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Greek Manuscripts

There are 904 separate items in the library's collection of Greek manuscripts, making it the largest in the country and one of the largest in the world. The oldest part of the collection is a group of papyruses from the second to fourth centuries A.D. Particularly interesting among them are fragments of Menander's plays Fasma and Arbitration dating from the fourth century, the earliest surviving texts of the great Athenian exponent of New Comedy. Papyrus scroll "books" were kept in special baskets — that is what libraries looked like in the Ancient World. The third-century catalogue of one such library is now in the Manuscript Department. Among the books it lists is Aristotle's The Polity of Athens. Because the actual text of this work was discovered later than the mention of it in the catalogue, this item has become known as the "prophetic papyrus".

As Late Antiquity was succeeded by the early Christian era, papyrus scrolls gave way to parchment codices which were more convenient for use in acts of worship that were based on the reading of certain passages from the Scriptures. Only three copies of the Greek Bible — the Septuagint — have survived from that time. The National Library of Russia possesses fragments of the oldest, the Codex Sinaiticus. By the style of handwriting and peculiarities in the text experts attribute it to the fourth century. Like the Porfiry Gospel of 835 and the Porfiry Psalter of 862, these fragments came into the library with the material gathered by Archbishop Porfiry Uspensky (1804-1855). A palaeographical scholar and passionate collector, in 1848-54 the Archbishop was head of the first Russian ecclesiastical mission in Jerusalem. He travelled around Syria, Palestine and Egypt investigating church archives and monastery libraries. He bequeathed the collection of manuscripts he created to the Imperial Public Library where it became an important part of the Greek stocks.

The prophetic papyrus. Egipt. Fragment. 3rd century
The prophetic papyrus.
Egipt. Fragment. 3rd century
The Codex Sinaiticus. Fragments. Parchment. 4th century
The Codex Sinaiticus.
Fragments. Parchment. 4th century

Apart from Archbishop Porfiry's contribution, several other private nineteenth-century collections went to form the core of the Public Library's stocks. Among the most important, mention should be made of the papyruses and palimpsests from Sinai amassed by "the professor of biblical palaeography" Konstantin Tischendorf (1815-1874) which included the "prophetic papyrus" already mentioned. In 1862 he managed to bring to Russia and present to Emperor Alexander II the bulk of the famous Codex Sinaiticus. Until the 1930s this treasure was kept in the Public Library, but then the Soviet government sold it to the British Museum where it can be found today, while only Archbishop Porfiry's fragments remain in St Petersburg.

Many Greek manuscripts entered the Imperial Public Library by way of the royal palace. In 1858 the Metropolitan of Trebizond in Asia Minor presented Alexander II with a magnificent tenth-century manuscript which is known as the Gospel of Trebizond.

Nicholas I was given a precious eleventh-century purple Gospel which had once belonged to the Christian community of Gumushane (also in Asia Minor). This volume written in gold and silver and adorned with miniatures was produced in the imperial Byzantine scriptorium. Another work from the same source is the Codex Petropolitanus, a sixth-century purple Gospel which Nicholas II bought from the village of Sarmisahly with the assistance of the Russian Archaeological Institute in Constantinople.

Approximately half the library's Greek manuscripts were written in the Byzantine era. They include extremely valuable sources on all aspects of the history and culture of Byzantium, be it book miniatures, palaeography, literature, ecclesiastical music, medicine, astrology, clerical procedures or canon law. The other half of the stocks dates from the time of the fall of the Byzantine Empire and the post-Byzantine period.

After the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, Greek manuscripts were scattered across the whole of Europe. A large proportion of them found their way to Italy where they gave an impetus to the flowering of humanist philology during the Renaissance. By the nineteenth century, when the Public Library was forming its collection of Greek manuscripts, the surviving stock of manuscripts containing texts by ancient authors (for the most part, post-Byzantine copies of earlier manuscripts which have not come down to us) had in general found permanent homes.

Some works of this kind nevertheless did reach St Petersburg — as part of the collection of Afanasy Papadopoulo-Kerameus, a Greek-born scholar who took Russian citizenship and served for many years as curator of the Greek manuscripts in the Imperial Public Library. The most remarkable of them is a fifteenth-century codex containing three of Sophocles' tragedies: Eant, Electra and Oedipus Rex. Marks in the margins and on the text itself prove that this was the very manuscript used as the basis for the first printed edition of Sophocles produced by Aldus Manutius in 1502.

Also directly connected with the Ancient World are the stone tablets from the Greek colony of Olbia on the northern Black Sea coast which adorn the library's main staircase. They record the outstanding services which citizens accorded the town and commemorate the erection of statues of gods and emperors. These tablets were donated to the Public Library in 1880 by the widow of Count Alexei Musin-Pushkin in accordance with his will.

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