Angelo Mai and the palimpsests
Angelo Mai (1782-1854) was a Catholic scholar of Greek and Latin texts who began his academic career at the Ambrosian Library in Milan and continued at the Vatican Library from the end of 1819; he became a cardinal of the Catholic Church in 1837. He sought to publish as many unknown classical and patristic texts as possible. He found the removed texts on clear-washed folios of manuscripts as the richest resource of new discoveries. He carried out a systematic survey of the holdings of both Libraries and conducted experiments with the manuscripts which he found promising for new discoveries.
His major discoveries at the Vatican Library included Cicero’s De re publica which immediately brought him international fame after its discovery. After arriving in Rome on November 7, 1819, Mai immediately began to study the Bobbio manuscripts, since he already knew the high number of ancient texts recycled in them based on his experience in Milan (Biblioteca Ambrosiana) and Turin. In the end, Mai discovered and published dozens of new texts, mostly from parchment folios which were clear-washed. To facilitate his job of discovery, he used chemical reagents to recover the faint and hardly legible lower texts. After trying various recipes, Angelo Mai chose distilled Gall nut to regain legibility of the erased lower texts of palimpsests. Mai was not alone in his invasive method; rather, he followed the practice of his generation but at an industrial scale. No doubt, his treatments heavily damaged many of the manuscripts that were treated.
The oxidation provoked by the Gallic acid as well as the rust of the iron content often burnt the parchment leaves: shortly after treatment the parchment folios turned dark, often almost black, dry, and fragmented. Since the damaged manuscripts often contained unique texts and are highly challenging to decipher, they prove disappointing for textual scholars, conservators, and image scientists today. While acknowledging Angelo Mai’s industrious publishing activity and important advances, in the deciphering of texts, he did not take the time to go into greater depth with care, with the result that textual scholars have to work with these damaged and often illegible manuscripts.
Although to a lesser degree, textual scholars share the critical tone of the conservators. For image scientists, however, the judgment is more ambivalent because they have more sympathy with Mai’s enthusiasm for experiments, while they offer means of non-invasive deciphering both for the textual scholars and conservators. If combined with the latest modern technology, Angelo Mai’s controversial intervention may bring results in some cases and not in others.