Books, Bridges of Peace and the Franciscan libraries in Jerusalem

Blog-post author  Dr Michele Campopiano, University of York (UK)


Jerusalem has not just been a centre of pilgrimage for different religious groups. It has also been a place of learning and accumulating books in various languages in different epochs. Among the most significant libraries are those of the Franciscan Convent of Saint Saviour, which inherited large part of the book collections of the Franciscan libraries in the Holy Land, such as that of ancient convent of Mount Zion and those of other Franciscan convents of the Custody (Aleppo, Bethlehem, Ein Karem, Nazareth). Some were purchased on the antiquarian book market by the Commissariat of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C., in the first half of the 20th century. These manuscripts and early prints help us understand the cultural life of the Franciscan Custody in the late Medieval and Early Modern periods, as I will show in my monograph on the Franciscans and the memory of the Holy Land. As we know, the Franciscans played a major role in guiding and providing assistance to pilgrims in the late Middle Ages and accumulated a large book patrimony to fulfil different needs, from liturgy to medicine.

The project Libri Ponti di Pace (Books, Bridges of Peace) has valorised this important heritage. The project, directed by Edoardo Barbieri, is shared by ATS pro Terra Sancta and by the Centro di Ricerca Europea Libro Editoria Biblioteca of the Catholic University of Milan and it has involved a large number of young and skilled volunteers, and was supported by the Father Guardians Francesco Patton and Pierbattista Pizzaballa (Custos of the Holy Land in the years 2004-2016) and the Father librarians Lionel Goh and Marcello Badalamenti. The project has also fostered dialogue between representatives of Hebrew, Arabic, Armenian libraries in Jerusalem. A general description of the project can be found here.

The project has reorganised the material which was contained in the deposits of the Franciscan convent, creating a website and a modern OPAC which is accessible online.

This catalogue allows access to the entire collections of the General Library of the Custody of the Holy Land and to the Library of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, for a total of more than 100,000 volumes in different languages. We can also access an online catalogue of the Latin manuscripts of the Custody, an inventory of all the manuscripts.

A catalogue of the books from the 15th and 16th centuries will soon be published by Luca Rivali. A list of these items is however already online.

The project has also described the 17th-century prints kept in the Franciscan libraries (more than 1,200) and the medical texts inherited from the conventual pharmacy.

The library represents a crucial resource for all scholars of pilgrimage literature. The library holds a fund of Itinera ad loca sancta, the itineraries to the Holy Places, which includes 147 editions (for a total of 203 pieces) for the 15th-18th centuries in the Library of the Custodia and the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum. Descriptions of these different exemplars can be found in the recently published Itinera ad loca sancta. I libri di viaggio delle Biblioteche Francescane di Gerusalemme published by Alessandro Tedesco for the Edizioni Terra Santa (Milan 2017). An online catalogue can be found here.

The formation of these catalogues, which follows clear scientific criteria, represents a first form of valorisation of the important cultural heritage that has been kept within the walls of the Jerusalem convent. The project has also resulted in the organization of different exhibitions. These exhibitions have produced useful catalogues, such as the Ars atificialiter scribendi. An exhibition of XVth century books in the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land (Jerusalem 2016). The catalogue, edited by Luca Rivali and Lorenzo Salamone (Jerusalem ATS pro Terra sancta, 2016), provides a description of a large part of the incunables of the library. The catalogues of all the exhibitions, including virtual exhibitions, organised till now are accessible on the website. The next exhibition (on biblical manuscripts and early prints) will be open to the public on the 6-8 November of this year.

This is just a small portion of the results of the project, which has made a decisive contribution to making this material available to scholars and to all interested readers. The project has also shown the importance of interacting with these books as artefacts. The direct contact with the volumes in their materiality cannot be replaced by their fruition as digital reproductions. Manuscripts and early prints, but also modern books carry a wealth of information and provide a series of intellectual stimuli which can only be fully appreciated by seeing, touching and holding them. It is in this way that the Franciscan libraries reveal themselves not as simple book depositories, but as a treasure house which contributes to the study of the history of Jerusalem.