Priceless tomes in Italy hold key to European identity

Priceless tomes in Italy hold key to European identity
Roberto Antonelli, curator of the exhibition in Rome. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP
As Europe struggles with an identity crisis, a new exhibition in Rome looks at the birth of European culture through ancient manuscripts and the earliest printed books, including a first edition of Dante's Divine Comedy.

While mass migrant arrivals have fuelled xenophobia and threatened to undermine the EU's core values, the exhibition extols the melting pot of cultures which shaped Europe – beginning with the 13th century Italian poet, himself a political exile and migrant.

“The exhibition was designed to show that Europe means plurality of cultures because, with the Mediterranean Sea, it was at the junction of three continents (Africa, Asia and Europe),” curator Roberto Antonelli told AFP.

“It is no coincidence that so many cultures and languages crossed here,” he said at a presentation to the press ahead of the show's opening on Thursday.

Nearly 190 works are displayed in the library of the prestigious Lincean Academy in Rome's Trastevere district, a science academy founded in 1603 and named after the lynx, an animal with the sharp vision science demands.

Books, manuscripts, codices and encyclopedias in Latin, Greek, Chaldean, Arabic and Hebrew, borrowed from Roman and Vatican libraries, are on display in over 40 display cases – eight of which are bulletproof.

They show “that it is culture which unites us as Europeans. That is the strong message which emerges from the exhibition, even more than its great scientific value,” said Rosanna Rummo, head of Italy's state libraries.

Electrode helmet

“Books that have made Europe”, which runs until July 22nd, boasts tomes by rival theological masters Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome, as well as an imposing 12th-century “Atlantic” bible weighing 18 kilos.

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, culture in Europe developed and spread for over 1,000 years largely through ecclesiastical institutions, with the bible “a leading source of inculturation” – the way Church teachings are presented to non Christian cultures.

Particularly rare items include Pliny the Elder's Natural History encyclopedia – which covered everything from cosmology to geography and nature, including mythical species such as men with dog's heads.

“There are 120 works physically present here and 60 others appear in photographs loaned by the Vatican library. There are manuscripts from the 8th century to printed works from the 16th,” Antonelli said.

And stepping back into the 21st century, visitors are given the chance to wear a special helmet with electrodes which measures their emotional experience.

“Using this helmet you can see how the brain is activated according to the emotion a particular text causes,” Antonelli said, explaining that visitors will be able to see their reactions captured on a digital screen.

“If these manuscripts teach us anything today, it's that Europe's wealth lies in the plurality of its cultures,” he said.

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