Inside the Snite Museum of Art, an exhibition of 12 printed books, maps and drawings from the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (Vatican Apostolic Library) offers the smallest of snapshots into one of the largest collections of stored knowledge in the world. Among the featured items: Galileo’s “Sidereus Nuncius,” the first publication of observations made through a telescope; an etching of a map of Rome printed in the middle of the 17th century; and a 16th-century Mass composed by Josquin des Préz, which represents the introduction of movable type for printing music.
The exhibition comes as the University of Notre Dame and the Vatican Library celebrate the formalization of an agreement that will allow for broad collaboration and unique access to the Library for Notre Dame researchers. A memorandum of understanding signed at a ceremony earlier this month spells out the agreement, the only one of its kind the Library has with an academic institution in North America.
“All of humanity should celebrate the Vatican Library for its mission to steward and protect the riches of global culture,” said University president Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. “Notre Dame shares this mission as we inculcate an appreciation for the pursuit of truth in our students.”
“The Vatican Library is a repository of all European learning, and in fact worldwide learning, from antiquity to present day,” said Margaret Meserve, associate professor of history and associate dean in the College of Arts and Letters. Meserve has made several dozen trips to the library to conduct her research, and while the vast expanse of knowledge contained there proved invaluable in the work, she recognizes there is a learning curve for scholars who are not as familiar with the library’s holdings and structure - something the agreement with Notre Dame can help shorten.
“When I think about future students, I think they’ll have an easier time than I did when I was a grad student, simply because of the implications of this agreement,” Meserve said.
While details of the agreement will develop over time, the chance for joint research projects is considerable given the Vatican Library’s holdings of some 80,000 manuscripts; 100,000 archival documents; 1.6 million printed books, including nearly 9,000 incunabula, 150,000 prints, thousands of drawings and plates; over 200,000 photographs; and 300,000 coins and medals, among other items.
Yet the vastness of the library’s holdings may not be widely known among today’s researchers, especially American researchers. The agreement helps the Vatican Library gain exposure to a new generation of scholars in North America. Such was the rationale for a conference held at Notre Dame earlier in the month titled “The Promise of the Vatican Library,” where international scholars gave examples of various research endeavors possible through the library. The Snite exhibition of the same name opened in conjunction with the conference, giving attendees and the public a chance to view some of the treasures of historical, liturgical and secular knowledge. Even while encased, seeing the works up close allows for a certain degree of interaction not possible by other means. One visitor to the exhibition viewed des Préz's composition and sang the tune accordingly, to the delight of the other patrons in the room.
“The idea is to celebrate the collections of the Vatican Library, but also to try to communicate to a new generation of American scholars what kind of resources the Vatican Library has, and how its collections can support research in an enormous range of disciplinary topics,” said Meserve.
Bridging the gap between campus and Rome is something Notre Dame is uniquely positioned to do because of the Rome Global Gateway, a 32,000 square-foot facility that serves as a hub supporting the academic, educational, and cultural mission of the University. In that facility, students and scholars are already working with the Vatican Library to pursue joint research projects. Ted Cachey, the inaugural academic director of the Rome Global Gateway, offers as an example the work of Alexander Beihammer, associate professor in the Department of History. Beihammer was awarded a Rome Global Gateway grant to study Byzantine manuscripts dating from 1204 to 1453, many of which have never been adequately explored.
“The Vatican Library is the most important library in Rome and one of the most important libraries in the world,” said Cachey. “Our plan is for the Rome Global Gateway to become a kind of staging area where scholarly and logistical support will be provided for scholars undertaking research in the Vatican Library collections. We've already seen an increase in the number of Notre Dame faculty and graduate students coming to work in the Vatican Library with the support of Rome Global Gateway short-term research fellowships.”
Back in South Bend, Notre Dame students could have access to digitized manuscripts that would not otherwise be widely available. While the partnership is still in the early stages, the shared mission between the two institutions is deep and significant.
“One of the distinctive goals of Notre Dame is to provide a forum where, through free inquiry and open discussion, the various lines of Catholic thought may intersect with all the forms of knowledge found in the arts, sciences, professions and every other area of human scholarship and creativity,” Father Jenkins said. “We believe that no genuine search for truth in the human or cosmic order is alien to the life of faith. We are grateful beyond measure for the existence of the Vatican Library, which allows scholars to pursue truth by studying the treasures of civilization.”
“The Promise of the Vatican Library” is on display through May 22, 2016, at the Snite Museum of Art. For more information, visit sniteartmuseum.nd.edu.