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Marco Buonocore

In a world where image has now become the dominating vehicle of culture, where everything must first be "seen" and then "read", one is always affected by how the images of our past may have passed the test of time and judgement: hands which write, hands which paint, hands which transmit the universal values of the history of humanity; it is our task, re-discovering them, to transmit them as still timely to future generations. And this reflection becomes even more pressing following the truly extraordinary success of public and the consensus of the critics received by the international exhibition (October 1996/July 1997) held in the Sistine Room of the Vatican Apostolic Library, an initiative included in the cycle of exhibitions organised to determine the relation between Christianity and the classical world and to define how Greek-Roman culture was safeguarded and transmitted to Western civilisation thanks to the work of scribe monks.

The exhibition ("Seeing the Classics", with 157 manuscripts, 29 of which from other Italian and foreign institutions), the only one in its kind until now and which focuses very concretely on the relation between Letters and Faith, offers a path to follow in the future to establish the fundamental moments of the complex and fascinating "librarian history of the Latin and Greek classics", trying to recover that balanced relation between the general vision and the specialist vision of problems; the manuscripts examined managed to fully summarise what were the main descriptive co-ordinates represented in close connection not only with the text itself, but also, and I would say not of secondary importance seeing the nature of the contents, with the commentary and annotation, in coercive parallelism with a particular order, a precise iconographic fashion, a defined editorial programme. The picture which was represented thus provided the rhythms of philology, the way in which, backed by the careful recording of the annotation to the text or by the comparisons of indirect tradition, it can be an indispensable instrument to work a correct exegesis of the depicted transmission, to whose didactic also the complex experience of the history of ancient art intervenes.

And even if it was not possible to exhibit all that one would have liked to recover, what is being proposed fully fulfilled the task that had been set, that is, to contribute in the definition of the theme in question: that is, "seeing the classics"; keeping in mind that although the ancient civilisations had perceived the substantial difference between depicted and written tradition noting the increased communication effectiveness of the latter compared to the former, for Lucian, for example, one should not have disregarded the ability of visualising also in the historian, who to become "the Phidias of history" was to ensure that that the listener had what was being narrated to him practically "below his eyes", or for Plutarch, according to whom the best historian was that who managed to make his own narration similar to a painting, through a vivid representation of emotions and characters.

And it is at this point that one can make a comparison with the epic poetry represented naturally by Virgil and Homer (and with them the Ovid of the Metamorphosis), the Statius of Thebaid, Silius Italicus, Lucanus and Lucretius), with sections dedicated to subjective poetry (Ovid of the Heroides and of the Ars amatoria, Horace, Persius and Propertius) and to the theatre (Plautus, Terentius and Seneca); then with the wide range of historians who along with Caesar, Curtius Rufus, Sallust, Justin, the Historia Augusta and many others would allow the verification of the great illustrated tradition of Titus Livius. Then oratory, grammar and philosophy. There are two other well defined sections: the first dedicated to the Geography of Ptolemy which once more with the grandiose artefacts presented invites us to recover what was his editorial explosion in the XV century; the second dedicated to science, or more precisely to medical-natural and physical-mathematical sciences: it starts with the Latin translation of the three Aristotelian treaties De historia animalium with the splendid frame of the Vatican Latin Code 2094 which reproduces Aristotle intent in observing and describing the living species, from man to insects, which are being offered around him precisely as "models"; doubtless, in this splendid illuminated frame, are the iconographic contaminations with the biblical theme of the Creation and of Eden, an irreconcilable theme with the authentic Aristotelian doctrine of the world's eternity and the perennial alternating of the species, but here certainly induced by the Christian-medieval realisation of the doctrines of Aristotle and re-proposed in homage to Pontiff Sisto IV, recipient of the code; Aristotle appears as scriba naturae in the way of a Moses as scriba Dei: the spring clearness of the natural context and the harmonic community between the human couple (which has the typical stylistic element of an Adam and Eve) and the peaceful group of animals evoke an atmosphere of Eden-like peace. From this needed ouverture we move to the witnesses of the herbarium of Dioscorides, head of the modern pharmacopoeia, to those of the great naturalist encyclopaedia of Pliny, and with them Columella and Palladius, then the codes with the Geometry represented from the highest works of the ancient, the Elementa of Euclid, thus the codes which transmit to us the highest forms of development in geometry, such as the vision and perspective, its developments in astronomy, represented by the masterpiece of Ptolemy, that Almagest which was the greatest ancient mathematical work; finally the treaties of astrology, with fascinating pictorial representations of the celestial sphere and the zodiac, witnessed by Ptolemy himself and by Aratus, those of architecture with Vitruvius, of hydraulics and pneumatics by Heron, of the military sciences with Vegetius and of the war machines.

But the luck of this exhibition (which is supported by a significant volume richly illustrated which remains an indispensable reading instrument) is another further invitation to meditate on how classical culture can be a reason to study certain themes regarding man. The study of the ancient Latin and Greek authors, certainly not epidermic, but meditated, subject to the needed controls, supported by the clear textual intelligence, can always provide a reason of growth in the person; as that never collapsed human knowledge, those bases of knowing how to live in each of us, cannot be recognised in many statements of our own maiores? Timely, for example, is the image of Seneca, a great personality of the past open to dialogue and the confrontation of ideas, who saw men, in the providential design of nature, always projected to building, mutually supporting each other like the bricks of a time, that only agreed construction of humanity in which everyone feels protected and in turn protector, all necessary each one with his own identity.

And of this universal cultural inheritance, which is inexorably dissolving itself (school is the first among those responsible), I believe the praise rendered to the Vatican exhibition is the best proof, of how all our past should not be forgotten; we know how many hands and how many monastic libraries since their creation managed to take away from loss and oblivion the huge treasures of ancient authors, not only transcribing and transmitting them but also studying them for the detailed explanations of the masters to their students. Thanks to the silent and sometimes unknowing work of the Church, it has been possible to recover that ancient part which despite being unique will never be able to be considered a concluded fact without elements of continuity with the present.

The desire to read, study, assimilate a patrimony which has a history of 2000 years should never be lost; a moment for its obliteration should never be looked for. Rather, in such a contingent occasion, this "re-discovery" of the classical world, in a reality which today, on the threshold of the third millennium, exists with all its problems, its questions, its uncertainties, its convictions, its hopes, is indicative of how such a culture still exercises great fascination. It would be a forcing not to work to conserve it, cultivating the necessary means for its de-codification on those, and they are truly many, still capable of wanting to understand and appreciate its content: in the event of working to reduce it to a pure anthological exercise without being able to recover the correct textual co-ordinates, or even wanting to eliminate it completely.

The Church must continue to realise this universal inheritance, as it has done, taking on the duty of working in the firm defence of supporting the study and research, even if it were the last Thule.