Dating to the late fifth century, the Vergilius Romanus, or Roman Vergil, is a rare illustrated manuscript of a Classical literary text. It is significant in the art historical record as both an example of the transition from scrolls to books and also of elite manuscript production during a time of political and social collapse.
Its nineteen remaining illustrations helped establish practices that became common for manuscript illumination through the medieval period such as seated author portraits and red borders to separate pictures from text. The placement of illustrations at the beginning of each book is used to visually demarcate sections of the work.
The Roman Vergil contains the major works of Vergil in Classical Latin. The high quality of the parchment and flashy Rustic capital script suggests it was created in Rome, however the naïve quality of the illuminations may point to provincial manufacture. It is among the most important and best-preserved illustrated manuscripts from Late Antiquity.
A Rare Illustrated Classical Manuscript
Nineteen of the estimated original forty-two illuminations remain. The first picture, Meliboeus Saluting Tityrus, is the only one without a red border or background and is more directly influenced by scroll illuminations. All of the others are far more innovative for their time.
The first seven, including three generic author portraits, are partial-page illustrations placed within the text. The last twelve are all full-page including two surviving two-page spreads: a bucolic scene of herdsmen with their flocks, the composition of which shows parallels to floor mosaics, and the Council of the Gods depicting the ten major gods of the Roman pantheon.
The style is rather naïve and the use of color lacks subtlety. It represents a departure from the naturalistic rendering of figures in the Classical period to the highly stylized and flattened forms of the early medieval period. Bands of calligraphic embellishment are also found as decoration within the prefix material.
The Major Works of Vergil
The Roman Vergil retains about three-quarters of its original folios, although some of the surviving pages are in poor condition. It contains the major works of Vergil: the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the Aeneid. The Rustic capitals text is presented in a single column of 18 lines.
Corrections to the text have been made throughout. It is the only late Antique manuscript to preserve supplementary materials such as the argumentum and monostichon—additions that would become standard in later Carolingian copies.
A Roman and Parisian Manuscript
Possibly made in Rome, though there is some argument for a provincial center, the Roman Vergil’s first four centuries are shrouded in mystery. Perhaps acquired by Charlemagne, the manuscript was in France by 865. It was kept at St. Denis until the fifteenth century with some corrections to the text made in the eleventh century.
It appears in the Vatican’s records in 1475 but was confiscated by Napoleon in 1797. It was in the Bibliothèque Nationale until 1816 at which point it was returned to the Vatican, where it remains.