The Vergilius Romanus (Vat. lat. 3867
) contains the Aeneid,
, and some of the Ecologues
. With 309 vellum folios measuring 332 x 323 mm (of an estimated 410 folios originally), written in exceptionally elegant rustic capitals, the Vergilius Romanus
is one of the grandest of the very few illustrated codices surviving from Late Antiquity. Significantly larger in format than the Vergilius Vaticanus
, with which is it often confused, the Vergilius Romanus
was too heavy to hold and read; it was probably intended for display on a table.
Itt has been estimated that that the manuscript had 42 illustrations, of which 19 have survived. They were painted by at least two artists, both of whom are anonymous. The style of both artists represents the beginning of a break with classical style. The human form becomes abstracted and flattened and the naturalistic depiction of space is abandoned.
"The first artist painted a single miniature on folio 1 recto, an illustration for the First Eclogue. In it a cowherd, Tityrus, plays a flute while sitting under a tree. The heads of three cows look out from behind the tree. Meanwhile a standing goatherd, Meliboeus, leads a goat by its horns under a tree. More goats look out from behind that tree. This miniature shows some remnants of classical style. The cows and goats looking out from behind the trees are an attempt, albeit an unsuccessful one, at creating the appearance of space. The garments of the two men are draped naturally and the heads are shown in three quarter view. The miniature, unlike any miniature in this manuscript, is unframed which shows a connection to the tradition of papyrus roll illustration.
"The second artist demonstrates a more radical break from the classical tradition in the remaining miniatures. All of these miniatures are framed in red and gold. The artist seems to have no real understanding of the portrayal of the human body, and is incapable of handling a contorted pose, such as is seen on folio 100 verso
, where a reclining figure is portrayed in an utterly unconvincing manner. Faces are no longer portrayed in three quarter position but are either frontal or full profile. The clothing no longer drapes naturally but is instead reduced to rhythmic curving lines. The page is often divided into separate compartments (See, for example, Folio 108r
). When a landscape is depicted there is no attempt to depict a three-dimensional space. There is no ground line and items are spread evenly over the field. Care is taken so that items do not overlap each other. The effect is remarkably similar to some Roman floor mosaics
, which may have served as inspiration (see folios 44 verso
and 45 recto
. The second artist was a fine artist. However, his interests were in patterns and lines rather than in the naturalistic portrayal of space and the human form" (Wikipedia article Vergilius Romanus, accessed 10-2020).
The manuscript contains three author portraits (Folios 3v, 9r
, and 14 r
). These portraits, inserted in the text column within a frame, show a reliance on the early papyrus scroll tradition of manuscript portraits. The portraits show Vergil sitting on a chair, holding what may be a papyrus roll, between a lectern and a locked scrinium or chest that would have held papyrus rolls.
In his splendid monograph, The Roman Vergil and the Origins of Medieval Book Design
(2001) p. 68 David Wright provided an unusually detailed provenance for the manuscript, including comments on the later annotations it contains, as follows:
"For the later history of the manuscript, scattered corrections in the text show that the book remained in use in some Italian collection at least into the seventh century, but with the general collapse of classical Roman culture in Italy it must eventually have fallen into neglect. We have no firm evidence, but it is reasonable speculation that it may have been one of the manuscripts collected by Charlemagne when he was in Italy, perhaps at the time of his coronation in 800, and taken to his court in Aachen. Then when his library was dispersed after his dealth in 814 it seems to have gone to the royal abbey of Saint-Denis, where it certainly was during the Middle Ages. Some monks must have read it there early on, because a unique misspelling in the manuscript (Minoeia for Minoia in Aeneid 6.14) is quoted around 865 by Heric of Auxerre in his life of St. Germain, but there is no trace of any direct influence of theser miniatures on Carolingian art. Its text, on the other hand, was so prized at Saint-Denis that in the twelfth century, nearly forty small corrections were carefully written in, a unique case of such scholarly study of an ancient book in that era....
"It was still at Saint-Denis when Abbot Jehan Courtoys (1441-43) signed his name in it ... but by 1475 it was listed in the first inventory of the Vatican Library, perhaps changing hands at one of the church councils. When it appeared in that inventory Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, the future Pope Julius II, borrowed it for study. Then when the Florentine scholar Poliziano was in Rome in 1484 he studied it and cited its colphons to establish the correct spelling Vergilius instead of the medieval Virgilius. The Roman scholar Valeriano studied it in detail for his work on the text of Vergil published in 1521 and baptized the manuscript 'Codex Romanus' because of the truly Roman quality of its script."