Montaigne’s visit of the Vatican Library

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) arrived in Rome in November 1580, after a long journey across France, Germany and northern Italy. His Journal de voyage, intimate and never intended for publication, is our only source of information for what he did there. Although he constantly complained about the state of his health (renal colic, migraines, toothache, etc), he found the strength to visit the famous Vatican Library, the Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana. For anyone interested in the history of the book, his account is pretiosissimus, bearing on the state of the library (free access, morning visit hours, chained books, etc), the manuscripts and printed books consulted thereat, as well as observations of a rather palaeographical and codicological nature.

I have included a translation of the text in English, a list of the items mentioned by Montaigne, the identification made by François Rigolot (in ‘Curiosity, Contingency, and Cultural Diversity: Montaigne’s Readings at the Vatican Library’, 64:3 Renaissance Quarterly, pp. 847-874) as well as images of the items that have been digitised. We may come as close as possible, 438 years later, to Montaigne’s visit to the Library.

On the 6th of March I went to see the library of the Vatican, which is contained in five or six rooms all communicating one with the other. There are many rows of desks, each desk having a great number of books chained thereto. Also, in the chests, which were all opened for my inspection, I saw many manuscripts, of which I chiefly remarked a Seneca and the Opuscula of Plutarch. Amongst the noteworthy sights I saw was the statue of the good Aristides, with a fine head, bald and thickly bearded, a grand forehead, and an expression full of sweetness and majesty. The base is very ancient, and has his name written thereupon. I saw likewise a Chinese book writ in strange characters, on leaves made of a certain stuff much more tender and transparent than the paper we use, and because this fabric is not thick enough to bear the stain of ink, they write on only one side of the sheet, and the sheets are all doubled and folded at the outside edges by which they are held together. It is said that these sheets are the bark of a certain tree, as is a fragment of ancient papyrus which I saw covered with unknown characters. I saw also the Breviary of Saint Gregory in manuscript, which has no date, but the account they give of it states that it has come down from one hand to another from Saint Gregory s time. It is a missal not unlike our own, and it was taken to the recent Council at Trent as an authority for the ceremonies of our Church. Next, a book by Saint Thomas Aquinas, containing corrections made by the author himself, who wrote badly, using a small character worse even than my own. Next, a Bible printed on parchment, one of those which Plantin has recently printed in four languages, which book King Philip presented to the Pope, according to an inscription on the cover. Next, the original manuscript of the book which King Henry of England wrote against Luther and sent fifty years ago to Pope Leo X. It contains a subscription and a graceful Latin distich, both written by his own hand :

“Anglorum Rex Henricus, Leo decime, mittit
Hoc opus, & fidei testem & amicitae.”

I read both the prefaces, one to the Pope and the other to the reader. The king claims indulgence for any literary shortcomings on the score of his military occupations, but the style is good scholastic Latin. I inspected the library without any difficulty; indeed, anyone may visit it and make what extracts he likes; it is open almost every morning. I was taken to every part thereof by a gentleman, who invited me to make use of it as often as I might desire. Our ambassador quitted Rome just at this time without having ever seen the library, and he complained because pressure had been put upon him to beg this favour of Cardinal Charlet, and that he had never been allowed to inspect the manuscript Seneca, which he desired greatly to see. It was my good luck which carried me on to success, for, having heard of the ambassador’s failure, I was in despair. Thus it seems all things come easily to men of a certain temper, and are unattainable by others. Right occasion and opportunity have their privileges, and often hold out to ordinary folk what they deny to kings. Curiosity often stands in its own way, and the like may be affirmed of greatness and power. In the library I saw also a manuscript Virgil in an exceedingly large handwriting, of that long and narrow character which we see in Rome in inscriptions of the age of the Emperors somewhere about the reign of Constantine, a character which takes somewhat of Gothic form, and misses that square proportion which the old Latin inscriptions possess. The sight of this Virgil confirmed a belief which I have always held, to wit, that the four lines usually put at the opening of the Aeneid are borrowed, since this copy has them not. Also a copy of the Acts of the Apostles, written in very fair Greek golden character. The lettering is massive, solid in substance, and raised upon the paper, so that anyone who may pass his finger over the same will detect the thickness thereof. We have, I believe, lost all knowledge of this method.

(translated by W.G. Waters, 1903. The original in French is here)

According to the text, Montaigne saw the following items:

  • a manuscript containing works by Seneca and the Moral Essays of Plutarch’ (perhaps Vat. Lat. 1888, a manuscript decorated by Bartolomeo San Vito (ca. 1435–ca. 1518), the most famous
    miniaturist of the time:Vat1888.JPG
  • a Greek statue representing a rhetorician from Smyrna;
  • a book from China’’ (This document, usually referred to as the ‘‘stampato cinese,’’ was identified as a midsixteenth-century leaflet entitled SSEU-MA KOUANG. Tseu tche tong kien tsie yao, or Summary of the Historical Mirror, chapters 6–10);
  • a papyrus from Egypt (perhaps Vat. lat. 3777, images unavailable);
  • an old missal used as evidence before the Council of Trent (one of the most famous manuscripts in the Library, the Sacramentarium Fuldense:
  • a supposedly self-annotated book by Thomas Aquinas (Vat. lat. 3804, images unavailable);
  • the famous ‘‘Antwerp Polyglot Bible’’ or Biblia Regia, printed by Christophe Plantin (ca. 1520–89) in eight volumes between 1569 and 1572, containing the Old Testament in four languages (Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Aramaic) and the New Testament in three (Greek, Syriac, and Latin):
  • a gift from Henry VIII of England to Pope Leo X: this is the Assertio septem sacramentorum adversus Martinum Lutherum:
  • the famous Vergilius Romanus (Vat. lat. 3867), the only complete Virgil among the oldest extant manuscripts:
  • a Byzantine manuscript of the Acts of the Apostles given by the Queen of Cyprus to Pope Innocent VIII: (, a magnificent twelfth-century manuscript of
    the Acts of the Apostles and Letters given to Pope Innocent VIII by Charlotte de Lusignan when she came to Rome, as Queen of Cyprus, in the late 1480s):



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: