Sunday, September 7, 2014


Fabio Guidetti, Anna Santoni (ed.), Antiche stelle a Bisanzio: il codice Vaticano greco 1087. Seminari e convegni, 32. Pisa: Edizioni della Normale, 2013. Pp. 208. ISBN 9788876424854. €20.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Renate Burri, University of Berne (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This volume goes back to the first conference organized by a research group on illustrated astronomical manuscripts at the Scuola Normale Superiore held in Pisa on February 8, 2012. The main goal of the research group is to study the interrelation between illustrations and texts in medieval illustrated astronomical manuscripts.1 The book, like the conference, is entirely devoted to the manuscript Vaticanus graecus 1087 (hereinafter Vat. gr. 1087) and presents eight contributions which are preceded by a brief presentation and followed by a general bibliography (pp. 153–165), indices (pp. 167–176), and 51 illustrations, 21 of them in color.

Vat. gr. 1087, a manuscript of paper with watermarks produced between the 1320s and the 1330s in Constantinople under the guidance of the polymath Nicephorus Gregoras, most probably in the Monastery of the Chora, consists of several codicological units and blocks and contains various astronomical and related texts and illustrations.2 Most of the texts were copied by the scribe Ioannes,3 but some parts, including two treatises on the astrolabe at the end of the manuscript (ff. 312v–320v), some marginal notes, several titles and the captions accompanying the illustrations, can be attributed to Gregoras’ hand. The codex opens with a letter of Gregoras to his teacher, the statesman and scholar Theodore Metochites (f. 1r/v). This letter is followed by Metochites’ Stoicheiōsis Astronomikē (ff. 2r–221v), whose text is interrupted by a block inserted into the manuscript, presumably by mistake during production, consisting of a part of Theon of Alexandria’s Commentary on Ptolemy’s Almagest (ff. 123r– 147v). After a blank folio (f. 222r/v) follows Metochites’ Commentary on Ptolemy’s Almagest (ff. 223r–299v). The last part of the manuscript contains fragments of Eratosthenes’ Catasterismi (the so-called Fragmenta Vaticana or recensio Vaticana of this work, ff. 300r and 311r–312r), with illustrations of the constellations (ff. 300v–308r) and – after a blank double page (ff. 308v–309r) – three celestial maps (ff. 309v–310v) intercalated, whereas the very last folios of the manuscript comprise the above mentioned treatises by Gregoras. This manuscript is thus not only a most important and valuable document of astronomical knowledge in late Byzantine times, copied only a short time after the composition of most of the texts contained in it, but it is also the oldest extant witness of the Fragmenta Vaticana, which additionally are richly illustrated.

Filippomaria Pontani (pp. 9–15) gives a short introduction to the manuscript, situates it in its wider context of origin, and points out some main desiderata (e.g. a complete edition of the principal text in Vat. gr. 1087, Theodore Metochites’ Stoicheiōsis Astronomikē) and problems that the manuscript presents (e.g. the origin of the illustrations – a problem which is treated in detail in the last two essays of this volume).

Mariella Menchelli’s (pp. 17–56) painstaking codicological and palaeographical study of Vat. gr. 1087 provides a good basis for understanding the manuscript. She gives a thorough description of the codex and convincingly identifies one of the scribes (“hand C”) with the principal copyist of Marcianus graecus 330, which served as a model for the initial part of Metochites’ Stoicheiōsis in Vat. gr. 1087. Also the Marcianus manuscript exhibits hints connecting it with Nicephorus Gregoras, who promoted Metochites’ astronomical work, guiding its reproduction and diffusion.

Amos Bertolacci (pp. 57–62) discusses the brief Arabic note on f. 319r of Vat. gr. 1087. The note is written vertically in a single line on the left margin of this folio, to be read from the bottom up, and mentions a certain ‘Lion’, giving two synonyms for this word. Although the deeper meaning of the note (is ‘Lion’ a proper name?) remains mysterious, Bertolacci excludes a direct link between the Arabic note and the Greek text. He considers two possible scenarios by examining whether the note was written on the folio before or after Gregoras copied one of his astronomical treatises onto it.

The remaining articles all focus on the section of the manuscript containing the fragments of the Catasterismi and the illustrations (ff. 300r–312r), a section which “raises a discouragingly large number of problems and questions for every scholar who comes to study it” (“[...] presenta così tanti problemi e domande da scoraggiare chi si avvicina a studiarla”, Anna Santoni, p. 91).

Allegra Iafrate (pp. 63–68) shows how the odd order of the illustrations of the constellations, which does not correspond to any of the ancient models, can be explained by subdividing the illustrations into eight blocks: the sequence of the images within these blocks coincides with the corresponding sequences of images in illustrated manuscripts of the Aratea (the Latin translations of Aratus’ Phaenomena), but the blocks in Vat. gr. 1087 are out of order. The author concludes that this strange order in Vat. gr. 1087 must be due to an exemplar manuscript which lost some leaves or quires. These would then have been rearranged in an erroneous way, to which the Vatican codex, whether a direct copy or not, testifies.

Leyla Ozbek (pp. 69–76) deals with the peculiar order and selection of the Fragmenta, and examines the relationship between the 25 textual descriptions and the 41 illustrations. Interestingly, the descriptions appear in the same order as the illustrations, but for some illustrations there is no corresponding text. Ozbek suggests that we have to think of two models for the section of the Vatican manuscript in question (rather than of a single model exhibiting both text and illustrations together, as suggested by Martin4): one model for the text – which must have been incomplete for unknown reasons – and a different one for the illustrations. Additionally, she assumes that the illustrations were completed before the text was copied. She also points out that the captions added to the illustrations by Nicephorus Gregoras appear as longer notes especially with the images that lack descriptive text, and that these explanatory notes go back neither to the Fragmenta nor to the Epitomē (another recension) of the Catasterismi, but must have been taken from a “more ample hermeneutic Aratean thesaurus” (“thesaurus ermeneutico arateo più ampio”, p. 72).

Jordi Pàmias (pp. 77–90) demonstrates the characteristics and the value of the Fragmenta Vaticana – and thus of their oldest textual witness, Vat. gr. 1087 – by comparing four descriptions (Eratosth., Cat. 5. 11. 14. 24) with their counterparts in the Epitomē. All of these descriptions feature the god Dionysus, an important deity in Ptolemaic religious ideology, to which Eratosthenes referred critically. According to Pàmias, in the Catasterismi the god is presented in a burlesque and ironical way, an aspect which is maintained in the Fragmenta Vaticana, whereas the Epitomē tones down this treatment. Because of these notable discrepancies, the author questions the theory that only one revised version of the Catasterismi was produced when this text was incorporated into an “edition” of Aratus’ Phaenomena in the second or third century AD (Martin’s so-called “édition Φ”).

Anna Santoni (pp. 91–111) analyzes several illustrations in Vat. gr. 1087 (the Bears and the Serpens, Engonasi/Hercules and the Draco, the River/Eridanus, Centaurus, Sagittarius, the Aselli and the Praesepe, the celestial maps, together with some of the captions), comparing them with the text of the Catasterismi and that of Aratus’ Phaenomena, in order to understand better the relationship between images and texts as well as to find out more about the origin of the illustrations. Whereas the captions point to the use of a commented and illustrated version of Aratus, most of the illustrations seem rather to go back to the iconographic apparatus which once must have accompanied the Catasterismi, but some of the illustrations have been adapted to different versions of the myths and go closer either with Aratus or with the Eratosthenian Catasterismi. However, a coherent explanation of the illustrations is not (yet) possible.

Fabio Guidetti’s (pp. 113–152) examination of the iconographic materials in Vat. gr. 1087 aims at defining their position within the Aratean tradition, as well as at determining the moment when this version of the illustrations, which also survives in numerous (mostly Latin) astronomical codices, was settled. Guidetti sees parallels between some details in the presentation of the illustrations in the manuscript and the mosaics and frescoes of the Monastery of the Chora, where the manuscript very probably was produced. On the basis of four case studies (Corona, Bootes, Virgo, and Andromeda), he distinguishes three branches of the iconographic tradition: one is represented by Vat. gr. 1087 and exhibits the most complete iconographic apparatus of a presumed ancient illustrated “Aratus edition”, whereas the other branches are represented by illustrated manuscripts containing the so called recensio interpolata and Ps.- Bede’s De signis coeli respectively, both revised versions of the Aratus Latinus. To the last branch also belongs the astronomical codex 735C of the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth (containing, among other texts, a commented and illustrated version of Germanicus’ Aratea), to which Guidetti dedicates a section of his contribution (pp. 127–137). The extant illustrations in manuscripts of these three branches give evidence of a revision of the iconographic apparatus of the “Aratus edition”, which must have taken place in the second half of the fourth century. It must have been such an old codex of the revised illustrated “Aratus edition” that served as a – probably direct – model for the illustrations of Vat. gr. 1087.

This handsomely and carefully produced paperback volume contributes significantly to the study of Vat. gr. 1087 and shows how much information and knowledge the analysis of all aspects of a manuscript can supply to different fields of study. One might argue that, besides the Catasterismi and the illustrations, the other parts of the manuscript get rather little attention, but the focus coincides with the topic of the research group responsible for the book. One quibble: I would have appreciated the addition of a short and systematic description of the manuscript at the beginning or end of the volume, in the form of a “catalog entry” (like the overview which can be found in the database, see note 1), in order to provide to the reader a quick and concise idea of the object. ​


1.   See Research Group. See also their work in progress database Certissima signa (Database), which provides a systematic survey of illustrated astronomical manuscripts and their contents as well as information on related subjects.
2.   For my brief description of the manuscript here I refer to Mariella Menchelli’s contribution, especially to pp. 18–22 and 24. A detailed and well structured table of the contents of the codex can be found at Contents.
3.   See Prosopographisches Lexikon der Palaiologenzeit IV, no. 8503 and Repertorium der griechischen Kopisten III, no. 328 = II, no. 271.
4.   Jean Martin, Histoire du texte des Phénomènes d’Aratos (Paris: Klincksieck, 1956) 48. Ozbek’s suggestion is also cited with approval in Iafrate’s contribution, see p. 67, n. 3. ​

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