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The Vergilius Vaticanus
Ancient world literature in late ancient pictures
Rom, Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana, Cod. Vat. lat. 3225, Italy, 4th or 5th century

CODICES SELECTI, Vol. LXXI

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Further Pictures

 

Vergilius Vaticanus is the best preserved example of a book illustrated in the Greco-Roman tradition and constitutes one of the oldest sources of Virgil’s great epic poem Aeneid. Made in Rome around 400 A.D., it also is the oldest of only three existing classical manuscripts containing illustrated classical literature.
The work is particularly valued for its rich decoration. The text is interspersed with 50 vivid miniatures which make the manuscript a sumptuous codex of the highest artistic value. Its exuberant colour illustrations show stunning parallels to Pompeian wall paintings which were derived from Greek models.
On 76 preserved leaves, Vergilius Vaticanus contains both fragments of Georgics, a didactic poem on agriculture, and of Aeneid and is considered to be one of the most authentic sources of Virgil’s texts. With this codex, we hold a precious luxury edition in our hands, which has been preserved to remind us of an author who like no other poet of classical Antiquity durably influenced our culture and has been read and discussed over and over again for many centuries.

A unique testimony to late Roman book illustration

The scriptorium where Vergilius Vaticanus was made united the most excellent experts in their field. The master scribe first copied the full text and designed the decoration by leaving space for a number of illustrations. His hand is characterised by an elegant version of capitales rusticae, a script frequently used for luxury codices of this epoch.
The miniatures were later inserted by three different painters who worked after iconographic copybooks. However, they not only copied these models but also completed them with ornate golden frames, artful landscape paintings as well as architectural and other details. The natural proportions and vivacity of the figures impress the reader as much as the relations in which they stand to each other. This is a well known feature of the classical style, best exemplified in the wall paintings of Pompeii.

One of the oldest versions of a Virgil text

In its current form, Vergilius Vaticanus comprises fragments of two enormously popular works of Greco-Roman times. Based on these fragments, it is possible to reconstruct the original volume. The book originally contained – as was common practice at this time – all canonical works of Virgil and must have counted approximately 440 leaves of text in all, interspersed with about 280 illustrations. In spite of this great number of illustrations, the codex had a handy format and constituted a most precious edition of Virgil’s work.
Virgil was one of the most popular authors of the Greco-Roman period. His Georgics were used for tuition in 19 BC long before his death and his Aeneid which was edited on the initiative of Caesar Augustus against Virgil’s last will immediately became a best-seller.
Although Virgil was also admired by and popular with Christian readers, Vergilius Vaticanus was probably commissioned by a member of a circle of pagan noblemen who wished to preserve the old tradition. The book was made for a demanding connoisseur whose pleasure in reading great literature was increased by the illustrations provided by the artists.

The commentary volume

The scholarly commentary to Vergilius Vaticanus was written by David H. Wright. It provides a general introduction to the manuscript and its environment, deals with its position in the history of art and analyses its codicological examination.

   
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