These days, the security arrangements around the Book of Kells are “as
complex as presidential protection undertaken by the secret services of
a great nation,” de Hamel tells us. Bernard Meehan, the keeper of
manuscripts at Trinity, explains to de Hamel that “it would be
inappropriate to allow it into the reading-room,” given the book’s
pricelessness. In order to see the book, de Hamel must sit at “a
circular green-topped table, prepared in advance with foam pads, a
digital thermometer, and white gloves.” He is not allowed to turn the
pages himself. De Hamel writes that after he showed Meehan an early
version of the chapter describing this process, Meehan “begged me not to
describe too precisely where we had looked at the volumes of the
precious manuscript.”

De Hamel has a rather different experience encountering the Codex
Amiatinus, the earliest surviving manuscript of the complete Latin
Vulgate, and therefore the best witness to St. Jerome’s fourth-century
translation of the Bible into Latin—a text of incalculable value for the
Catholic Church. The book was manufactured in England at the end of the
seventh century, in the community of the Venerable Bede, but by the
ninth century it was in the possession of the Abbey of the Saviour, near
the Tuscan lava dome Monte Amiata, hence the name. The Abbey was closed,
by the grand duke Pietro Leopoldo, in the seventeen-eighties, and the
book was sent to the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, in Florence, where
it resides today. When de Hamel arrives to see it, he walks past a
cloister and a garden—“I am sure that the fruit trees are oranges but my
guidebook asserts them to be pomegranates,” he writes—to the library
office, where he finds two women chatting. They summon a man in jeans,
who leads de Hamel to a “little room evidently used for photography,”
where de Hamel nestles among “camera stands, filing cabinets of
microfilms and a photocopier.” The man and a colleague point to “a
trolley with a bulky shape under a blanket. ‘Amiatina!’ they declared.”
De Hamel is left with the book, “entirely unsupervised,” joined only “by
the occasional person who wandered through to use the photocopier.”

Why is the oldest surviving version of Catholicism’s most important text
condemned to life under a blanket, while the Book of Kells lives behind
glass like the Pope in his Popemobile?

As with all things, the answer is political. The Book of Kells became
famous in the nineteenth century, during the Celtic revival. The book
was made in Ireland and is associated with a Saint Columba, who lived in
the sixth century and died just as Saint Augustine came to Canterbury,
from Rome, to convert Britain. The Irish nationalists who took the Book
of Kells to heart were subverting the centralized power of the Catholic
Church, located in Rome for centuries. The Book of Kells came to
symbolize Irish cultural heritage; in contemporary visual shorthand, the
looping interlaced patterns on the Book of Kells’s “carpet pages” are
synonymous with the term “Celtic.” James Joyce described the book, in a
letter to the gallerist Arthur Power, as “the most purely Irish thing we
have.” Like Joyce, the Book of Kells is a linchpin of Irish identity and
thus a key element in the political matrix of its nationhood. (Also,
like Joyce, the Book of Kells has appeared on currency.)

The Codex Amiatinus, in a strangely symmetrical kind of opposition,
belongs to a nation overflowing with historical legacies. It was
ecclesiastical property, then it was the property of the Medicis, who
built the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, which was designed by
Michelangelo. It now belongs to the Italian government. Amiatinus is
undoubtedly a priceless treasure in Italy, but it is a priceless
treasure among countless priceless treasures. You might compare the
contrasting attitudes of the Italian and Irish librarians to the
parenting styles of two mothers, one with many robust offspring and the
other fretting frenziedly over her only son.

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