Cataloguing, Manuscripts, and Provenance

Part of our goal in Ostiglia is to perform a very delicate balancing act. We are trying to find equilibrium between two very different, and seemingly incompatible, things. On one hand, we are working with a library catalogue. Traditionally, catalogues attempt to standardize as much as possible, often minimizing the differences between two of the same conceptual objects. For example, a catalogue might identify two different items transmitting Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice under the same uniform (and sometimes arbitrarily invented) title. This is very helpful for a person attempting to locate a particular material manifestation of a conceptual work. Imagine trying to use any library catalogue that does not use standard or uniform titles. If each copy of Gluck’s opera had only a slight variation of the name (such as “Eurydice” instead of “Euridice”), the user of such a catalogue might not ever be directed to both of these items, even thought they transmit identical musical material. Thus, to facilitate the location of the conceptual object, a catalogue downplays the differences in the physical properties of any number of items that contain the same conceptual material through the application of standardized versions of the information they transmit.


On the other hand, we are working with manuscripts. By their very nature, two manuscripts that contain Gluck’s opera rarely transmit identical information. Often there are changes that are very significant in one’s understanding of the manuscript’s content. One might find changes in musical content (such as alternate instrumentation, scoring, etc.) or physical properties (such as the mise en page, a messy v. fair copy, etc.) that reveal a great deal of information about performance, use, and history of the conceptual item. In this view, highlighting the differences in the physical items a very important and revealing. In so doing, relies less on authority lists of names and titles and instead concentrates on diplomatic transcriptions and descriptions drawn from each individual manuscript. The problem with this approach to cataloguing is one of scope. Each manuscript is a delightful repository of unique historical information that, when unchecked, will demand a cataloguer’s exclusive attention for far longer than the time allotted.

In creating a catalogue of manuscripts, then, we seek (we hope not in vain) for a comfortable equilibrium between representing the uniqueness of each manuscript while still offering the usability of a traditional catalogue. We carefully document as many of the unique features that seem important within clearly defined parameters. This helps us avoid succumbing to the temptation to dive too deep into the details of the physical item while still allowing us to add more depth to the standardized titles we assign. Of course, this approach requires making interpretive decisions, and the process has exposed the subjectivity of any catalogue (at least for me). Too often I interact with a catalogue as if it transmitted information objectively, but that myth is now decisively busted.

Adding an extra dimension to this delicate balance, we are primarily interested in the collectorship of manuscripts. As a group, we have talked a great deal about this. Conceptually, we understand collectorship as an added layer to an already complex and unique manuscript. Like a new binding on an old book, this newer layer surrounds the older manuscript layer.


Certainly, the picture is far more complex in reality. The physical evidence of the provenance of a manuscript (what I am referring to as “collectorship”) constitutes more then a wrapper; it often leaves traces on every page of a manuscript (Greggiati, for example, has added his own pagination in nearly every manuscript of the collection). In addition, the separation between these layers is permiable. Frequently, we find evidence of the provenance or collectorship layer of a manuscript influencing the original manuscript layer , such as Greggiati commissioning a manuscript copy to be made that will allow space for his later commentary. The model is further complicated by the evidence of previous owners. Imagine a scenario, for example, in which a “completed” manuscript is acquired by a collector of some kind, who then adds musical or textual information before it moves on to yet another owner. There are several early music manuscripts that are the result of this kind of activity. In these scenarios, trying to separate “manuscript” from “provenance” is very difficult, and it is deceptive to imagine that these layers are completely separate and distinguishable at any level.

Still, conceptually the process is very helpful in accounting for many elements present in a manuscript. Once complete, the manuscript travels from one owner to another, from one collection to another, and each stop leaves its own unique physical evidence. From our experience thus far, this evidence often takes the form of marginalia, old shelfmarks, or added commentary. As we have recently learned from Alfredo Vittolo in Bologna, water stains and paper worm holes are also physical evidence of a manuscript’s historical path (more on this in a later post). Often we find ourselves talking through the hypothetical scenarios of the provenance of a particular manuscript. We ask questions like, “what did this manuscript look like when Greggiati first touched it?” or “what evidence is there that this is an addition and not original?”

To complicate things a little more, we are not only thinking about the history of just one manuscript. We are thinking about how the physical evidence of a single manuscript fits in to the collective history of all of the manuscripts at the Greggiati archive. We can really only get a sense of “collectorship” by combining all of the details of provenance from all of the manuscripts in the collection. Notes that seem insignificant in one manuscript become much more interesting when one observes that a similar mark occurs consistently throughout the collection. For example, often there is a pencil marking on the first page of each manuscript, reading “comp pul.” Elisa, the librarian of the archive, believes it to be in the hand of Greggiati but has not been able to understand its meaning. If it occurred in just one manuscript it would be only a curiosity, but that it occurs in most manuscripts makes the mystery more compelling. In a few manuscripts we have found an alternate version of this marking that gets us closer to the answer. Occasionally it reads, “completo pul.” At this point, our hypothesis is that it relates to the purchasing of the manuscript, and that these markings refer to its condition. “Completo” means that the musical item the manuscript contains is complete. We are still unsure about “pul,” but our best guess at this point is “pulito,” meaning that it is a fairly clear (not heavily marked) copy. The only way to make any sense of this particular marking (or any other detail of a manuscript’s individual provenance) is to extend our analytical view to include the entire manuscript collection.

In the end, we are involved in a triple balancing act. We negotiate the tension between a manuscript’s uniqueness and the need for its standardization in cataloguing. At the same time we teeter between a manuscript’s different layers. Still further, we are thinking about the provenance of just one manuscript and the provenance of the entire collection. The result of this nifty circus routine is a very unique research tool that we hope will spark interesting research and other similar cataloguing projects.


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