The CaNaMEI Project: Rediscovering Ancient Ethiopian Manuscripts in Italian Libraries

CaNaMEI, ‘Catalogo Nazionale dei Manoscritti Etiopici in Italia’, is a nationally centered research project launched in 2019 by the University of Naples L’Orientale and jointly funded by DAAM (Dipartimento Asia Africa e Mediterraneo of the University of Naples L’Orientale), IPOCAN (Istituto per l’Oriente ‘Carlo Alfonso Nallino’), ISMEO - Associazione Internazionale di Studi sul Mediterraneo e l’Oriente, and the Academy Vivarium Novum. The research project is headed by Prof. Dr Gianfrancesco Lusini, assisted by Dr Massimo Villa (PhD, UNO-Napoli), Dr Jacopo Gnisci (PhD, University College London), and Dr Gioia Bottari (PhD candidate, UNO-Napoli).
CaNaMEI has as research object the Ethiopic and Amharic manuscript collections preserved in Italian public and private institutions, with a particular attention to the still unstudied or understudied collections. Its scope is the documentation and valorization of the Ethiopian manuscript heritage in Italy. The initiative involves the digitization and appropriate cataloguing of the items, following a descriptive approach which places emphasis on both textual and material features. The program includes a spectrum of outputs of different types, ranging from periodical reports on selected items to printed catalogues to be published in established series, to an online searchable database which allows wide accessibility to descriptions and digital images of the manuscripts. Also, CaNaMEI supports the preservation of manuscripts through adequate restoration of specific items chosen due to their state of preservation or their historical, textual, or artistic value.
CaNaMEI configures itself as a project on at least three levels. Firstly, it includes the ‘natural’ dimension of pure academic research, in which the cataloguing operations stand out, with reference both to the specific Ethiopian context and to a comparative perspective, within a cultural-historical horizon defined by the studies on Late Antiquity and the Byzantine and Eastern Christian Middle Ages. At the same time, it aims at exploiting the great opportunities provided by digital humanities, understood as a complex of technical devices capable of facilitating the data gathering and the dissemination of freely accessible results. Lastly, CaNaMEI focuses on the application of theoretical work in accordance with the principles of what is now called the ‘third mission’ of the university institutions, and particularly with reference to the educational and social development activities (known as public engagement) which extends from conservation and restoration work to the organization of cultural events such as national and international conventions, conferences and workshops in which the method, aims and results of the work were illustrated from time to time.

History of the project activities

The Museo Archeologico e d’Arte della Maremma (MAAM) in Grosseto, Tuscany, hosts a small collection on permanent loan from Archbishopric of Grosseto. The collection consists of two parchment codices; the more valuable in terms of antiquity, artistic and textual value, is undoubtedly a 15th- or early 16th-century illuminated codex containing the Four Gospels (MS MAAM 191). The codex provides an outstanding example of the art of calligraphy and illumination in medieval Ethiopia. In consultation with the relevant offices of the Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio, the manuscript was restored in 2020. This intervention was made possible by the financial support of the MIUR project “Studi e Ricerche sulle culture dell’Asia e dell’Africa: tradizione e continuità, rivitalizzazione e divulgazione”, headed by IPOCAN and ISMEO. The description of the codex and the restoration work were the subject of the first CaNaMEI Report (2020).
The Historical Archive of the Diocese of Savona-Noli hosts a large-sized illuminated codex, also dating back to the 15th–16th century and containing an archaic hagiographic collection known as the ‘Acts of the Martyrs’. The manuscript, a deluxe codex enriched by gorgeous ḥaräg-ornaments opening many of the commemorative readings, also underwent conservation measures funded from the same MIUR project headed by IPOCAN and ISMEO. The manuscript was the the subject of the third CaNaMEI Report (2022).
The manuscript was exhibited, together with a presentation of the CaNaMEI activities, on the occasion of the conference “I fondi orientali conservati presso le istituzioni culturali di Roma”, held at the Società Geografica Italiana (Villa Celimontana, Rome) on 2 December 2021.

In this period the research program focused mostly on collections located in or around the city of Rome. The reason was twofold: first, Rome is home to numerous small- and medium-sized collections which had not been adequately investigated, and this makes the capital a privileged territory that cannot be compared to others on a national scale. Secondly, the impact of the pandemic had unexpected consequences on the research opportunities and forced the project team to invest resources and energy in a circumscribed territory such as Rome and its surroundings.
The Biblioteca Angelica includes one Ethiopian manuscript, MS Or. 27, containing a collection of mälkǝʾ-hymns, that is poetic compositions in rhymed stanzas.
The Biblioteca Vallicelliana possesses 9 oriental manuscripts in various languages, among which two Ethiopian manuscripts: a protective scroll (MS Inv. 2660) and a small composite codex containing prayers and other texts (MS R1).
The library of the Società Geografica Italiana, located at Villa Celimontana, boasts a more substantial and heterogeneous manuscript heritage, consisting of two parchment codices, a parchment scroll, and some loose paper notebooks and quires written by European missionaries in the second half of the 19th century. Specifically, the material consists of lexicons and grammatical treatises of Ethiopian languages owned and compiled by Father Giusto d’Urbino, Father Léon des Avanchers, and Father Giovanni Stella.
The library of the Monumento Nazionale di Grottaferrata (Abbacy of Saint Mary of Grottaferrata) preserves a mid-sized collection partially catalogued in 2000 by Delio Vania Proverbio. The 16 manuscripts acquired in several stages during the 20th century, with the exception of two, 15 and 16, which entered the library in the 21st century. Many of the pieces reveal, due to their small size and content, a destination for private use: four psalters (MSS Crypt. Aet. 5, 6, 7, 8), two protective scrolls (MSS Crypt. Aet. 12 and 13), and one accordion book or sənsul (MS Crypt. Aet. 16).
The Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Rome (BNCR) preserves ten manuscripts acquired between the end of the 19th century and the 20th century. Three of these (MSS Or. 130, 132, 134) belonged to the Lazarist missionary Giuseppe Sapeto (1811–1895), who lived more than twenty years in Ethiopia and Eritrea and, upon his return to Italy, brought back several manuscripts. The Sapeto collection is now scattered between the BNCR and Castello d’Albertis in Genoa. The rest of the BNCR collection includes two scrolls (MSS Or. 196, 197), a missal (MS Or. 194), a psalter (MS Or. 203), a book for the funerary ritual (MS Or. 160), and a prestigious Old Testament codex belonging to Menelik II and his wife Ṭaytu (MS Or. 200).
The project team also investigated and digitized a private collection belonging to the Zanasi-Li Volsi family. The private collection consists of eight items. Five are liturgical codices, including an illuminated copy of the Life and Miracles of St Qirqos (MS 3), two are protective rolls (MSS 5–6) and one is an accordion book (MS 7). The materials in this collection were digitised in March 2021 and were the subject of the second CaNaMEI Report (2021).

In this period the project team returned to expand the scope of research activities throughout the national territory.
The Biblioteca Palatina in Parma holds a unique and precious fund of Ethiopic manuscripts, remarkable both for quantity and textual value. The Palatine collection contains 45 manuscripts and was formed in several stages. The main and historically most important core consists of 25 manuscripts that belonged to the official Antonio Mordini and mostly came from the important North-Ethiopian monastery of Gundä Gunde (or Däbrä Garzen), Tǝgray. The manuscripts were acquired in the mid-1990s. The acquisition of other 20 pieces a few years later allowed the Parma collection to quickly gain a prominent place among Italian collections. Besides the quantity, the Parma collection stands out for the considerable textual and historical value of the manuscripts, combined with the homogeneity of provenance of most of them. Almost all manuscripts associated with the monastery of Gundä Gunde are in fact relatively old codices, dating between the 14th and 17th centuries, containing rarely attested monastic, apocryphal and hagiographic texts, rarely attested elsewhere. The operations of digitization and data collection were divided into six separate missions, carried out between September 2021 and February 2023. During these missions, all materials (manuscripts and their leather cases) were digitized using a Metis EDS Gamma planetary scanner. Furthermore, three particularly valuable pieces were selected for conservative work: a 14th- or 15th-century ‘Book of the Hour’ or Horologium which had survived in a fragmentary and severely misplaced state (MS Parm. 3838), a 15th-century rare copy of the ‘Shepherd of Hermas’ (MS Parm. 3842), and a 15th-century copy of the ‘Book of Enoch’ (MS Parm. 3843). The new restoration program, funded by IPOCAN and ISMEO, allowed the three manuscripts to return to their original beauty and took place in spring and summer 2022. The three manuscripts were handed back to the owning institution on 13 September 2022, on the occasion of a conference organized at the Biblioteca Palatina. Furthermore, the three manuscripts and the conservative work were the subject of the fourth CaNaMEI Report (2023). A printed catalogue of the Parma collection is being prepared and will be published for the Italian Ministry of Culture’s “Indici e Cataloghi delle Biblioteche Italiane” series. The catalogue of the Parma collection is a long-awaited desideratum ever since the establishment of the Palatine collection.
The Biblioteca Forteguerriana in Pistoia, Tuscany, hosts a small but significant collection consisting of five codices, all belonging to Ferdinando Martini, who was Governor of the Eritrean Colony from 1897 to 1907. Standing out among them for its prestige, antiquity and size is an early-15th-cent. parchment codex containing the first eight books of the Old Testament, also known as the “Octateuch of Pistoia” (MS Martini 2). The manuscript will be the subject of the fifth CaNaMEI Report (2024).
The library of the Department of Asian, African and Mediterranean Studies (DAAM) at the University of Naples L’Orientale preserves three parchment codices, already described in 2006: two psalters (MSS 1, 2) and a book of Marian prayers (MS 3). The library recently benefited from a private donation of seven parchment codices and two loose leaves by Dr Paolo Nastasi. The Nastasi collection includes four psalters (MSS 4, 7, 9, 10), two homeliaries in honour of St Michael (MSS 5, 8), and a codex containing a poetic text called “The Wisest among the Wise” (MS Et. 6). The manuscripts have been documented and are awaiting digitization.
In the period 2022-2023 the CaNaMEI team has also been currently engaged in publishing the results of the survey. The project activities were illustrated on several occasions, among which the 21st International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, held at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa (“Catalogo Nazionale dei Manoscritti Etiopici in Italia (CaNaMEI): Documentation and Restoration of the Ethiopian Manuscript Heritage in Italy”, 28 September 2022), and the conference “Manoscritti etiopici in Italia: documentazione, catalogazione e restauro”, held at the ISMEO (Palazzo Baleani, Rome) on 20 April 2023.