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Grad students study ancient texts

Ann Marie Jakubowski | Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Over Spring Break, 10 Notre Dame graduate students enrolled in a classics seminar taught by Professor Martin Bloomer gained hands-on experience with ancient texts and manuscripts at the Ambrosian Library in Milan, Italy.

The class, composed of students from the classics, literature and history departments as well as the Medieval Institute, joined students from Loyola University Chicago and the University of Wisconsin to tour the world-renowned library and examine the texts.

Bloomer said the seminar examines how ancient texts are transmitted.

“When we study classical texts in introductory classes, we study them as if they had been printed once by someone in, say, the 4th century,” Bloomer said. “The fact is, however, that we are actually reading copies of copies of copies of the original texts.”

By focusing on the editorial process, Bloomer said scholars can gain insight into interpreting the manuscripts.

“Any editor of these texts is making decisions about what to include, which is shown in the text’s physical properties, like commentary notes in the margin,” he said. “In my seminar, we were looking at all these processes by which a text is reprocessed and interpreted.”

The students spent most of the week-long trip researching how to interpret  the texts using their physical properties, Bloomer said. He said students usually spent half the day in the library, while they spent the other half touring museums and historical sights in Milan.

“We went to an art gallery which housed fantastic works of art, including Da Vinci’s notebooks, as well as the old Christian churches founded by St. Ambrose, the place where Ambrose baptized St. Augustine, and Augustine’s nearby birthplace,” Bloomer said. “The library curators, known as the Doctors of the Ambrosiana, took us on wonderful tours.”

Literature graduate student Bobby McFadden, a member of Bloomer’s seminar, said the trip made him appreciate the importance of examining ancient texts in person. He said it also provided an opportunity to explore the resources of a prominent European library.

“The trip wasn’t just about our own study of how these texts are received and the questions we could ask of them, but also on a larger scale, seeing what kinds of texts are preserved in European library and the necessity of going over there and researching them ourselves,” McFadden said.

McFadden said his research concerns the relationship between classical literature and the Catholic Church fathers.

“I’m interested in the reception of classical literature by the Church fathers, particularly Ambrose and Augustine,” he said. “This particular class provided a great opportunity to focus on texts from the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods in a Christian context.”

Bloomer said decades ago, a relationship between Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, University president emeritus, and Ambrosia’s Giovanni Battista Montini, who later became Pope Paul VI, resulted in the University’s acquisition of digital copies of many ancient texts. As a result, Bloomer said his students were familiar with the texts before examining them in person.

“A microfilm photograph preserves certain aspects, but as historians, we want to examine the actual article and read signs of use into it, the kind of thing you can know only by holding it in your hands,” Bloomer said.

Bloomer said the trip to Milan marked the culmination of the class and allowed the students to apply the work they did during the semester in an exciting setting.

“Milan is a great city, and part of my idea was to demystify the whole process of using ancient and medieval materials,” Bloomer said. “By going to a major collection such as Ambrosia, I wanted to provide students with the know-how and practical experience, and then give them context by meeting many of the fine scholars and curators at the Ambrosiana.”

McFadden agreed the research opportunities available at the Ambrosian Library were unparalleled.

“Exploring the collections of the library, and particularly the tour of Milan that the Ambrosiana hosts gave us, was especially beneficial for me because of my research with saints Augustine and Ambrose,” he said. “Seeing the city that Ambrose helped to build brought me to a new understanding of what he was trying to do there during his time as bishop, so I really appreciated the graciousness and help of our professor and guides.”