About the project

Digitization, Description and Online Access to the Greek manuscript collection of El Escorial (DIGITESC)

Over the past few years, the study of Greek handwriting and Greek codices from the Byzantine and Renaissance periods has undergone a revolution thanks to digital tools and the accessibility of a large number of manuscripts online; although it is not very common for these to be accompanied by appropriate descriptions, for the specialized user digitized codices allows a direct and immediate approach –quantitatively greater and qualitatively more ambitious– to specific textual and paleographic problems, but also to wider issues such as book production and circulation, reading practices, etc. that before the digital era were impossible to be tackled at that level. The possibility of exploring thousands of handwritten pages with digital tools makes it possible to raise new questions about the written heritage and to solve those already raised but still unresolved.

In the case of the thousand Greek manuscripts preserved in Spain, the most important library in number and quality, that of the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, which belongs to Patrimonio Nacional but is under the custody of the Augustinians, has paradoxically little presence in the digital world. One manuscript alone is available now on the official web site (Escorial R-I-19 [Diktyon 15291], the illuminated Akathistos Hymn, from the 15th century).

Some projects have put images or descriptions of the Greek manuscripts of El Escorial online. The Homer Multitext Project have complete reproductions accessible of Escorial y-I-1 (Diktyon 15507), and Escorial Ω-1-12 (Diktyon 15052). Also, a monumental project such as the Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca (1882–1909) of the former Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften has had its continuity in a new project Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca et Byzantina (2012–), reconverted into an open access database, that offers excellent descriptions of the 21 Escorialenses, but without pictures of the manuscripts. The New Testament Virtual Manuscript Room, where 36 manuscripts from El Escorial are included, has restricted access to the images and the only novel contribution is a detailed description of the New Testament text, not of the codices as such. The Database of Byzantine Book Epigrams uses 84 Escorial manuscripts, whose book epigrams are identified. No manuscripts from El Escorial are included in the Princeton University list of digitized codices. This situation will change dramatically with the digitization that is currently underway.

Most of the Greek manuscripts that entered the Biblioteca Escorialense did so during Philip II‘s lifetime (d. 1598) or shortly thereafter; as early as in the 1560s, the monarch had acquired in France and inherited from his aunt Mary of Hungary some Greek manuscripts; but the bulk of the acquisitions in that language (now about half of those possessed before the fire of 1671) were acquired by the king in Venice through his ambassadors or entered later on the donations or purchase of the libraries of a unique generation of Hellenists who had acquired an excellent education in the Greek language at the Complutense and Salamanca Universities: learned aristocrats like Diego Hurtado de Mendoza (d. 1575), prestigious jurists like Antonio Agustín (d. 1586), or scholars of ancient philosophy like Juan Páez de Castro (d. 1570). It was their presence in Italy (and to a lesser extent in Flanders) and the subsequent arrival in Spain of Greek copyists such as Nicolás de la Torre (Νικόλαος Τουρριανός), the royal calligrapher who organized the books in that language, that explains the wealth of Greek manuscripts preserved at the Royal Monastery.

These Hellenists assembled their book collections when only the core of ancient Greek literature had been printed, and therefore manuscript copies were still necessary. They may be seen as «ornamental collections» but in many cases working libraries that must be approached as a part of the Hispanic culture in the 16th century. They would not exist without the political influence in the European territory of the Hispanic monarchies and without the openness, already from the time of Alfonso V of Aragon in Naples, to the new humanist trends coming from Italy. And they would not exist either without the Greek Studies revitalized first in Alcalá de Henares and then in Salamanca.

All this is at the basis of the project of Philip II of a universal library and explains today’s presence of manuscripts in Greek, Hebrew or Arabic at San Lorenzo de El Escorial. Undoubtedly, their digitization and online description would benefit a global scientific community who can read and edit the texts they preserve; however, this is a reductive view of the benefit that can be derived from the research proposed here, which will also contribute to highlighting the diversity of a book heritage that is rooted throughout the Mediterranean; to make available to scholars of Medieval and Renaissance Art a little known and very valuable material; to give access to a specialized and contrasted vision of the cultural heritage that defines it with the additional objective of enriching the possible readings that may be made of it by next generations.

El Escorial preserves 584 Greek manuscripts, described by Alejo Revilla in 1936 and Gregorio de Andrés in 1965 and 1967.

The library website, created by Patrimonio Nacional, will host the digitized manuscripts. Patrimonio Nacional‘s book collections are managed with an open source Integrated Library Management System (ILS), KOHA, which integrates all functions, including cataloguing, and provides complete and structured information on its collections. In addition, a Java-based online image serving program, Cantaloupe, is used, and a domain has been created with this tool to provide access to the digitized manuscripts. This program meets the requirements of the International Image Interoperability Framework Consortium (IIIF) standard, an Image API that provides a set of specifications for interchangeable and interoperable interaction with image-based resources (cf. Rodríguez Gómez 2021). Similarly, to publish the digital resources, a PHP program, Omeka, has been chosen, a flexible tool to adapt the presentation of the images to the needs of each book collection managed by Patrimonio Nacional as well as each dissemination initiative (studies on its history, exhibitions, conferences, scientific activities, etc.).

Without these tools already in place, the project we propose would not be possible; but to carry it out requires the collaboration of a team of philologists and paleographers/codicologists such as the one we have assembled.

The objectives of the DIGITESC Project are:

  1. Digitization of the Greek manuscripts of El Escorial.
  2. Preparation of a description guide for the manuscripts.
  3. Online posting of the digitized manuscripts, after a review of the content, date and other features of the codices.
  4. Linking the digital objects and their description on Pinakes and other databases.

The documentation generated by the project will be deposited in Digital.CSIC, the open access repository of the CSIC. It will include the description guide and the rest of the guidelines adopted in the process of putting the manuscript cataloguing online, as well as a report on the project.

This project is possible thanks to the Subprogram for Knowledge Generation and the Program to Promote Scientific-Technical Research and its Transfer of the Spanish Government’s State Plan for Scientific and Technical Research and Innovation 2021-2023, which is funded by the NextGenerationEU Funds of the European Union. You can read more about this grant here.

If needed, you can quote the project in English as follows (italics are not needed): DIGITESC TED2021-130178B-I00, a project funded by MCIN/AEI/10.13039/501100011033 and the European Union NextGenerationEU/PRTR.

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Andrés, G. de. Catálogo de los códices griegos de la Real Biblioteca de El Escorial II. Códices 179-420. Madrid: Sucesores de Rivadeneyra, 1965. (available online)

———. Catálogo de los códices griegos de la Real Biblioteca de El Escorial III. Códices 421-649. Madrid: Sucesores de Rivadeneyra, 1967. (available online)

Revilla, A. Catálogo de los códices griegos de la Real Biblioteca de El Escorial I. Códices 1-178. Madrid: Imprenta Helénica, 1936. (available online)

Rodríguez Gómez, J. L. «International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) y Real Biblioteca Digital (RBD)». Avisos. Noticias de la Real Biblioteca, 2021. (available online).