discern how they sought to fulfill it. Perhaps this artist's interest was in creating an active, well-contrasted balance of pertinent objects on the page--as in the illustration of the flute-player for the Georgics in this work--some (like Weitzman) have even surmised that the model for that piece was the panoply of objects seen as if "strewn about" in some Roman floor mosaics. In that case, they fulfilled their intentions rather well, did they not? I, too, note the slipped shoulder in the listener's pose, to the right in this piece, and figure that, since dissection was disallowed for several centuries, the artist did their best (Note the aulist's shoulder is more successfully realized, but that was a stock figure in pottery and other decorative works, so it may have been eadier to come by a model for that presentation...) Best--DLa Rue