From Rome, Glittering Prizes

... Henceforward my heart shall be dedicated to you alone, with a strong desire that my body could also thus be dedicated ...

--HENRY VIII, King of England

In what is perhaps the most extensive interlibrary loan on record, the Vatican has sent 200 of its choicest maps, illuminated manuscripts, rare books and fine prints to Washington for "Rome Reborn," an exhibit at the Library of Congress through April 30. The $2 million project-paid for through private donations-reveals the Renaissance papal court at its most brilliant and cultivated. "The papacy's contribution to the visual arts is well known," says historian James Billington, the librarian of Congress. "But from this exhibit we can see that the Renaissance Vatican was also a patron of literature, music, science, scholarship and the life of the mind in general."

Here for the browsing is Henry VIII's historic response to Martin Luther's attack on the Catholic sacraments-a text illuminated by, of all things, a preening mermaid. Offering breathtaking examples of Renaissance multiculturalism in action, one whole section is devoted to the work of Matteo Ricci and his band of fellow Jesuits who went to China, became mandarins and eventually served as the senior scientific advisers to the court in Peking. There they mapped the world and the heavens for their hosts and rendered principles of Western science in impeccable Chinese. "These early Jesuits," says Declan Murphy, the Library of Congress's curator for the exhibit, "were probably the most remarkable group of men the West produced."

But most of the works on exhibit show the Vatican's role in the 15th century's recovery-and idealization-of classical Greek and Roman culture. There are translations, often illustrated with vibrant illuminations of scientific treatises by Euclid, Archimedes and Pliny as well as Ptolemy's map of Greece, refined and rendered in cobalt blue by Nicholas Germanus. Even Galileo, who was a longtime friend of Pope Urban VIII, contributes a historically important sketch of the sunspots he discovered. "The scientific revolution of the 17th century would have been impossible," Murphy observes, "Without the work the popes did to subsidize the recovery of ancient scientific texts."

The Vatican Library itself began in the Renaissance, but in recent centuries its contents have been treated almost like a household secret. Although the popes (several of whom were once Vatican librarians) have been loath to lend its many treasures, Rome could not turn down the Library of Congress. Between 1925 and 1939 experts from Washington helped Vatican librarians index, card and care for their collections. For the current exhibit, the Vatican permitted outside scholars to come and pick what should be shown. Princeton historian Anthony Grafton was astounded by what he saw: 150,000 manuscripts and early books-including 8,000 exceedingly rare incunabula, or books printed before 1500-written in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and early Slavonic.

"It's an ocean," says Grafton. "It's the greatest library of ancient classics and of the way they've been used through the centuries." One small specimen on display is a receipt for 12 borrowed volumes of canon law signed by the 16th century's great lawyer-saint, Cardinal Charles Borromeo. Another, too fragile to travel, is a text by Saint Thomas Aquinas, with corrections in his own hand. But there is much more. In Grafton's estimation, the Vatican's trove also contains "the greatest musical library there could be," and its 800 Hebrew manuscripts are "probably the greatest collection in the world."

But apart from those research scholars who own a Vatican library card and a ticket to Rome, very few people have read these gems. Father Boyle's dream is to put his entire collection on microfilm, thereby giving access to the world. Well, almost. Then, as now, the library's indexes will be in Latin.