As ugly a phrase ‘purpose of visit’ is, it plays a crucial role in the perception of place. It brings along a pre-set agenda and feelings consequent to this agenda. But there exist no purposeless visits – purposelessness is a purpose too. Several binaric opposites stand as a derivation of the other by being oppositional. What we know of darkness, we know as a lack of light. But that is different from purposelessness also being a purpose of visit. In spite of knowing purposelessness as a lack of purpose, we understand purposelessness – a lack of a definite agenda – also as a purpose of visit. When not on business, we’re on holiday. When not on holiday, we’re wandering or on transit or happened to be there by chance. Every purpose – whether coincidentally or incidentally chosen or thrust upon – comes with a self-fulfilling reflex. Whether the purpose is completely, partially or scarcely estimated to be fulfilled is a question to be answered by the visitor.
The trip to Vercelli was a well-planned trip made available to the medieval studies students of the English Philology department at the University of Göttingen. This yearly trip, facilitated in partnership with the Archivio e Biblioteca Capitolare in Vercelli also involves students and teachers from University College London. Even though the trip had a specific purpose – to interact with manuscripts and the medieval written word, and gain practical experience in medieval studies and palaeography – it did not confine us to the walls of the archive. Rather, it took us out of the limits of Vercelli and deep within it; into words and notations of different languages from different ages; into a different commerce of parchment making and writing; down spiral staircases where bones of ancient men and remains of fallen churches lie quietly in display.
Vercelli, a small town situated between Turin and Milan, in Piedmont, Italy, in spring, has little movement. It seems that the air is thick in the mornings, heavy on your shoulders as you walk out. The cobbled pathways touch your feet through your soles, shaping them. The town springs from the centre and flows into quiet little avenues or other squares. In every avenue, walls rise above you, close to you on both sides. Sometimes they close in on you, become narrower – an indication, my mother once told me, for more care. But mostly, they seem to laze in the air, corroding a little with every day but also made anew with the flowers that hang on their balconies along with nightdresses of people like us, or the lucky sight of a smoker on the balcony or a woman on the telephone, smiling. One can get caught in the maze – the typical north Italian houses, parts of Roman walls and quaint restaurants could be the same ones around every corner. The Italians sipping on their appretivo could be the same ones, with the same dogs. The appetite of the town for everyday is similar and is consumed at a similar pace. We, the visitors, are the panters who run late, sweat and apologise.
During siesta, when everything (almost) is cleared away, the maze is more prominent. Now, you are lost again, in this too – silence in the afternoon. The sun blares aloud between walls – its presence fumes from every surface. It seems that hay ought to be made when the sun shines but it is also spatially soothing to know that, now, within some walls, something pleasant, familial and intimate is underway. That now, they can all sit or breathe, more for themselves.
Vercelli, in medieval times, was a town of scholarship, religion and war. It fell into the hands of ‘barbarian invasions’ in 500c, was destroyed by the Lombard ruler Alboin in 600c, suffered during the conquest of the Lombard conquest by Charlemagne in 774c, was invaded and destroyed by the Huns in 899c, etc., It was forced to rapidly shift loyalties, falling into the hands of the Lombards and powerful Visconti families; becoming a part of the dukedom of Savoy in 1427c, etc., But Vercelli’s constants in between all its transience was its scholarship – then closely tied to religion and the church. As early as 370c, Saint Eusebius, the patron saint and founder of the diocese of Vercelli, founded its first scriptorium. The scriptorium not only produced books but also collected them, along with parchments or rotuli as gifts from other scriptoriums or travelling poets and scholars. The MS A – the Codex Vercellensis, dated back to ca. 370 AD, was written under the guidance of Saint Eusebius in Vercelli and is one of the oldest compilations of the Christian gospels in Latin. The Vercelli Book (MS CXVII), one of the four surviving old English codices is assumed to have arrived in Vercelli between the 10th and 11th centuries, from south east England. In the recent years, several works that originated or found a home in Vercelli have been re-discovered, restored, digitized and read through modern multispectral scans, making it possible to revisit the works with more clarity. It can be vouched for, by both scholars of medieval studies and the locals of town that, Vercelli still stands as a centre of scholarship and learning.
During our time at the archives, we were exposed to several manuscripts, parchments and rotuli, such as the precious MS A – The Codex Vercellensis, MS CII – Liber definitionum scientiarum and MS CII – Etymologiae by Isidore of Seville, MS CXVII – Vercelli Book, MS Rotulus 1 – The Ecclesia Roll, etc., One of the manuscripts that immediately caught my attention was the MS C – Evangeliary. As the name suggests, the manuscript contains accounts from the four gospels of the Bible, depicting the primary events in the life of Jesus Christ. The manuscript, which has now been separated from its rich binding (displayed in the Museo del Tesoro del Duomo), remains as separate, discontinuous folios. From a superficial, initial interaction with the folios, one can observe the condition of the parchments to be of a good quality. Damage to the folios as a result of time are visible in the gothic Latin text, with evident fading of text and ink corrosions. Most folios have intricate illuminations that depict an important event in the life of Christ, such as the Nativity, Annunciation, Crucifixion, Pentecost, the Last Supper, betrayal at the garden of Gethsemane, etc., Colours such as gold, black, green, orange and blue are the primary colours used in the illuminations. There is evidence of pigment decay and seeping of colour to the other side of the folio behind several illuminations, especially those that use the colour black. Apart from the primary pictorial illuminations of the manuscript, one can also find decorated initials at the beginning of text sections.
The MS C is a statement of early Christian understanding of the rhetoric of Christ’s redemption. It helps us understand the role that the church played in the propagation of this rhetoric. The illuminations themselves are made of incongruent symmetry – there is always an overflow of the picture out of the illuminated frame. The illuminations that contain Christ with his twelve apostles, be it in the garden of Gethsemane or at the Last Supper, show them knit together – many bodies drawn with the same lines, cheeks pressed together and arms mangled – but the halos make a distinction. In most illuminations, this divide between the divine and the human is made, not to alienate but to provide a heavenly assurance.
In the illumination of the Last Supper, placed directly above that of Christ washing the feet of his disciples, we see the hand of Christ feeding the second disciple on his right with a piece of bread. The scene is filled with both intimacy and grief and shows Judas Iscariot grabbing a knife in his hand. In the illumination with Christ washing the feet of his disciples, we see that Christ’s head is bent almost ninety degrees to signify the nature of the subjugation Christ has taken up and will go through for the people of God. Christ and Mother Mary are portrayed in a similar manner throughout the manuscript to exert the concreteness of their existence. In the scene at the garden of Gethsemane, we see that Christ is leaning backwards onto the betrayer who is now kissing him. Every other element of this crowded picture arises from this kiss. The placement of the disciples, soldiers and Peter in the corner with the cut-off ear of a soldier, are all oriented around the kiss, simply trying to signify a chain of events. The illuminations make the gospels and the story of Christ more accessible and visual, thereby also making it more immediate. The tongues of fire that touch the remaining disciples of Christ can instil both reverence and fear.
We were involved in several activities during our time in the archives. We assessed the condition of the manuscripts, its context, content, the parchment, decoration, script, annotations, scribal hands, etc., We also involved ourselves in transcription of passages and compared notes on the differences in hand and script. Every session in the archive began and ended with a short briefing by our teachers. Using the expert knowledge of the teachers, we connected several thoughts together to derive a better understanding of the manuscripts.
Nonetheless, the extent of what we did not know, of what we could not piece together from a different time, remained infinite. Perhaps the most important but unsaid agenda of the trip was to more closely imagine and connect. To actually grasp the vastness of what we are attempting to study. As students, our understanding of the medieval age, its culture and literature is linguistic, philosophical and historical in nature. As we read through codices containing medical advice, a sign language, homilies or poems, we read for the obvious and the holes that need our interpretation. The trip to the archives enlarged it all to the right proportions. It made us understand what it means to empathetically attempt to recreate lives and times of people centuries ago, and the importance of this act. Be it the transcription of a sentence or the digitalisation of a medieval text, we were constantly catering to this reimagination.
In the evening, after our day at the archive or somewhere else, we meet again in the city. In Piazza Cavour, we sit together – made and being made academicians along with the lost in thought or life. We talk of the day in a less formal setting and reflect on our medieval encounters. The last evening in Vercelli, I hear Dr. Voth remark, “It all comes down to the hand”, asserting the importance of the hand of the scribe. This hand could make and unmake history. It could make mistakes. It could forget. It could avenge. Whether the scribes at the early Scriptorium in Vercelli understood it as the power of the written word or not, we cannot tell. But today, the town Vercelli stands concrete in both its constants – religion and scholarship. And both, undoubtedly, were facilitated by the writing hand.
It is this that I consider my purpose of visit fulfilled. That in the places most alien to my nature of quick thought, retort, and impatience, a voice from the walls speaks something intimate to me. Vercelli facilitated imagination that spanned centuries and provoked us all to return to other written works and go back even further.