A Wider World, I

How the Orient Came to Rome

The scholarship done in the curia was not limited to Greek and Roman texts. The popes took a serious interest in Hebrew, the original language of the Old Testament and still the hole language of the Jews. Christian scholars at Rome, as elsewhere in Europe, were captivated by the Cabalistic mysticism of some Jewish commentators on the Bible. Important members of the Curia, like Giles of Viterbo, believed as fervently as any rabbi that each letter of the Hebrew alphabet concealed deep theological mysteries. As the sixteenth century progressed, however, detailed knowledge of the real languages and cultures of the Near East grew, and facts began to displace myths. The Vatican developed one of the greatest collections in the world of Hebrew books, both handwritten and printed. Texts in Arabic and many other languages, from old Church Slavonic and Armenian to Syriac and Coptic, accumulated beside them. The Vatican became a center of what the humanists liked to call "trilingual" scholarship: the study of the Bible in its three great languages, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Rome, moreover, negotiated regularly with Christian churches and non-Christian powers all over the Mediterranean world and beyond, and individuals and small communities from Eastern Christian churches lived in and visited the city. During the sixteenth century the authorities took advantage of these opportunities for scholarship. Even as the Counter-Reformation damaged some areas of study, it promoted others. Rome became one of Europe's most productive centers of Oriental printing and study. Now you must decide if you want to examine the next room with a study of Eastern Languages or go back to the Main Hall.