The digitization of the incunabula of monastic libraries in Italy: the Polonsky Foundation's project with BNCR and CERL

Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma

16 aprile 2020 - DIgitalizzazione Incunaboli

F. Zabarella, Lectura [...] super Clementinis… (Rome: Lauer, 1477)
F. Zabarella, Lectura [...] super Clementinis… (Rome: Lauer, 1477)

The Central National Library of Rome has always played a leading role among Italian libraries in the census and the study of the printing of early books, starting with the publication, between 1943 and 1981, of the monumental General Index of the Incunabula of the libraries of Italy.

In the wake of this consolidated tradition, which has been enriched over time by numerous further experiences, such as the leading role in Italy for ISTC (Incunabula Short-Title Catalogue), the National Central Library of Rome, in collaboration with CERL – Consortium of European Research Libraries, and with the generous support of the Polonsky Foundation, is coordinating an ambitious project of digitisation and cataloguing of the incunables of the monastic libraries of the ‘National Monuments’.

These libraries are attached to abbeys and monasteries of great age and historical relevance. They preserve very rare material and are often geographically difficult to access.

The library of the Benedictine monastery of Santa Scolastica was singled out as the first such collection to be included in the project since it was here in the period between 1464 and 1467 that two German printers, Conrad Sweynheym and Arnold Pannartz, introduced the Ars artificialiter scribendi to Italy and produced what were the first Italian incunabula.

The digitization and enhanced cataloguing of the 206 incunabula held at the Monastery of Santa Scolastica in Subiaco have been conceived as part of a pilot module-based project focused mainly on the small collections found in public or ecclesiastical institutions or belonging to private individuals, which frequently contain rare material and are often difficult to access. In terms of issues of security, conservation and use, such collections often require special attention.

The research model guiding the project looks at multiple aspects of the 15th-century books which are its object – as material artefacts and as texts - and not only the books in themselves but all the documents which relate to them and to the collections where they are found - catalogues and inventories, manuscript copies used as copy-texts for printed editions, archival records.

The project has its own dedicated website, which connects the digital reproductions of the 206 incunabula, hosted in the digital repository of BNCR, with other relevant material such as printer’s manuscript copies, catalogues, etc., as well as with their descriptions in ISTC, GW, MEI, TEXT-inc, 15cILLUSTRATION, OPAC SBN, OPAC-BVE, for a comprehensive approach to editions and copies. Links to the digital versions can also be found in all the databases associated with the project, with the possibility of adding further links.

Moreover, the website includes several other digital outputs, such as a video on the invention of printing and the history of its introduction at Subiaco and another on the transmission of knowledge from manuscript to print; a video-story on the eleven libraries of the ‘Monumenti nazionali’, and blogs written by the researchers who have worked on the project, scientific essays and bibliography.