research practice: 3,5 hours per day to study 3000 manuscript pages

Cassino is a town in the Italian province Frosinone. It’s halfway between Rome and Naples – the train from Rome’s Termini station reaches Cassino in just 90 minutes (if you’re lucky). Travelling south from Rome, the landscape changes from the modest hills of Rome to the far more ‘serious’ mountains that surround Cassino. The village lies in a valley, like Florence you might say, although the valley here is smaller, which means the mountains are closer by. Right next to Cassino is a steep and high mountain slope, where a road with some tricky hairpin turns leads to the monastery uphill. It takes just 12 minutes by car, but your ears pop halfway the route because of the height – it’s over 500 meters. The famous abbey is visible from the entire town, and actually, straight from the kitchen window of the B&B where I’m staying. From the top, you have an incredible view of the entire valley.

Montecassino abbey (source: wikimedia commons)

Montecassino is a famous monastery where the monks live and work by the rule of Saint Benedict. The saint actually founded the convent here, as an example for his followers, and died here as well. His tomb, together with that of his sister Scholastica, is in the crypt of the abbey church. Benedict actually wrote the rule here, with the famous theme ‘pray and work’ (ora et labora). Benedictine monks can combine these obligations in their scientific study of holy scripture (the Bible and texts by theologians like the church fathers), and especially in the scriptorium, where they can compose manuscripts. I am reading Benedict’s rule these days and it’s a very interesting publication to read. Benedict leaves some important parts of the way of monastic life open, but is very detailed when it comes to punishing monks who do not respect the rule.

A key moment in the history of the abbey is 1944, when allied forces bombed the abbey, preventing it from possibly being a perfect hiding place for the enemy. It was a strange bombing, because the action was announced to the benevolent citizens of Cassino and to the monks. This enabled the monks to secure some works of art, and in particular the valuable manuscripts. The abbey was entirely reconstructed, and re-opened in the sixties.

I have an appointment with the archivist this morning, to study some of the manuscripts. Once inside the monastery, I have to cross two courtyards to get to the door of the archive. The archive has a small study room, which is more convenient than you might think, because the entire abbey is modern. In fact, I made today’s appointment by e-mail, and the archivist replied within the hour. So much for the medieval ‘feeling’. The archive is only open in the morning, for 3,5 hours, which means there’s no time to lose. Already on the table are 8 codices, which I came for. A video of the study room and the archivist is online (codex 99 has nothing to do with my research, but the clip remains interesting).

In front of me is are illustrated manuscripts from the second half of the seventeenth century, written by a Spanish Benedictine monk and artist – Juan Ricci de Guevara – who had travelled from Barcelona to Rome on a theological mission, and eventually could not return to Spain, and moved in at Montecassino. Rumour has it that because of his age, he was c. 65 years old upon arrival, he ‘retired’ here. Yet the evidence tells something else. His manuscripts count 3000 pages in total, which means that if he wrote every day for the rest of his life, he wrote 1 page every 2 days. This might not sound very surprising, were it not that the work is highly scientific: it discusses all kinds of disciplines (f.e. theology, philosophy, architecture, medicine, rhetorics, mathematics) in a proper ‘AcVa’-way, which means, with references. The material is fascinating, and has almost never been studied before. That’s why I’m researching this captivating contrareformist world of ideas, seen through the lense of an a-typical Benedictine.

To give an example of the question I’m currently dealing with : have a look at the image of one of the manuscripts below. You can see the handwritten text in brown ink, which clearly deals with mathematics (necessary knowledge for an early-modern artist who wants to master the art of prespective), divided over two columns for each page in a proper medieval way. But if you zoom in a little, you can see that Ricci used the margins for another text, written in black ink. There are even little sketches between the lines. Well, I’m tackling the problem as we speak, and I have a slight clue what it might be about. I hope to find more sources the coming days to see whether my hypothesis could be right. (Martijn van Beek)

manuscript written by Juan Ricci de Guevara, Montecassino archives




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