DALLAS (AP) — Forty books once used by popes and other church dignitaries for services in the Sistine Chapel, largely forgotten after they were spirited away from Rome in 1798, are featured in a new exhibit.
For its only U.S. stop, the display of the books with vibrant illustrations complementing liturgical writings opens Sunday at the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University.
"The Lost Manuscripts From the Sistine Chapel: An Epic Journey From Rome to Toledo," which was on view at the National Library of Spain in Madrid in the fall, will run through April 23 in Dallas before the books, called codices, go back to their respective archives at three libraries in Spain, away from public view.
The show is the culmination of more than a decade of research that began when Italian scholar Elena De Laurentiis, while doing research in Spain, happened upon several photographs of the books with a papal seal and wondered how they had made their way to Spain.
With a label on the photographs directing her to the Cathedral of Toledo, her research took her to the mountaintop Spanish city that spreads out with a maze of streets. She found that the archbishop of Toledo — Cardinal Francisco Antonio de Lorenzana y Buitron — had taken the books from Rome as Napoleon’s armies invaded in 1798. He then donated the works to the cathedral’s library, even putting a handwritten note in the books about the rescue.
"There’s not a lot known about how he acquired them," she said through a translator. "In order to save them, he sent them to the cathedral."
While 26 of the books remained at the cathedral’s library, 11 eventually went to a regional library in Toledo and three went to the National Library of Spain.
The books, which specifically come from the Sacristy of the Sistine Chapel, have more importance than those held by the Sistine Chapel. Those from the Sistine Sacristy, which is a room where sacred texts are kept, were used by popes and other dignitaries, and had more intricate designs than those of the Sistine Chapel, which were used by singers, De Laurentiis wrote in a book that accompanies the exhibit.
Mark Roglan, director of the Meadows Museum, said that the archbishop’s actions resulted in the works being preserved in their entirety, which stands in contrast to the other known volumes that were cut apart for individual designs or even destroyed.
"They are so extraordinary because they are completely preserved," he said. "It really provides for the first time a sense of how the book was."
Roglan said there are so many exquisite pages in the books, which range in date from the 11th century to the 18th century, that it was often difficult to pick which page to display. The books with liturgical writings, such as blessings and missals, have illustrations in vibrant hues.
Scholars and curators agree that De Laurentiis’ work revealed the importance of the books to art history.
"Elena’s research made possible everyone to know them," Angel Fernandez Collado, a priest who directs the Cathedral of Toledo’s library, said through a translator.