Handwritten at The National Library

Recently I was lucky (determined) enough to get myself down to the National Library of Australia in Canberra to see the Handwritten exhibition currently on display there.

The exhibition features handwritten manuscripts spanning the last ten centuries. These treasures usually reside at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Berlin State Library-Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation) and are rarely displayed outside of Germany. The Staatsbibliothek, Germany’s largest research library, celebrates its 350th birthday this year; Handwritten is part of the celebrations (they decided to share- how lucky are we?).

I was excited about seeing the exhibition- who wouldn’t be?- but it’s no exaggeration to say that the experience of standing in front of a copy of Virgil’s Aeneid that was literally handwritten in the 9th century was almost overwhelming. Talk about gobsmacked.

The smacking of gobs continued- here was a book handwritten by the scholarly monk The Venerable Bede, a name which appears so often in medieval histories and sources, now shown to be a real living person who thought and wrote and breathed. There was a sixteenth century psalter – a book of psalms- beautifully, intricately illustrated with illuminations so vivid and bright you would think the paint was made yesterday, and not five hundred years ago. The collection of medieval and Renaissance manuscript books was astounding. I absorbed every detail- the binding, the texture of the paper, the gold leaf, the colours… It.Was. Heaven.

The second part of the exhibition, From the Renaissance to Today, consists a collection of letters and journal entries dating from Florence 1476 to East Germany 1985. The writers include artists, authors, scientists, explorers, soldiers, politicians, philosophers, religious figures and even royalty. They write to friends, family, rivals and peers. They share their innermost thoughts and reflections in personal journals. I was fascinated by the tiny diary of the mercenary Peter Hagendorf, in which he recorded his experiences during twenty five years service in the 30 Years War. Just thinking of where that little leather bound book has travelled, carried and protected by Hagendorf so that he could hastily jot his memories down in its pages while years of war raged on around him is awe inspiring. Reading these letters and journals gives a fascinating glimpse into the real lives of people whose names still echo resoundingly through the halls of history: Voltaire, Charles Darwin, Martin Luther. Karl Marx, Madame Curie, Galileo. Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, Jacob Grimm. Napoleon. Michelangelo. Goethe. Albert Einstein.  (I could go on.) We see that they, like us, had fears and joys and opinions. They lived their lives day by day, just as we do.

The third part of the exhibition was musical. Handwritten sheet music by Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Handel and Beethoven (and many more) lay in glass cases under soft lights. Above each display speakers softly play the song corresponding to each piece of sheet music. You can follow along with each note of the theme from Beethoven’s 5th written with the neat preciseness of a perfectionist. Mozart’s pages look like the musical ravings of a madman- eclectic, wild, covered in scribble and scrawl. Brilliant.      

The exhibition ends on March 18th. If you can get to Canberra at all before then, I would urge you to do so!



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