Codex Vercellensis CXVII f. 112r

Digital Vercelli Book



During the last years human sciences have been enriched by many technological innovations: the computing era, in particular, is giving us not only precious ways to record and preserve information, but also to elaborate and circulate them. Internet, or the Net, is the latest means for scholars to keep in touch with members of the same academic community (thanks to e-mail, discussion groups, etc.) and to publish the results of their researches (mainly on the World Wide Web). The present technological restrictions of the Net, particularly the small bandwidth available to most end users, make it unfit to transmit videos, texts and images saved in content rich, but digitally demanding, format. However the future looks very promising, and new technology such as optical fibre cables and ADSL are slowly becoming mainstream. Another recent concept is multimedia: nowadays this concept is used in a incorrect way, the idea of the multimedia work hasn't been fully exploited yet, few published works are taking advantages of its enormous potentiality.

The ‘Codex Vercellensis’ (‘Vercelli Book’)

The Codex Vercellensis, or Vercelli Book, as it is known in the Anglo-Saxon world and now also in Italy, is a manuscript dating back to the end of the 10th century, containing miscellaneous religious works, in verse and prose. It is preserved in Vercelli, in the library of the S. Eusebio Cathedral under the index Codex CVII; it is made up of 136 folios of thin parchment, with a dimension of about 31x20 cm, well preserved, each of them containing between 23 and 32 lines. In the opinion of many scholars, the manuscript was written by a single scribe, who has been particularly diligent and meticulous in using the writing of that period, the Anglo-Saxon square minuscule. The Vercelli Book (from now on VB) contains 23 homilies in prose and 6 poetic works following the Anglo-Saxon alliterative metrics. Most probably this miscellaneous work was created to make a precious spiritual florilegium, useful for meditation and prayer. The presence of the manuscript in Vercelli has been proved since the beginning of the 12th century, but how the codex was moved from England to Vercelli during the 11th century is still unclear: the current hypothesis is that the manuscript might be a gift by an English pilgrim, grateful for the hospitality received in Vercelli during his trip to Rome.

The importance of this codex cannot be exaggerated:

Project aim

The main aim of this project is the production of a digital version of the manuscript in order to offer a practical and effective way to consult it both to scholars and to anyone who is interested in studying the codex, eliminating the need for a direct consultation. Secondly, the Digital Vercelli Book (from now on DVB) will collect all the texts preserved in the ms. and will provide them in various formats, together with tools for consultation and textual analysis.

Image Digitisation

Digitisation is a tool and not a purpose. The creation of a digital version of an image gives new life to the original and allows its use and manipulation by a new or wider audience.

Joanne Lomax, ‘Images of the Past, Technology of the Future: Creating Digital Image Collections’

The process of digitisation consists in the conversion of an original into a digital format. The original can have various forms: a picture, a video, a bureaucratic document, a piece of music, a whole photo-archive, etc. Once the digitisation is completed, we have an electronic copy of the original, a ‘digital copy’ that can be recorded, duplicated, elaborated and converted into other formats.

The main purpose of this operation is the duplication of the original in order to preserve it, both for security reasons2, and for saving it when the original is fragile3 as in this case. In this way we can replace the original with one or more digital copies in order to avoid deterioration due to its daily use.

Apart from this main aim, the digitisation can satisfy other important needs.

This last step is particularly interesting as far as concerns the digitisation of a manuscript. The experience of prof. Kevin S. Kiernan during his project known as Electronic Beowulf offers good evidence: the binding of the ms. Cotton Vitellius A XV, made in the last century by Sir Frederic Madden, was extremely important in stopping the deterioration of the manuscript, damaged during the fire of 1731 in the Cotton Library, but it has hidden several letters which are on the edges of parchment sheets.

Today they are visible only if one holds a bright light directly behind them, an ineffectual solution if one lacks the manuscript, the bright light, or the permission to use them together.
The digital camera at last provides us with a practical means of both revealing and recording these covered letters. The camera easily captures many other features, too, which otherwise require special equipment to see in the manuscript and are difficult or impossible to record in conventional facsimiles. Now, for example, scholars interested in the construction of the original gatherings of the manuscript will be able to place once conjugate leaves side by side again, or examine in great detail the color and texture of the vellum leaves by magnifying the images. Anyone interested in the accuracy and diligence of the scribes, moreover, can investigate all of their erasures, which will be scanned both in bright daylight and with the sometimes more penetrating aid of an ultraviolet lamp. And, with the help of image processing programs, students will even be able to restore or at least improve the legibility of faded passages. Readers of the electronic facsimile will thus acquire a reproduction of the manuscript that reveals more than the manuscript itself does under ordinary circumstances.4

The project aims to perform the digitisation of all the sheets of the codex at the highest resolution possible5. If necessary, the images that will be obtained in this first step can be supported by others, obtained, for example, by using ultra-violet rays or magnifying specific details. From images at a higher resolution we can obtain others images at a lower resolution, for a first and easier exploration and study of the manuscript.

Thanks to the multimedia browser we can accede to the images rapidly: we will be able to turn over the sheets of the whole manuscript virtually, dwelling upon details, enlarging images, getting information and reviews related to a specific sheet.

The ‘Vercelli Book’ documents

Apart from the literary documents preserved in the manuscript, presented with related reviews and philological notes, it will be necessary to add a diplomatic edition, in order to give direct support to the study of every single sheet. The texts will have to be available in various digital formats in order to guarantee optimum flexibility for research and consultation:

Another particularly interesting format is the new XML markup language: not only it will succeed HTML (XHMTL), it will also become the standard format for saving application data (word processing, spreadsheet files, etc.). But the real strength of this text markup language lies in its extreme flexibility, in fact it is possibile to use it both to build textual databases and to produce documents in many formats: hypertextual documents (HTML), documents suitable to be imported in word processing programs (.RTF files), documents immediately ready for high quality printing (PostScript output) or for later browsing (PDF files).

The project envisages many materials related to the manuscript, in order to give every means for the study and comprehension of it.

Most of these documents will have direct hyperlinks with the images and texts of the VB: thanks to hypertextual and multimedia links, it will be possible to compare the images of single sheets with the diplomatic edition, to compare the text and its translation (or source, or analogues), to read explicative notes and from there to jump to the relevant bibliographic information, etc.

Required instruments for the project

This project needs the help of more than a single researcher, owing to the complexity of the tasks to be accomplished6: it needs a well-organised team, which can count on the right instruments, to go on step by step. The project itself may easily involve different fields of study (palaeography, philology, IT).

Among the necessary resources, the hardware is very important: it is indispensable to create a center devoted to scan images and to elaborate texts. The center should include the following instruments:

These instruments should be supported by:

The software should include the following:

The project (step by step)

So far we have foreseen the following development, step by step:

Roberto Rosselli Del Turco
Dipartimento di Scienze del Linguaggio
FacoltÓ di Lettere e Filosofia
UniversitÓ di Torino



1 See V. Dolcetti Corazza, Vercelli tra Oriente e Occidente, tra tarda Antichità e Medioevo, Atti delle Giornate di Studio 10-11 Aprile 1997, Torino, Dell’Orso Editore, 1998.

2 We may call to mind the destruction of documents preserved in public institutions, which would be an enormous loss.

3 Like a medieval manuscript or last century photos, for instance.

4 Kevin S. Kiernan, “Digital Preservation, Restoration, and Dissemination of Medieval Manuscripts.” In Ann Okerson & Dru Mogge (eds.), Gateways, Gatekeepers, and Roles in the Information Omniverse: Proceedings of the Third Symposium, pp. 37-43. Washington, DC: Office of Scientific and Academic Publishing, Association of Research Libraries, 1994. You can also find this article on the web:

5 It is fundamental to use the best technology at our disposal, in order to postpone for as long as possible the need of a new digitisation.

6 First of all the digitisation of the ms.