The Name of the Rose library hid the unpublished extract from an astronomy treatise signed Ptolemy
An extract from the manuscript of Etymologies of Isidore of Seville preserved in the Ambrosian Library, in Milan (Ambrosianus L 99 sup.). Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Mondadori Portfolio, Bridgeman Images

A palimpsest preserved in Milan concealed a Greek manual, copied in the VIe-VIIe century. It had been sanded nearly a century later by monks who preferred a “bestseller” of the time in Latin.

As after a long slumber, a lost text from Late Antiquity has resurfaced, laden with its forgotten secrets. Researchers have reconnected with pages of the VIe-VIIe century, concealed in an old copy of the Etymologies, an encyclopedia written by Bishop Isidore of Seville. It was a palimpsest, that is to say a manuscript from which the original text has been erased. This work of reuse, rather than censorship, was carried out around the VIIIe century in the depths of the Italian scriptorium of Bobbio, between Genoa and Milan. The rich archives of this famous abbey site from the High Middle Ages had inspired Umberto Eco to create the forbidden library of rose name .

Scientists have not found traces of Aristotle’s lost chapter on comedy, coveted by the heroes of the novel. They did, however, get their hands on a copy of an unpublished Greek text attributed to the astronomer Claudius Ptolemy. A major figure in ancient science, Ptolemy lived in Roman Egypt from the 2nde century ; he is particularly known for his geocentrism, challenged during the Renaissance, and for being interested in calculating the circumference of the Earth. Ptolemy’s new text, beautifully calligraphed and accompanied by diagrams, was, on the other hand, about something quite different. It was a practical manual.

The manuscript of Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, at the research center of the Ambrosian Library, in Milan. Pascal Cotte and Salvatore Apicella

Hunt for palimpsests

Now kept at the Ambrosian Library in Milan, the palimpsest has been studied as part of the RESCAPALM project. This research program dedicated to the deciphering of ancient manuscripts is supported by Sorbonne University and the CNRS. To elucidate the mysteries of certain palimpsests that have remained impenetrable until now, researchers are mobilizing the latest innovations in multispectral imaging. This non-invasive technology makes it possible to find the trace of missing texts, in addition to other techniques such as X-ray fluorescence. Previous research campaigns have already made it possible to discover several old unpublished works, including Latin commentaries on the work of Plato , or even a catalog of stars from the 2nd century BC. AD, written by Hipparchus, one of the fathers of astronomy.


Not only the nature of the text should not interest the monks of Bobbio Abbey, but their content was probably strictly incomprehensible to them.

Victor Gysembergh

These ancient high-level scientific and philosophical treatises probably had few readers at Bobbio Abbey. This facilitated, even motivated, their recycling. The monks took care of it by a long and laborious sanding of the manuscripts. “Not only was the nature of the text not to interest them, but their content was probably also strictly incomprehensible to them.laughs Victor Gysembergh. The reading of Greek had, in fact, taken quite a blow in the Italy of the VIIIe century. It is difficult for a technical, jargon and foreign manual to compete with the wonders of the world described by Isidore of Seville. In Latin, what’s more!

“Bobbio Abbey was famous for its palimpsests and many of those we have today can be linked to its scriptorium, but we do not know where these manuscripts that it recycled came from.adds the researcher, who suggests that the monks may have recovered texts that were no longer used in northern Italy. Bobbio’s valuable collections have been dispersed since at least the late Middle Ages among a multitude of European libraries.

Two other ancient texts are hidden in the palimpsest of Isidore of Seville. Already identified in the past, they correspond to an anonymous mathematical treatise dedicated to optical considerations, as well as to theAnalemma, a small astronomical treatise by Ptolemy. The palimpsest hunters of the Léon Robin center do not intend to rest on their laurels. : their next manuscript investigations should lead them this summer to the pursuit of the still undeciphered secrets of the National Library of France.

By Editor

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