Searching for Africa

The Laurenziana Library, located in the convent of San Lorenzo, holds a collection of nearly 11,000 manuscripts, 2,500 papyri, and 1,213 first editions. In 1571, when the library opened to the public, the reading room was designed by Michelangelo and contained about 3,000 manuscripts from the Medici private library. The volumes remain preserved with the red leather bindings and chains which originally bound the manuscripts to the desks, also known as plutei, afterwhich this collection took its name.

Cosimo the Elder was an avid collector of ancient manuscripts. After him the Medici family collection would be greatly expanded by Piero the Gouty, Lorenzo the Magnificent, Pope Leo X and Pope Clement VII. In particular, Leo X reacquired the Medicean manuscripts from the San Marco Library which had been donated by Cosimo the Elder to the convent. Clement VII reunited the other collections and commissioned Michelangelo to design and build the first public library of Florence. After Michelangelo’s departure from Florence in 1534 the library was completed by Tribolo, Vasari, and Ammannati. In the following centuries other private collections of ancient manuscripts were acquired by the Laurenziana, among them the Oriental collection which was much desired by Grand Duke Ferdinand I.

Under the superintendence of Grand Duke Francis I of Lorraine, Angelo Maria Bandini, Director of the Library from 1757 to 1803, implemented a policy of acquiring Greek and Latin texts in the pursuit of a harmonious balance of material throughout the collection. Grand Duke Leopold II further increased the purchasing policy of the library resulting in the acquisition of many collections of books from diverse locations (codex from Santa Croce Church, 1767; codex called Orientali Palatini, 1771; codex from Real Galleria, 1775; codex from Santa Maria del Fiore, 1778; Lateranensi primi, 1778; Lateranensi secondi, 1783; Lotaringi Palatini, 1783; Segniani; i Caddiani secondi; Biscioniani secondi; Strozziani, 1785; Amiatini, 1785; codex from Frati del Bosco in Mugello, 1789).

In the 19th century important collections were donated to the Laurenziana, such as the collection of first editions of Greek and Latin classics from Angelo Maria d’Elci (known as the d’Elci collection) and the collection of manuscripts from the mathematician Lord Bertram Ashburnham.

African Manuscripts in the Laurenziana

The Laurenziana Library preserves two critical collections of manuscripts from Africa. The Coptic collection is comprised of four manuscripts meanwhile the Ethiopic collection contains twenty-four. Although the number of manuscripts is inferior to the preponderant presence of Arabic, Turkish, Syriac, Hebrew, and Persian texts, the African manuscripts still have an important role in the collection. Some of the African manuscripts were acquired by Ferdinando de’ Medici in Rome for the Stamperia Medicea, a Medicean Publisher. The Stamperia Medicea itself was founded in 1584 and moved to Florence in the following centuries. In 1771, 578 Oriental manuscripts from the Roman Stamperia Medicea were located to the Laurenziana including two notable Ethiopic texts: the Orientale 70 and the Orientale 148. The other African manuscripts were acquired later, mainly in the 19th century, and belong to the Acquisti e doni fund.

Many of the Ethiopic manuscripts at the Laurenziana Library are considerably ancient (14th – 15th centuries) and bear interesting contents to be analyzed and critically compared with other editions. For example, the Orientale 148 is the most ancient codex of a Synod in Europe (1426); the Orientale 70 contains the Letters of St. Paul; the Gaddiano 230 refers to the Apocalypse of St. John; the San Marco 741 bears anaphoras; while Acquisti e doni 38 contains a work of the Ethiopic literature called The Book of the Sun. The majority of the African manuscripts refer to religious texts, but also include texts on literature, grammar, and even magic. Below is a brief survey of the location of these manuscripts in the Laurenziana Library and their general contents:

Coptic manuscripts
Acquisti e doni 161 – Bible in Coptic
Orientale 36 – Grammar book in Coptic
Orientale 39 – Psalms and Holy texts
Orientale 41 – Grammar book in Coptic

Ethiopic manuscripts
Acquisti e doni 38 – Book of the Sun
Acquisti e doni 306 – Antiphonary
Acquisti e doni 384 – Book of prayers in Ethiopic
Acquisti e doni 679 – Breviary and prayers to the Virgin
Acquisti e doni 680 – Book of the Father God, The Son and the Holy Spirit
Acquisti e doni 681 – Religious treaty
Acquisti e doni 720 – Prayers to Virgin Mary
Acquisti e doni 755 – Bible in Ethiopic
Acquisti e doni 756 – Magic texts in Ethiopic
Acquisti e doni 776 – Collection of homilies to St. Michel
Acquisti e doni 784 – Prayers in Ethiopic
Acquisti e doni 810 – Mashafa Geuzu
Acquisti e doni 811 – Salterio (collection of 150 Psalms) in Ethiopic
Acquisti e doni 812 – Salterio (collection of 150 Psalms) in Ethiopic
Acquisti e doni 821 – Magic prayers in Ethiopic
Acquisti e doni 832 – Prayers in Ethiopic
Acquisti e doni 838 – Salterio (collection of 150 Psalms) in Ethiopic
Acquisti e doni 854 – Magic prayers in Ethiopic
Gaddiano 230 – Apocalypse of St. John
Orientale 70 – Letters of St. Paul
Orientale 148 – Synod
Orientale 321 – Lexicon and Grammar book
Orientale 403- Prayers to the Virgin Mary
San Marco 741 – Anaphoras


A. M. BANDINI, Catalogus codicum Latinorum Bibliothecae Mediceae Laurentianae, Florentiae, Praesidibus Adnuentibus, 1774 – 1778, vol. I-V
A. M. BANDINI, Bibliotheca Leopoldina Laurentiana, seu Catalogus manuscriptorum qui iussu Petri Leopoldi Arch. Austr. Magni Etr. Ducis in Laurentianam translati sunt. Quae in singulis codicibus continentur accuratissime describuntur, edita supplentur et emendantur, Florentiae, Typis Caesareis, 1791 – 1793, vol. I-III
P. MARRASSINI, I manoscritti etiopici della Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana di Firenze, Roma-Napoli, 1987, pp. 81 – 116; 1988, pp. 69 – 110 (estr. da Rassegna di studi etiopici, 30, 1984 – 86; 31, 1987