When a Manuscript is a Museum

We are in Venice, standing by the Grand Canal on a sunlit, choppy morning and I am having a moment of identification with a 10th century Byzantine scribe.  So bear with me here for a moment because this doesn’t happen very often.

It all begins with a beautiful, book-y story that is woven through the history of Venice;  and that goes like this.  The Cardinal Bessarion was a Greek who was born on the edge of the Black Sea way back in the 15th century. When he saw that the city of Constantinople couldn’t survive he brought his collection of Greek manuscripts here to Venice, chief amongst them being an exquisite 10th century version of the Iliad, copied out by a scribe in the time of the scholar emperor, Constantine VII.

The manuscript is so rare (like the manuscript equivalent of the last tiger) that it lives alone in an air-conditioned vault, only a few metres from where we are standing, which is outside the Biblioteca Marciana.  Only a handful of people have ever seen it – though there are images of it online.  It is called the Venetus A.

Two decades later a printer called Aldus Manutius comes to Venice and sets up a printing house to print the Greek and Roman classics, like the Venetus A.  With him is his typesetter, a man called Francisco Griffo, artistic enough to create typefaces of great beauty but bloodthirsty enough to bludgeon his son-in-law to death with an iron bar. (Manutius also invented the semi-colon;  I like it a lot.)

Venetus A revised
It was Manutius who first interested me – my father was a maverick printer with a thing for Renaissance printers so printing haunted my childhood – but it was a glimpse online of pages from the Venetus A that really entranced me.  Look at the image just above these words and you’ll see that each page is a miracle of 10th century information technology.

There is the creamy surface of the parchment, the text of the poem running down the page in one kind of handwriting, the titles in their red-brown ink, the scholia (the scholarly notes) in a different handwriting, forming a deep band on three sides out of four, like a deep band on a length of woven fabric.  All this the scribe had to lay out without ever making a mistake and yet he was so confident of fitting it all in and making it look beautiful that he sometimes laid out the scholia in the shape of a cross or a column.

The manuscript is 1,000 years old;  the scholarly notes which discuss variants on the text are more than 2,000 years old;  and the poem itself is more than 3,000 years old, going back (in parts) to the Bronze Age.  So the whole thing is a museum inside a manuscript.

And why my moment of delighted identification?

Because if you are reading this posting on an iPad or a laptop (this isn’t true if you are reading it on a phone) you’ll see that the shape of this web page is largely similar to the Venetus A. The main body of my text runs downwards, whilst the Twitter feed, the History of the Museum, all the metadata – our equivalent of scholarly notes – occupy their own band to the right.  As with the 10th century manuscript your eyes are meant to look both down the page and sideways across it.

Now this is a common way to lay out websites and I doubt that the Museum of Marco Polo’s designers and programmers knew about the Venetus A. (Take a bow here, Su Koh, designer at Metaphor and David Williams and Tracy Miles from Somerton Computing.)  But even so I am charmed to see how my 21st century website echoes the form of a 10th century manuscript.  And I am doubly charmed because I spend a lot of time standing up for websites, arguing that they’re an art form (my friends are mostly into books) so it is nice to be able to say,

‘It’s true this may not be a book, but –  more interestingly – it’s like a 10th century Byzantine manuscript.’

But there is something else going on here, as well as a visual coincidence.   When the 10th century scribe laid out his text he was still living in the old, oral world, a world that predates the world of printing. It was a world of many voices and many opinions, and the scribe included them all on the page. But when Manutius started printing two decades later he laid out his texts in two simple columns, and discarded all the scholia and with them all the different voices and variants on the text. Thus he ushered in a new world in which there was only one expert voice and only one right version of the text.  Manutius wanted you to read downwards and onwards and nowhere else;  the scribe wanted you to read sideways as well.

It’s a world of the expert voice in which we still live, the same world that made museums, but it’s a world that may not be around for long, since many people believe that the internet is returning us to the old, oral world, a world of many opinions but no one right one, the world of the 10th century scribe.

The image at the top of this page shows the street in Venice close to the Campo di San Agostino where Manutius is said to have had his workshop.