Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana digitized manuscriptsBiblioteca Apostolica Vaticana and the 0.32%

The Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana is one of the world’s largest libraries in the world and is home to around 80’000 manuscripts. Of these, only 261 are digitized today (that is: 0.32%), although there is an ongoing effort to digitize more. We are going to give a look at the website where these manuscripts are kept and made available to everyone.

The link we have inserted in our DMMmaps takes the visitor directly to the list of all the available manuscripts. In all honesty, it is quite bare. One of the biggest issues of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana’s website is that there are no thumbnails available on this page. Beside the call number of the manuscript, there is no other information. This is not really a problem for researchers, who know exactly which manuscripts they want to see, but it does not help the medieval manuscript enthusiast who wants to visit the BAV digital library, to discover some of the most beautiful medieval manuscripts available online. This problem might easily be solved, since it is possible to visualize all thumbnails of any individual manuscript.

The Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana on the DMMmaps

Concerning lack of information, there is also no description of the content the user is visualizing. The user is given only the name of the manuscript, the call number,  the date, and the place of origin. This is also true for the miniatures. This obviously limits the enjoyment of a particular book: knowing that you are looking at a particular manuscript, which is important for this or that reason, is always a welcome plus in these kind of digitized libraries. This is even more true when it comes to the miniatures; people who have studied history of art, medieval manuscripts, or simply read the Bible, will identify easily the depicted scenes (most of the times), but, again, the casual visitor will be cut out. Clearly, describing every miniature takes time, but a short description really adds to the experience (see the Bodleian Library).

Image quality

Pal. lat. 1764 manuscript layout
One of Pal. lat. 1764’s particular layouts from the 1300’s.

The quality of the images of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana is good. Four levels of zoom are available and, at maximum zoom level, the images have a resolution of circa 1400 pixels by 2000 pixels. These are not the highest resolutions we have seen in the world of digitized medieval manuscripts; we would have liked to see a resolution of at least 2000 pixels by 3000 pixels (ideally: 3000 px by 5000 as by the Getty Museum.) Nonetheless the images of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana are large enough to appreciate every detail of a certain manuscript, and perfectly usable both by researchers and enthusiasts.


If a remark is possible, the colors of the digitized folios seem to be a bit dull and slightly under-exposed. This doesn’t affect the enjoyment of browsing through a manuscript at all though, but might be a concern for a researcher seeking color details. All manuscripts come with a color reference card in any case.

Erembert is asking for indulgence to Saint Martin Pope
One of the cases where a description of a miniature would be useful. Reading the Latin text we understand that Erembert is asking for indulgence to Saint Martin Pope.

We have taken the liberty of selecting some of the most beautiful manuscript examples from the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana and sharing them with you, here on our blog. Of course, it is extremely difficult to choose one out of 261 manuscripts, so our choice must not be seen in any way as a full representation of the wealth of the digitized library. We strongly recommend to go directly on the website and start browsing around. We are sure you will discover many treasures.

A Surprise: The Copyright

full page miniature in Pal. lat. 1632
A full-page miniature in Pal. lat. 1632. Serious looking falcon. Again, the absence of a description doesn’t help the viewer understand why it is there.

One of the most surprising aspects of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana digital library is the copyright with which the digitized medieval manuscripts are protected; this Creative Commons license that, surprisingly, also allows a commercial reuse of the images. The downside is that on all the pictures of the digitized folios there is a quite evident watermark. Nothing so invasive that will obstruct the viewing of a detail or a miniature, but it is clearly noticeable. Nevertheless, it is extremely positive to see that some of the most treasured medieval manuscripts of the world in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana are made available with such a license. With a little investigation, it is possible to notice that the Heidelberg University Library did the digitizing of the “Palatini” manuscripts ( a majority of the available digitized manuscripts.) This library already shares its own images under the same license. We hope that many other institutions will follow this example.

Final Words

two figures (unidentified) together with pens trials
A surprise at the end of Pal. lat. 18: two figures (unidentified) together with pens trials.

261 digitized manuscript is just a small fraction of the wealth that is in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, nevertheless, it is a good start. We are looking forward to the day when the digitization effort will have digitized all the manuscripts. Knowing that those days are possibly years in the future, the current situation is good enough, for now.

There are small improvements that, we believe, could be implemented on the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana website:

  • Thumbnails on the digitized manuscripts homepage.

Although not essential, it might attract more casual visitors.

  • Higher resolution images at maximum zoom.

As it has been mentioned the resolution is high, but could be higher. When it comes to digitization image quality: “melius abundare quam deficere”.

  • Removing the watermark from the pictures.

What is the worse that can happen to a digitized manuscript? That it gets printed out? That it is featured in a post? The watermarks are not as invasive as stamps, and in this case they are not that invasive, but the images would be better without.

  • Adding descriptions to the manuscripts and to the miniatures.

This would help both the occasional visitor and scholars.

In addition, obviously, more manuscripts!

A full page miniature of Christ
A full-page miniature of Christ from the early 9th century CE. Pal. lat. 220
Giulio Menna
Giulio is an MA graduate in Book and Digital Media Studies from Leiden University, the Netherlands. He is also system librarian at Leiden University Library. Founder and developer of Sexy Codicology and the DMMmaps Project; lover of medieval manuscripts and of all things digital.