Lux in Arcana

By Jenny Weston

As a researcher of medieval manuscripts it can often be difficult to explain the nature of the job, particularly to those who do not share the same passion. When asked the inevitible question: “What is it that you actually…do?” I often test the waters with the simplest answer: I study twelfth-century manuscripts and medieval reading culture (cue sympathetic nodding as they slowly back away). While my research is exciting, it sometimes requires a little boost to emphasize its more thrilling side: “I study thousand-year old books!”; “I unveil secret ancient methods of reading on a daily basis!”; “I solve the mysteries of the medieval mind through unique research methods!” Indeed, it can be difficult to vocalize the exhilarating nature of manuscript research.

I was thus delighted to come across a recent promotion for the Vatican Library’s most recent exhibition titled “Lux in Arcana: Vatican Secret Archives Reveals Itself.” Hosted by the Capitoline Museums in Rome (from March until September 2012), the Lux in Arcana exhibition promises to unveil 100 documents from the pope’s “secret archive.” Perhaps one of my favourite aspects of the exhibition, however, is the promotional video they created to publicize the event, which definitely helps to invigorate the reputation of the manuscript scholar by making the study of old documents appear mysterious, intense, exciting, and ultimately a great way to spend your time (the best part of the video is definitely the rapid-fire ‘folio-flipping’ at the end, accompanied by a scary gothic choir).

While I’ve never walked in slow motion through an archive or had a choir singing in my office while I worked, I feel as though this video is an apt representation of what we do here in Leiden or at least how we feel about our jobs.

I also think that the exhibition will garner a great deal of positive public interest toward the study of manuscripts, as it presents a rich collection of documents involving some of the most famous names in history, such as Mary Stuart’s final letter before her execution by Queen Elizabeth, a letter by Henry VIII requesting the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the conviction of Galileo, a note from Marie Antoinette while in prison, proceedings from the Inquisition, a letter from Michelangelo, and a document reporting Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World  (and the list goes on).

So if you find yourself in Rome this summer hankering for a little taste of the manuscript world, consider visiting this special exhibition while you can. Who knows, you might be so inspired by these amazing documents that you will drop everything and pursue an academic career in manuscript research (and maybe even convince a choir to sing while you work in the library).

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