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Renaissance in Washington : 'Rome' Exhibit Is Largest Trove Ever Loaned by the Vatican


WASHINGTON — By the time of the Renaissance, the once great Imperial City of Rome had decayed into a mean, ravaged village of 20,000 people living around the deserted ruins of the Roman Empire.

When the Popes came back from Avignon in southern France, they decided to rebuild the city. In doing so, they ushered in a magnificent era of art and artifact and restored greatness to the ancient city. With the rebirth of Rome came a library as well. Pope Nicholas V decided to found a public library for "the court of Rome."

That became the Vatican Library, now one of the richest collections in the world, a treasure that includes 60,000 manuscripts handworked before the era of printing and 8,000 books printed before 1500 in the first decades of the press. Some of the most stunning examples have been loaned by the Vatican for a rare and extraordinary exhibit at the Library of Congress in Washington called "Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library & Renaissance Culture."

The exhibit is the first of a series on the great libraries of the world that James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, is planning to bring to Washington every two years. "The idea is that we ought to celebrate the Library of Congress as a world library," he says, "and demonstrate the sense of solidarity of the human adventure."

After the Vatican exhibit, Billington is planning a show of treasures from the Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris in 1995 and, after that, he hopes to show books and manuscripts from the National Library of Korea and the National Library of Mongolia. "Nobody knows about the Mongolian library," he notes, "but they took back a lot of books after the Mongol invasions.

"I guess I picked on the Vatican Library first," Billington, a scholar of Russian history, explains, "because I had worked in it. I found extraordinary things of early Russian history there. So I figured if I could find these there must be even greater treasures."

The Vatican does not like to let its precious manuscripts and rare books out of its library. In fact, it has never loaned so large a trove of its works before and may never do so again.

When Billington made his original request of Father Leonard E. Boyle, the Canadian prefect of the Vatican Library, he found to his surprise that the Vatican Library felt an obligation to the Library of Congress.

"Lo and behold, forgotten by all of us at the Library of Congress, we had helped the Vatican Library catalogue its books many years ago," Billington says. "That proved a valuable argument. They, in effect, owed us one."

In the early years of this century, the Vatican Library, despite all its treasures, was looked on as an amateurish operation. Gen. William Barclay Parsons of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, writing a book in 1925 on engineering in the Renaissance, tried to research the subject in the Vatican Library. Yet, though the Vatican Library was reputed to have a wealth of material on the subject, most of it was impossible to find because the library lacked a catalogue and any modern system of classification.

At the urging of Gen. Parsons, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace financed a program from 1926 to 1939 to help the Vatican Library catalogue and classify its materials. Under the program, the Library of Congress trained two members of the Vatican staff in Washington and dispatched the head of its catalogue department to Rome.

Father Boyle says the loan of the works to the Library of Congress was "an attempt on the part of the Vatican Library at a distance of over 60 years to express its gratitude."

The Vatican Library even loaned one of its greatest treasures, the Urbino Bible, a two-volume parchment manuscript completed in 1478. "That is the single most beautiful book ever created by man," Billington says. "It took three years to make, and there is a Renaissance painting on every page."

The materials at the Library of Congress add new texture to the history of the Vatican. One section, for example, deals with the relationship of the Popes to the intellectual movement of Renaissance Italy known as humanism. The humanists, believing that all the secrets of ethical life lay in the Greek and Roman classics, hunted for all the relics of the classical age.

It was fashionable to think Greek and Roman in those days. Architects studied the ancient ruins. Scholars scoured the monasteries of Europe for classic manuscripts. Soldiers delved into Roman military history. Farmers perused classical agricultural handbooks. The works of orator Cicero were hailed as the model for the finest Latin rhetoric. Admirers of Cicero carried their adulation to such an extreme that they began calling God Jupiter Optimus Maximus. The humanists, supported by the Popes, believed that the fascination with the classics signaled the end of the Dark Ages and the onset of the Renaissance.

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