30 June 2023
Georgian manuscripts have a long history in the collections of the British Museum and the British Library. The first two manuscripts were acquired by the British Museum in 1837. Today, we hold seven medieval manuscripts, one eighteenth-century manuscript, one nineteenth-century manuscript, and one twentieth-century manuscript. We also hold six contemporary illuminated manuscripts created since 2018.
Our early manuscripts cover a period from the eighth to the seventeenth century. The most important among them is an 11th-century manuscript (Add MS 11281). It is a parchment written in the Georgian monastery of the Holy Cross near Jerusalem, which became an important centre of learning and was known to Western pilgrims as the Monasterium Georgianum.
Lives of the Holy Fathers, 11th-century, Add MS 11281.
Written in the Georgian language by a scribe, who refers to himself as Black John, the manuscript recounts the lives of 15 saints from Palestine, Egypt and Syria. Created during the golden age of Georgian church literature in the 11th century, it remains one of the principal sources of information about monastic life during the Byzantine period. This manuscript includes unique copies of works by Cyril of Scythopolis and Athanasius of Alexandria.
The earliest Georgian manuscript in the British Library collections is a palimpsest with Hebrew commentaries of the 11th or 12th century, written over the original Georgian text (Or 6581). These are three fragments of a parchment leaf with a highly irregular outline. The underwriting is Georgian in large capitals (asomtavruli script), while the overwriting is Hebrew. The Georgian text contains portions of the Book of Jeremiah.
Palimpsest fragments, Or 6581
This manuscript came from the Genizah in Cairo. In England there are also Genizah palimpsests (old Hebrew over Georgian) in both Cambridge and Oxford. They were published by Professor Robert P. Blake in the Harvard Theological Review. He dated this manuscript to the middle of the eighth century, but other scholars consider that it could have been written much earlier. It is also written in asomtavruli and therefore it is one of the rare examples of an Old Testament text in Georgian written in this script.
An 18th-century manuscript (Add MS 47237) consists of three letters from the Georgian Queen Anna Orbeliani of Imereti, a province in western Georgia, addressed to the Emperor Paul, to the Empress Maria Feodorovna, and to an unnamed Russian official. The Queen sought Russian protection and help in recovering her throne.
From the 19th century we hold the handwritten monthly journal of the Georgian Socialist Revolutionary Party, Musha (1889-1891; Or.5315), which was donated to the British Museum by Prince Varlam Cherkezishvili.
We also have a collection of of four letters and one postcard from the 20th century (Or 16935), written by the prominent Georgian writer Grigol Robakidze (1880-1962), to his friend David Kurulishvili. Robakidze could not tolerate the Soviet regime and left Georgia in 1930. He lived in Germany and then moved to Geneva.
Manuscripts created in the present century have recently been added to the British Library’s collections. In addition to four illuminated manuscripts donated to the Library in 2019 by the Art Palace of Georgia, we have recently received another two.
These two illuminated manuscripts were created in 2022 as a part of the project funded by the grant programme of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia, ‘Support for Diaspora Initiatives’. This was initiated by Tamar Latsabidze and Giorgi Kalandia.
The texts, ‘Life of the King of Kings – David’ and ‘Life of the King of Kings – Tamar’, were copied from the ‘Kartlis Tskhovreba’ (the Georgian Chronicles, literally ‘Life of Kartli’ or ‘Life of Georgia’) by the Georgian artists and calligraphers, Giorgi Sisauri and Otar Megrelidze. The ‘Kartlis Tskhovreba’ is the principal written source for the history of Georgia, a collection of biographies, chronicles and other historical works.
The calligraphers have thus produced two manuscripts that did not exist before in an illustrated form. They were created exclusively for the British Library, and they observe the centuries-old traditions of the Georgian calligraphy school. The calligraphers carefully examined the tradition of writing and illuminating manuscripts. Paper, ink and paint were prepared as they were in early medieval Georgia. In order to maintain historical traditions and in keeping with their cultural roots, both artists employed 12th-century painting principles and used as models the ‘Georgian astrological treatise’, a manuscript dated 1188, and a 12th-centuey Byzantine manuscript known as the ‘Madrid Skylitzes’.
‘Life of the King of Kings – Tamar’ recounts the life of Queen Tamar the Great (1160-1213). It is believed that the author of the work was Basili Ezosmodzghvari, a contemporary historian of the Queen. Created by Giorgi Sisauri, this manuscript consists of 86 pages. Five of its miniatures with gold ink. Among them are portraits of Queen Tamar and her historian. At the end of the manuscript, according to the Georgian tradition, the miniaturist depicted himself.
Portrait of Queen Tamar (‘Life of the King of Kings – Tamar’) [awaiting shelfmark]
Battle scene (‘Life of the King of Kings – Tamar’) [awaiting shelfmark]
‘Life of the King of Kings – David’ tells the life of the Georgian king, David IV Aghmashenebeli (1089-1125). It was written by an unknown historian in the twelfth century. The manuscript presented to the British Library consists of 116 pages. The beginning of each chapter is decorated with floral ornaments and figures of birds of paradise (peacocks, pheasants, doves). The image of King David is depicted on page 91 of the manuscript.
Portrait of King David IV (‘Life of the King of Kings – David’) [awaiting shelfmark]
‘Life of the King of Kings – David’, p. 42-43 [awaiting shelfmark]
These illuminated manuscripts are a significant addition to the Library’s Georgian collections. We held no illuminated Georgian manuscripts prior to this donation. They will thus enhance the significance and usefulness of our collection of Georgian manuscripts. They can be presented alongside our Georgian medieval manuscripts, and they will assist in the promotion of the country’s cultural heritage and contribute to Georgia’s academic and research development.
We are very grateful to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia, to Tamar Latsabidze, to Giorgi Kalandia, to the Art Palace of Georgia, and to all who have contributed to this remarkable project.
Anna Chelidze, Curator, Georgian Collections
References and further reading
Robert P. Blake, ‘Catalogue of the Georgian Manuscripts in the Cambridge University Library’, The Harvard Theological Review, vol. 25, no. 3 (July 1932), 207-24. Ac.2692/13.
Robert P. Blake, ‘Khanmeti Palimpsest Fragments of the Old Georgian Version of Jeremiah’, The Harvard Theological Review, vol. 25, no. 3 (July 1932), 225-72.
J. Oliver Wardrop, ‘Catalogue of Georgian Manuscripts’, in Frederick Cornwallis Conybeare, A Catalogue of the Armenian Manuscripts in the British Museum… to which is appended a Catalogue of Georgian Manuscripts in the British Museum. (London, 1913) pp. 397-410. 11925.h.3.
Gregory Peradze, ‘Georgian Manuscripts in England’, Georgica. A Journal of Georgian and Caucasian Studies, vol. 1, no. 1 (Oct. 1935), 80-88. Ac.8821.e.
20 January 2023
The British Library has released a call for applicants for PhD placements in 2023–24. The PhD placement scheme supports the professional development of researchers for future career paths both within and outside academia.
One of these placements, ‘Enhancing access to manuscripts and archives in the French language’, offers an opportunity for a PhD student currently registered at a UK university to work alongside curators to make French language material in the archives and manuscript collections (after 1600) more accessible to researchers and members of the public.
The Modern Archive and Manuscript collections (1601–1950) contain a wealth of exciting historical, scientific, political, and literary material. They include letters and manuscripts by French writers and historical figures such as Voltaire, the Chevalier d’Éon, Napoleon, George Sand, and Charles Baudelaire, and Royal, scientific, and diplomatic correspondence.
Charles Baudelaire, 'Les sept vieillards' and 'Les petites vieilles' . Fair copy made for Victor Hugo to whom the poems are dedicated. Zweig MS 136, f1r
You will undertake research into the manuscript collections and write a structured collection guide for the website that provides an overview of the main collections of French manuscripts and archives (after 1600) in the British Library and guidance about how to find them in the catalogue and access them (online or in the Reading Room). The placement also offers opportunities to catalogue or enhance the description of a small archive or group of manuscripts, to write a blog post to promote the guide and/or one of the collections, and to deliver a staff talk or contribute to an event to promote the French collections.
Please see the project description on the website for further information and read the Application Guidelines carefully before applying.
The deadline for this call is: 5pm on Monday 20 February 2023.
17 June 2022
As the National and University Library of Iceland commemorate the 250th anniversary of Joseph Banks’s expedition to Iceland with an exhibition, we are publishing a series of blogs on all things Icelandic in the British Library collections. We will be covering the stories behind the arrival of our earliest Icelandic manuscripts; travel literature in the wake of Banks; some of the key figures in the movement of Icelandic material culture and ideas; as well as our latest acquisitions.
For those who want to know more about Joseph Banks’s expedition to Iceland, check out our guest blog from 2017 by the foremost expert, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Iceland, Anna Agnarsdóttir.
We begin our series on Icelandic National Day (Þjóðhátíðardagurinn) with a blog on Icelandic manuscripts at the BL.
The significance of the Icelandic manuscripts in the British Library is not to be exaggerated, especially in comparison to those held in Iceland and Denmark. The majority date to the 17th and 18th centuries and are copies of manuscripts held elsewhere. That said, the variation between manuscripts, the unique codicology of different versions of the same text, their production contexts and provenance, their later use and transmission, given the instability of originally orally circulated histories and sagas amongst other works, all contribute to a historic interest in all Old Icelandic manuscripts, the BL’s included.
The stories behind the BL manuscripts are woven into the story of a burgeoning scholarly and general interest in the far North from the mid-18th century, its literature, geographical uniqueness, and its potential insight into a British cultural identity locating its origins further and further North. The British Museum opened in 1759 soon after Paul-Henri Mallet’s Introduction à l’histoire de dannemarc appeared, the first comprehensive work to deal with Norse mythology in a widely-read language, translated in a heavily edited form by Thomas Percy in 1770 as Northern Antiquities. This was the period of James McPherson’s Ossian, when the folktales of Britain’s nations and islands were rediscovered, a period that would form the backdrop to Romanticism and its notion of the Sublime based on unspoilt and awe-inspiring nature. Indeed, the true far North, whether identified as the Arctic, “Lapland” (modern day Sápmi), or Iceland, was held up as exemplary of untouched and therefore “primitive” nature. A glimpse into these preserved ancient worlds would bring antiquarians, travellers, and writers closer to the original state of nature, the essence of a national identity.
John Cleveley the younger, View of the Cathedral Church of Skálholt, southern Iceland; with houses, and villagers tending cattle in the foreground, Add MS. 15511, f.17
It is therefore no surprise that Iceland appealed to Joseph Banks in 1772, when a replacement expedition had to be rapidly arranged following his exit from Cook’s Resolution. Banks was familiar with scholarly interest in ancient Northern European customs, as well as with the treasures for the geographer and natural scientist: “The whole face of the countrey new to the Botanist & Zoologist as well as the many Volcanoes with which it is said to abound made it very desirable to Explore [...]” (Banks’s Journal, in Agnarsdóttir, p. 47). He brought back around 40 manuscripts and 121 printed books, such was the significance of the Icelandic language as another preserved connection to prehistoric cultures, given its proximity to Old Norse. Banks donated most of these items to the British Museum shortly after his return with a few more presented over the following decade (Add MSS 4857-4900). These have been catalogued in detail with folio-level descriptions for each item, which are available in the finding aid.
Icelandic gradual, Sloane 503
While Banks’s donation was the largest set of Icelandic manuscripts to have entered the British Museum Library at the time, they were not the first. The Sloane collection, one of the Museum’s foundation collections, contained an Icelandic gradual, a beautiful choral service book from around 1600. The collection also contains a curious autograph draft of a letter about Iceland, which the polymath Sir Thomas Browne eventually communicated to the Royal Society, bound together with letters on the subject of Iceland from his friend, the Reverend Theodor Jonas of Hitterdal (Sloane 1911-13).
The Banks manuscripts are a mix of religious texts, legal texts, annals, short dictionaries and lexica, and collections of all manner of Sagas. Of course, in this period Sagas were beginning to capture the imagination in Britain thanks to Mallet and Percy, and the first English Saga translations – more often free translations based on an intermediary language – would soon abound.
As Margaret Clunies Ross tells us, mediaeval Icelandic texts became accessible only through the assistance of Icelanders, who aided scholars across Scandinavia to gain a grasp of their rich heritage. One Icelandic antiquarian would influence the Anglophone reception of mediaeval Icelandic literature more than others. Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin came to Britain in 1786 on an official commission to find historic material related to Denmark and ended up staying for almost five years. He would be best known for his influential Latin Beowulf translation, and, as far as the BL is concerned, for “the sale to George III in 1788 of over seven hundred Scandinavian works from his own collection” (Hogg). However, it was his presence in Britain and his interactions with British scholars here and in Copenhagen, which shaped the transmission of Saga and Edda literature.
Title Page of Add MS 4857, f.1
Thorkelin brought with him several transcriptions of important manuscripts from the Arnamagnæan collections in Copenhagen, to be shared with, if not donated to, institutions and antiquarians engaged in Old Norse and Icelandic literature. The British Museum received his transcriptions related to the history of Britain, Iceland and Norway (Add MSS 5311-18), but others would also find their way there. The acquisition of the Stowe Collection in 1883 brought with it three Icelandic manuscripts once owned by Thomas Astle, an acquaintance of Thorkelin and author of The Origins and Progress of Writing (1784), a book on palaeography that had already made use of some of the Banks Icelandic manuscripts. The Icelandic Stowe manuscripts (Stowe MS 6, 979 and 980) have been the subject of a recent article by Bjarni Ásgeirsson, who discovered that the 14th-century parchment bifolium included at the back of Stowe MS 980 was once part of a manuscript held in Copenhagen, known as the Reynistaðarbók. Ásgeirsson suggests convincingly that Thorkelin was responsible for its removal, given that it relates to the lives of several Archbishops of Canterbury and would have been of interest to his English audience. Thorkelin’s brazen intervention in the manuscript no doubt hampered the understanding of “the culture of scribes who produced the codex” (Ásgeirsson).
Thorkelin’s time in England coincided with the groundbreaking publication (in which he was also involved) of volume one of the most comprehensive critical edition of Poetic Edda, Edda Sæmundar hinns Fróda, giving those with Latin access to the most important source on Norse mythology. This set off vernacular translations across Europe and Clunies Ross points to William Herbert’s Select Icelandic Poetry as the early highpoint.
Opening of Göngu-Hrólfs saga in Add MS 4857, f.2r
As mediaeval Icelandic literature grew in popularity amongst scholars, antiquarians and the reading public alike, its early manuscript witnesses would often turn up in major British private collections, as we have seen with Stowe 980. Thorkelin’s influence is threaded throughout this history and his name is inscribed in the important Codex Scardensis, one of the largest extant 14th-century manuscripts, which contains the Icelandic Sagas telling the lives of the apostles. The ownership history becomes murky between the 450 years it spent at the church in Skarð in western Iceland, near where it was produced, and its re-emergence at a sale in England in 1836. In that time, it had managed to acquire an inscription explaining its contents as verified by a certain Grímur Thorkelin. Former BL colleague Pamela Porter suggests the inscription was made by the next most significant Icelandic figure shadowing the BL collections, the lawyer and scholar, Finnur Magnússon.
Magnússon, according to Porter, was in the business of selling manuscripts to British collectors and institutions at inflated prices as a “profit-making enterprise”. The BL’s largest set of Icelandic manuscripts, some 437 items, were indeed acquired from Magnússon in 1837 (Add MSS 11061-11251), described by the Assistant Keeper of Manuscripts, Sir Frederic Madden as in “the greater part […] sad trash, and scarcely worth binding”. Indeed, the significance of this set is minimal if we look at their use in current studies and how they figure in online indexes. However, understanding the contexts and material detail of these albeit later transcriptions will no doubt offer insights into how Sagas, for example, were understood and classified. Kapitan points to “the shortcomings of the existing digital descriptions of Add. MS 11109 [including] the erroneous identification of texts, and the incorrect dating of the volume”. Without comprehensive cataloguing of this material, the argument goes, inadequate descriptions will always limit the effectiveness of large-scale data analysis of multiple manuscript corpora, which might otherwise uncover new connections and insights for scholars. In other words, we might not yet know how significant Magnússon’s donation could be for scholarship today. As Clunies Ross says of the BL’s Banks donation, “relative importance cannot be measured only in terms of the antiquity or uniqueness of the mss, but must take into account the use to which such manuscripts could be put and their impact upon scholars”.
Magnússon’s negotiations with the British Museum were drawn out, Madden being unconvinced by the high price tag. While Magnússon offered comprehensive preliminary remarks to his collection defending the estimated value (Add MS 29537), the Museum learned of two altogether finer and more important Icelandic manuscripts up for sale: copies of Sæmundar Edda and Snorri Edda once owned by the antiquarian Adam Clarke. “Both were paper copies, clean, sound and elegantly written, and bore matching, handsome gold-tooled bindings” (Porter) and can now be found at Egerton 642 and 643.
Initial details in Add MS 4857, f.15 and f.81
And what of the reference to Thorkelin in the Codex Scardensis? Well, we do not know for sure that Magnússon wrote the inscription but Porter’s suggestion does make for a neat link between the figures so crucial to the BL’s Icelandic manuscripts, and shows how the BL collections resonate in the wider landscape. In fact, the story of Codex Scardensis’s return to Iceland does have another BL connection in that the highly prized manuscript, when eventually up for sale at auction in 1965 after decades of private ownership in the UK, was sold to Torgrim Hannås, acting on behalf of a consortium of Icelandic banks, and so it returned to Iceland. Hannås, a Norwegian-born antiquarian bookseller, would go on to donate his collection of over 700 Scandinavian books comprising dictionaries, grammars, phrasebooks and the like, to the BL in 1984.
The story of mediaeval Icelandic manuscripts in the BL more or less stops there, in the first half of the 19th century, but we hold a number of items that tell a more modern story of Iceland through the eyes of those inspired by those very Sagas, perhaps the most intriguing being William Morris’s diaries (Add MS 45319 A-C). Another curiosity is a set of accounts of the “revolution” in Iceland in 1809, written by its main protagonist, Jørgen Jørgensen (Egerton 2066-2070). We hope to publish further blogs on those collections as part of this series.
Last page of Add MS 4857, from Aefintýr af einum Meystara, a narrative of the career of a Master Paul at Paris
Further information on Icelandic manuscripts in the BL and beyond can be found on a number of indispensable websites indexing, describing or digitising Old Icelandic literary sources. Long-running negotiations between Iceland and Denmark over the 1960s and 70s settled the return of a substantial portion of the unparalleled collection of Icelandic manuscripts compiled by Árni Magnússon. The two eponymous collections in Copenhagen and Reykjavík hold the key material for the period, all of it catalogued and much of it digitised on the electronic catalogue handrit.org. Other important sources of information include:
Dictionary of Old Norse Prose – a dictionary that also indexes manuscript witnesses to Old Norse Prose under the holding institution’s shelfmark
The Icelandic Scribes Project presents detailed information on the scribal networks around the manuscripts produced under the patronage of Magnús Jónsson í Vigur (1637-1702), some of which have ended up in the Banks collection.
There is no complete catalogue of mediaeval Icelandic manuscripts in the British Library as yet, however Jón Helgason, former head of the Danish Árni Magnússon Institute, produced a manuscript catalogue available in the Copenhagen and Reykjavik institutes. Work is currently under way in Copenhagen on a published version, Catalogue of the Icelandic Manuscripts in the British Library. Until its publication, we are reliant on earlier texts that focus on particular aspects of the collection, or on online indexes, which are also not comprehensive when it comes to BL material. This new spreadsheet collates current catalogue information on all known Icelandic manuscripts and those related to Iceland, and we would appreciate any recommendations for additions from the community.
Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections
Paul-Henri Mallet, Introduction a l'histoire de Dannemarc, ou l'on traite de la religion, des loix, des mœurs & des usages des anciens danois.(Copenhagen, 1755-56) 153.c.3.. English translation by Thomas Percy, Northern antiquities: or, a description of the manners, customs, religion and laws of the ancient Danes, and other northern nations … With additional notes by the English translator, and Goranson's Latin version of the Edda. ...(London, 1770) 989.c.16-17..
Edda Sæmundar hinns Fróda (Copenhagen, 1787-1828) 85.g.5-7
William Herbert, Select Icelandic Poetry (London, 1804-1806) 11565.c.58.(1.)
Anna Agnarsdóttir (ed.), Sir Joseph Banks, Iceland and the North Atlantic 1772-1820. Journals, Letters and Documents (London, 2016), YC.2016.b.2118.
Bjarni Gunnar Asgeirsson, ‘Anecdotes of several Archbishops of Canterbury: A Lost Bifolium from Reynistaðarbók discovered in the BL’, Gripla 32 (2021),
John Bonehill, ‘“New Scenes drawn by the pencil of Truth”: Joseph Banks’ northern voyage’, Journal of Historical Geography 43 (2014), 9-27. P.801/3025
Margaret Clunies Ross, The Norse Muse in Britain 1750-1820 (Trieste, 1998), Document Supply 4300.868500
Katarzyna Anna Kapitan, ‘Perspectives on Digital Catalogs and Textual Networks of Old Norse Literature’, Manuscript Studies: A Journal of the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, Volume 6, Number 1, Spring 2021, pp. 74-97
Pam Porter, ‘Preserving the Past: England, Iceland and the movement of manuscripts’, Care and Conservation of Manuscripts 8, (Copenhagen, 2005), 173-190
Pam Porter, ‘England and Iceland: more movement of manuscripts’, Care and Conservation of Conservation of Manuscripts 9, (Copenhagen, 2006), 20-34
Jón Þorkelsson, ‘Islandske håndskrifter i England og Skotland,’ Arkiv för nordisk filologi 8 (1892), 199–237
26 November 2021
Shota Rustaveli is the most admired poet in Georgia and an iconic figure in Georgian national literature. He is the author of the medieval epic poem Vepxistqaosani (The Knight in the Panther's Skin). The poem was composed during the reign of Queen Tamar and is dedicated to her. The poem exemplifies the medieval knightly ideals of chivalry, friendship, courtly love and courage, and yet has contemporary relevance as its humanistic values are timeless. It is recognised internationally as a masterpiece and has been translated into many languages in both verse and prose. It was first published in Tbilisi in 1712 at the printing press established by King Vakhtang VI of Kartli at his initiative. Several manuscripts exist, written both before and after that date.
The British Library holds a number of editions of The Knight in the Panther's Skin including translations into English and other languages. Unfortunately, we do not hold any manuscripts. Recently, however, our collections have been enriched by generous donations from the Art Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History.
We have received two beautiful facsimiles of manuscripts of The Knight in the Panther's Skin. Both have been recently published in limited editions by Bakmi Publishing in Tbilisi. The originals are preserved in the Korneli Kekelidze National Centre of Manuscripts in Tbilisi.
Cover of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani (Tbilisi, 2018) HS.74/2506
The first of these manuscripts was created in 1680 at the behest of King George XI of Kartli by his secretary, Begtabeg Taniashvili. For this reason, the manuscript is generally known as ‘Begtabeg’s manuscript’ (Begtabegiseuli khelnatseri = ბეგთაბეგისეული ხელნაწერი). Each page of this manuscript is enriched with stylized, gold-plated decorations consisting of images of animals, birds and flowers. Every page is unique as none of the designs is repeated in the 523 pages. The facsimile of the manuscript is bound in navy blue leather and decorated with gold lettering.
Page 19 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani
Page 113 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani
Page 391 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani
The other manuscript was created between the 17th and 18th centuries and is known as ‘Tsereteli’s manuscript’ (Tseretliseuli khelnatseri = წერეთლისეული ხელნაწერი). It bears the name of its owner, the Tsereteli family. Among the many manuscripts of the poem, it is the most richly illustrated. It contains 87 miniatures. Some of them appear to have been influenced by Persian miniature painting, while others reflect national Georgian traditions. The different styles present in the manuscript suggest that they were executed by several artists, all of whom are unknown.
The slip-case of the facsimile is handmade and has been decorated using cloisonné enamel. Very expensive materials, including silver, gold-plated brass and enamel, were employed. It was designed and created by the traditional Georgian jewellery company, Zarapxana.
Slip-case of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani (Tbilisi, 2019) RF.2021.a.20
Page 22-23 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani
Page 83 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani
Page 381 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani
The donation of this book has been made possible by a contribution from Tamar Latsabidze, Zarapxana, Giorgi Kalandia and the Art Palace of Georgia.
The British Library is enormously grateful to Giorgi Kalandia and the Art Palace for the substantial donations to the British Library collections made during recent years. This has resulted in an improved supply of contemporary publications and has also filled some significant gaps in our collection.
We are also very grateful to Tamar Latsabidze and to Zarapxana, the Georgian jeweller, for their support. It has been important for us to establish and develop closer contacts with our partners in Georgia.
The generosity of all who have contributed is very much appreciated. They have evidently taken heed of the well-known quotation from Rustaveli: “That which we give makes us richer, that which is hoarded is lost”.
Anna Chelidze, Curator Georgian Collections
Shota Rustaveli, The Man in the Panther’s skin: a romantic epic … a close rendering from the Georgian attempted by Marjory Scott Wardrop. (London,1912) 14003.bb.16.
Kʿartʿuli xelnaceri cigni V-XIX saukuneebi = Georgian manuscript book 5th-19th centuries (Tbilisi, 2012) YF.2014.b.2472
Šalva Amiranašvili, Vepʿxistqaosnis dasuratʿeba: miniaturebi šesrulebuli XVI-XVII saukuneebši (Tbilisi, 1966) YF.2015.b.2110
S. Qubaneišvili, Vepʿxistqaosnis bečdvis istoriidan (Tbilisi, 1975) YF.2017.a.2371
14 September 2021
Today, 14 September 2021, we mark the 700th anniversary of the death of Italian poet Dante Alighieri. His main work, the Divine Comedy, is widely considered one of the most important works of literature. His vision still informs our idea of afterlife: how Hell, Purgatory and Paradise look like. His poetry still moves and inspires.
The British Library holds outstanding Dante collections, dating from the Middle Ages right up to the present day, which you can find out about in the following video made especially to celebrate this anniversary. The video has been made by European and American Collections in collaboration with Western Heritage Collections.
This video offers the rare opportunity to look at the circulation of one work of literature across seven centuries. Nothing survives in Dante’s own hand. The manuscripts of the Divine Comedy are, for this reason, even more important. The invention of printing shows how Dante was very popular in the 15th and 16th centuries in Italy, and his limited fortune during the Baroque and Enlightenment eras.
The Romantic era, the Risorgimento and the Italian unification sparked a new and increased interest in Dante as national poet. The Divine Comedy was acknowledged as the greatest work of poetry in Italian and became the subject of studies in Italian schools and universities. Translations started to become popular outside of Italy (we have editions of the Divine Comedy in about 40 different languages in our catalogue) and Dante studies became a subject in itself.
Amos Nattini, Purgatorio, Canto XXVIII
Dante became popular in the mass media: for example, the first Italian feature length movie, commissioned in 1911 for the 50th anniversary of Italian unification, was inspired by the Divine Comedy and titled Inferno.
The political importance of the Divine Comedy is shown by the number of editions published in the 20th century, many directly sponsored by the Italian government.
Two of them are shown in the video. La Divina Commedia novamente illustrata da artisti italiani a cura di Vittorio Alinari (Firenze, 1902-3; 11420.k.11.) is the first. This lavish edition includes works of 59 young artists who had won a contest to produce new illustrations for the Divine Comedy. Two of them, Duilio Cambellotti and Alberto Martini, both in their early twenties at the time of the competition, distinguished themselves with a work of great graphical interest that shows their Symbolist style and anticipates the development of Art Nouveau.
Duilio Cambellotti, Inferno, Canto X
The second work that I show is La Divina Commedia / illustrazioni di Dalì ([1963-64], awaiting shelfmark). On the occasion of this anniversary the British Library had the opportunity to acquire a precious edition of the Divine Comedy illustrated by the Spanish painter Salvador Dalì. This edition was commissioned on the 700th anniversary of Dante’s birth, in 1965. The painter took nine years to complete this work. In this collection of 100 watercolour woodcuts, Dalì adds elements of his iconic and unique imagination to Dante’s vision: desolate landscapes, crutches, spiders, figures with drawers.
Salvador Dalì, Purgatorio, Canto I
We couldn’t include them all in the video, but here are some other remarkable editions:
La Divina Commedia. Illustrazione su cento cartoline eseguita da artisti fiorentini, ideata e diretta dall’ingegnere Attilio Razzolini. (Milano, [1902, 03]). 11421.e.23. This is a collection of 100 postcards, one for each canto, in Gothic revival style. Each of them is decorated with miniatures by the illustrator.
La Divina Commedia, with plates by Amos E. Nattini. (Turin, [1923-41]). Cup.652.c.
La divina commedia. Introduzioni ai canti, di Natalino Sapegno. Disegni a colori di Antony de Witt. (Firenze, 1964). L.R.413.w.37.
Interested in learning more on Dante? Join us tonight for the online event Dante in the British Library: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven (Tuesday 14 September 2021, 19:30 - 20:30).
Valentina Mirabella, Curator, Romance Collections
10 September 2021
Tuesday 14 September 2021 will be the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death. The British Library holds extensive Dante collections, with some richly illuminated manuscripts and precious printed editions of Dante’s masterpiece, the Divine Comedy.
To celebrate the Italian poet (c. 1265-1321) we have organised an online event, Dante in the British Library: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, presenting original research on the Divine Comedy. Dr Alessandro Scafi of the Warburg Institute will focus on Dante’s vision of the Garden of Eden against the backdrop of medieval tradition, seen through maps. The second lecture will be given by Elisabeth Trischler, who is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds. Elisabeth will be speaking about the expansion of Florence during Dante’s lifetime and how it influenced the Divine Comedy. She will look at two examples: medieval representations of cities, and towers.
Dante con l’espositione di Christoforo Landino et di Alessandro Vellutello sopra la sua comedia dell’Inferno, del Purgatorio, & del Paradiso (Venice, 1564) C.78.d.13.
We will also be sharing something really exciting about Dante and the British Library’s Dante collections in the coming weeks!
In the meantime, I would like to share some of my favourite lines from the Divine Comedy. It is a quote from Ulysses’ ‘little oration’ to exhort his companions to set sail towards the unknown. This sums up Dante’s own desire for knowledge, which he passes on to all his readers:
Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.
Consider well the seed that gave you birth:
you were not made to live your lives as brutes,
but to be followers of worth and knowledge.
Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections
19 February 2021
Georgia has long been represented in the collections of the British Library and its predecessors. We hold Georgian manuscripts, printed books, maps, sound recordings and visual materials as well as a wide range of publications in Western languages relating to Georgia and the Caucasus. We also hold official publications, periodicals and newspapers.
These materials describe Georgian culture at different times and from different perspectives. They also tell a story about British curiosity and the desire to learn and read about lesser-known countries and cultures.
Georgia had strong links with the Classical and Byzantine worlds. This period of Georgian history is well illustrated in the Library’s collections by seven Georgian medieval manuscripts and early Western cartographic material.
The Georgian flag, among others, appears on this map created in Venice in the 1320s. It is a white rectangle, with a large red cross in its central portion touching all four sides of the flag. In the four corners there are four crosses of the same colour as the large cross.
After the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, the links between Georgia and Europe were lost. Consequently, in the 16th and 17th centuries, Georgia became trapped between Turkey and Persia in their rivalry for domination over Transcaucasia. The King of Georgia, Teimuraz I, sent his envoy, Niceforo Irbach, to Europe to ask for assistance and to seek allies. His ambassadorial mission had little political success, but it did bring about a significant cultural event: the printing of the earliest Georgian books.
These books, printed in Rome by the Propaganda Fide press in the 17th century, are well represented in the Georgian collections. Indeed, we have several copies of them. They are the earliest printed publications in Georgian and they are also the earliest dictionaries and grammar books printed in Georgian.
Title page and opening of Sefano Paolini, Dittionario giorgiano e italiano (Rome, 1629); 622.e.34.(2.).
The reports of English and European travellers to Georgia stimulated interest in the country in the 17th century. The desire for knowledge of little-known countries and cultures encouraged the publication of their travel accounts and of maps.
The Library has a number of these early accounts, including the works of Sir John Chardin and Sir Robert Ker Porter. These remained the most important sources of information in Europe about life in Georgia until the early 19th century.
‘A Georgian lady’; Add MS 14758/2, fol. 187r.
In the 19th century interest in Georgian culture became more academic. This was linked to a more general interest in Asia. The Royal Asiatic Society was founded in London in 1823. The British and Foreign Bible Society was also encouraging its members to study early Eastern Christian manuscripts including those in Georgian. In 1837 the British Museum purchased two Georgian manuscripts: Add MS 11281 and Add MS 11282.
11th-century Georgian manuscript, ‘Lives of Holy Fathers’. Add MS 11281.
The Library’s collections hold the works of the first British Kartvelologists, researchers on Georgian studies, who initiated the promotion of Georgian language and culture in the second half of the 19th century. They were responsible for the first attempts to introduce Georgian culture to intellectual and research circles in Britain and Continental Europe.
Sir Oliver Wardrop and William Edward David Allen founded the Georgian Historical Society (1930), which published its own journal, Georgica, (1935- ; Ac.8821.e.) dedicated to Kartvelian studies. Several Georgian literary classics were translated by Marjory and Oliver Wardrop and other scholars.
Photograph of Marjory Wardrop in Georgian national dress, 1896. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Various aspects of 20th-century Georgian culture and history are reflected in the Library’s collections:
The first sound recordings made in Georgia and the Caucasus, recorded in Tbilisi, 1901-1914, by the Gramophone Company of London;
A rare copy of H2SO4, the Georgian avant-garde journal, published in 1924 (RB.23.b.6973);
First editions of writings by the avant-garde artist David Kakabadze, published in Paris in 1924;
Avant-garde books designed and written by Ilia and Kiril Zdanevich;
Georgian émigré newspapers published in Europe and the USA after the Russian Revolution.
We also hold two later manuscript collections. The first, Musha (‘The Worker’: a journal of the socialist-revolutionary party in Georgia), was presented to the British Museum in 1898 by Prince Varlaam Cherkezishvili, a remarkable person who obtained a seat in the Constituent Assembly of the Democratic Republic of Georgia.
The second, written in the 1950s, consists of a collection of letters and postcards by Grigol Robakidze, a writer, publicist and public figure (Or 16935).
The Library’s Georgian holdings continue to grow in the 21st century. Contemporary Georgian material is acquired in the mainstream humanities disciplines. The emphasis is on reference books, history, art and culture, as well as literature, language, contemporary politics, ecology, etc.. We collect contemporary fiction in Georgian and also acquire translations via Legal Deposit and by purchase.
In addition to ongoing acquisitions of new material, the collection is supported by donations from the public and partners. Most recently, the collections were significantly strengthened by generous gifts from the Art Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History.
Besides extremely valuable publications from the Art Palace, we have also received a collection of Georgian film posters 1934-1985 and four Georgian contemporary illuminated manuscripts. These manuscripts have been created by contemporary Georgian artists and calligraphers. They are original works but executed in gold ink in traditional Georgian style. The Art Palace commissioned these works specially for the British Library to enrich our Georgian collections.
Manuscript donated by Art Palace; (Awaiting shelfmark).
On Friday 25th and Sunday 27 February the British Library in association with Maya Jaggi and Writers’ House of Georgia will present two days of online events as part of the four-day festival Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia. Some of Georgia’s most celebrated novelists, playwrights and screenwriters will be reflecting on Georgia’s artistic legacy on the centenary of the first Georgian Republic and the 30th anniversary of independence from Soviet rule. Further details and booking information can be found here.
Anna Chelidze, Curator Georgian Collections
Anzor Erkʿomaišvili = Anzor Erkosmaisvili. Kʿartʿuli pʿonočʿanacerebi ucʿxoetši = Georgian pohonogram recordings abroad. (HUS 016.7809475)
04 January 2019
Many researchers who have explored the extensive Spanish collections of the British Library will have consulted the Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Spanish Language in the British Museum (London, 1875-1893; RAR 090.16 Eng). Compiled by the orientalist and bibliophile Pascual de Gayangos y Arce (1809-1897), the work can be seen not only as a scholarly catalogue, but also as exemplifying his role as a cultural bridge between Spain and the English-speaking world.
Pascual de Gayangos y Arce, from La Ilustración Española y Americana, 8 October 1897. LOU.F899
For some six decades, Gayangos was arguably the most respected Spanish scholar in both Britain and the United States. His first contact with the British Museum occurred during a research visit to London in 1835 when he learned of the acquisition of manuscripts from the library of Juan de Iriarte (1703-71), who had been the Spanish Royal Librarian. He even added to the Spanish collections the following year when he sold a series of original letters relating to the history of England and Spain to the Museum (now BL Egerton MS 616).
In 1837, Gayangos set up home in London in order to carry out research for his major work, The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain (London, 1840-1843; 14003.f.23), based on manuscripts held by the Museum. Soon, he became a familiar figure in the reading rooms. The American historian Jared Sparks commented to William H. Prescott in 1840 that among ‘a hundred readers and transcribers, of all nations and tongues … you see Gayangos eagerly poring over his Arabic manuscripts’. During this time he willingly aided a growing number of scholars; hunted in library, book trade and auction catalogues and in private collections for Spanish books and manuscripts; wrote on Spanish topics for books, journals and encyclopaedias; gained the friendship of Hispanophiles such as Richard Ford; and performed the role of ‘literary ambassador’ for Spain in London. It was in 1842 when, according to Gayangos himself, he began his catalogue of the Museum’s Spanish manuscripts as an aid to his own research. In 1843, however, he returned to Spain where he was appointed to the chair of Arabic at the University of Madrid, but this did not prevent him from strengthening his links with ‘dear old England’.
Annual visits to London began in 1855 and he continued to note systematically the Museum’s new acquisitions of Spanish materials. He also investigated its rare riches such as the Bauzá collection of maps and charts when, in the 1860s, he was commissioned by the Spanish Government to study documents relating to the historical rights of Spain to her colonies. Significantly too, he generously shared his discoveries with fellow scholars such as William Stirling-Maxwell, John Rutter Chorley, Edward Churton, Frederick W. Cosens and, later, Henry Spencer Ashbee and Norman Maccoll. The British Museum Trustees were therefore happy to entrust the Spanish manuscripts project to a scholar who, on Stirling-Maxwell’s recommendation, ‘has had some considerable share in furnishing materials for almost every good English book on any Spanish subject which has appeared during the last thirty years’. Gayangos made the formal proposal in 1867. He retired from the chair in Madrid in 1870.
Despite his age, Gayangos showed phenomenal vitality during the last three decades of his life and, while continuing to work on the Catalogue, he visited Simancas, Brussels and Vienna. He was also employed by the Public Record Office in the continuation of the Calendar… of State Papers relating to England and Spain. His career came to a sad end on 28 September 1897 when, crossing Southampton Row, probably en route to or from the Museum, a ‘badly driven horse’ knocked him to the ground, causing his death some days later. For those interested in ‘las cosas de España’, he left behind the Catalogue and the Calendar, just two of ‘his long series of impersonal, objective works’ that, in the words of James Fitzmaurice-Kelly, ‘but faintly mirrored’ his true stature. Today the two works, the Catalogue and the Calendar, remain essential reference tools and can be consulted on the open access shelves of the British Library.
Santiago Santiño Ramírez de Alda, Historian and Author
Calendar of letters, despatches and state papers relating to the negotiations between England and Spain… vols. 3-7 (London, 1871-99) HLR 941.
Cristina Álvarez Millán and Claudia Heide (eds.), Pascual de Gayangos. A Nineteenth-Century Spanish Arabist (Edinburgh, 2008) YC.2009.a.4466.
James Fitzmaurice-Kelly, ‘Chronique’, Revue Hispanique, 4 (1897), 337-41, p. 341.
Santiago Santiño, Pascual de Gayangos (1809-1897). Erudición y cosmopolitismo en la España del Siglo XIX (Pamplona, 2018) YF.2018.a.9696.
Roger Wolcott (ed.), The Correspondence of William Hickling Prescott (1833-1847) (Boston & New York, 1925) 010902.i.30..
14 May 2018
John Bax (1793-1863) was an administrator in the Bombay Civil Service. Throughout his working life he kept a meticulous record of his travels between England and India, as well as around Great Britain, and across continental Europe and the Middle East. Two volumes of Bax’s journals have been digitised for the Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme, thanks to Bax’s descriptions of Arabia and Persia. However, these volumes also offer us an insight into life in early 19th-century Europe.
Header for diary entries describing Bax’s journey from England to Persia during 1824/25. Mss Eur F377/1.
Bax’s overland journey from England to India during 1824 and 1825 is particularly illuminating, not least because it offers fascinating vignettes of life in the Habsburg Empire. Bax’s journey through the Empire’s dominions covered in excess of 1,000 kilometres. It took him from Salzburg to Vienna, where he stayed for several weeks over Christmas 1824, and then onwards to Buda and Pest, through Transylvania, stopping at the towns of Temeswar [Timisoara] and Hermanstadt [Sibiu], before passing into the Turkish province of Wallachia.
Bax’s diary entries reveal something of the internal contradictions and tensions of the Habsburg Empire; of the contrasts between its centre and far-flung frontiers, of strict religious codes versus cosmopolitanism, and the stark contrasts that existed between courtly opulence and provincial poverty.
Between Munich and Salzburg Bax noted that the ‘road is protected by whole troops of saints, several of whom were comfortably housed in a kind of sentry box.’ Of Salzburg itself Bax wrote that ‘the bigotry of [the town’s] inhabitants is of ancient date and no Protestant is permitted to domicile there.’ Bax added that ‘We were required to specify our religion immediately upon arrival’ (f 209).
Bax was ambivalent about Vienna. He described the ‘want of energy and activity of the inhabitants’ and the ‘changeless monotony of society’ as not befitting the capital of a large Empire. However, Bax did note that ‘all the finery and clothes of the city’ were on display at the Prater on New Year’s Day, and that the music of the carnival seasons was ‘universally of the superior order’. Bax appears to have thought the most ‘imposing spectacle’ of his stay was the funeral procession of an Austrian Field Marshal (ff 210-211).
When Bax arrived at Buda the town was still a distinctly separate entity from Pest, its modern neighbour, on the opposite bank of the Danube. 24 years elapsed after Bax’s visit before the Széchenyi Chain Bridge linked the two towns. In Buda, Bax wrote that during ‘the summer months, there is a bridge of forty-seven boats’ across the river, which were opened up for one hour each morning to allow the passage of other vessels up and down river (f 213).
In 1825, large parts of the Habsburg Empire had been liberated from Ottoman rule only a century previously. In Transylvania, Bax saw for himself past and present attempts to protect the region’s towns from the Turks. His journal indicates the contrast between the ‘strong fortified’ Timisoara and the ‘dilapidated’ red brick walls of Sibiu. On the road between Timisoara and Sibiu, Bax wrote of villages ‘built of wood and mud’, in which ‘poverty seemed to reign on every side in pale and wan squalidity’ (f 215).
When Bax arrived in Sibiu the carnival season was in full swing. He described dancing crowds of ‘Germans, Hungarians, Greeks, Saxons and Transilvanians [who] were nightly exhibiting a succession of the most intricate figures.’ On his departure from the town he witnessed a marriage procession, led by a man ‘bearing aloft a long pole to which streamers of various colours were attached’, followed by a fiddler, the bride and groom, and a ‘mob of men and women and children’ (ff 216-217).
You can read more of John Bax’s travels throughout Europe and elsewhere, in the first of his two volumes of travel journals, now available online on the Qatar Digital Library.
Mark Hobbs, Content Specialist, Gulf History, Qatar Project
29 March 2017
You’d be forgiven for thinking the British Library’s Stefan Zweig Study Day, which took place on Monday 20 March, would be a sombre occasion. Beginning with Klemens Renoldner, esteemed Director of the Stefan Zweig Centre in Salzburg, and his presentation entitled ‘When Europe was destroyed’ and ending with translator and poet Will Stone’s readings from the essay collection, Messages from a Lost World: Europe on the Brink (London, 2016; ELD.DS.115440), the programme might have struck a warning rather than warming tone. Yet the Library’s day of events brought together experts and fans – old and new – in a true celebration of Stefan Zweig and his collection of manuscripts around the 75th anniversary of his death.
In the sold-out Eliot Room of the Library’s Knowledge Centre, guests were presented a programme that united the very latest research – namely on Zweig’s personal library, and on the relationship between Richard Strauss and Zweig –, the anecdotal and personal aspects of Zweig’s experiences across Europe, as well as the writer’s own words in the most recent translations of his more political essays. As Will Stone read from the concluding essay in Messages from a Lost World, ‘In this Dark Hour’, written in 1941, the day approached its end with the lines: ‘Darkness must fall before we are aware of the majesty of the stars above our heads’.
As darkness fell on Monday and on the study day, the shining stars of the Stefan Zweig Collection took centre stage at the Library’s ‘Evening of Music and Poetry from the Zweig Collection’. As Samuel West spoke the first lines in the role of Zweig himself, the audience was welcomed into a different era.
In the words of West, and Zweig, following the performances of Schubert’s ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ and ‘An die Musik’ by soprano Ilona Domnich and baritone Simon Wallfisch respectively, accompanied on the paino by Simon Callghan, we forgot ‘time and space in our passionate enthusiasm, truly transported to a better world’.
Our performers navigated the often turmoiled life of Stefan Zweig through diary entries and letters, piercing the darkness of war and exile with moments of hope and friendship, and by bringing to life the sublime moments of creativity present in the manuscript collection.
From Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, via Keats, Verlaine and Wilde, to Mahler and Richard Strauss, Europe’s cultural heritage was on show, so that we for a moment could only share Zweig’s feeling that in the collection was the whole universe. As Zweig exited the stage, disillusioned with collecting and with a Europe lost to him forever, it was left for Ilona Domnich to bid us goodnight and to let the darkness fall once again with Strauss’s ‘Beim Schlafengehen’.
We thank all those involved in bringing the Zweig Collection to life and we hope to become aware once more in the near future of the majesty of those stars above our heads and in our collections.
Pardaad Chamsaz, Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Library / University of Bristol
The Catalogue of the Literary and Historical Manuscripts from the British Library Stefan Zweig Collection is now published and can be purchased through BL Publishing. A display of manuscripts from the Zweig Collection will be in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery until 11 June.
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- Celebrating the Stefan Zweig Collection