Spain EscorialWe know what happens in the Iliad – Hector dies every time.  What we don’t know is the whole history of how the poem traveled from its Bronze Age origins to the invention of the printing press because manuscripts of the Iliad are held in different libraries, making direct comparisons between manuscripts difficult.

On our computer screens we can now summon a manuscript that resides in Venice and juxtapose it with a manuscript that resides in Spain.   Classicists want to understand what the scribes were looking at when they produced these manuscripts, or what reference books they had.  Having access to good photographs of these manuscripts allows scholars to answer questions like these.

Spain EscorialThe library of the Escorial Monastery and Basilica in San Lorenzo, Spain holds a large collection of manuscripts, including two copies of the Iliad dating to the eleventh century, known to scholars as E3 and E4.  The Vis Center chose to image the E3 and E4 because they had previously imaged the Venetus A, the oldest complete copy of the Iliad.   Imaging additional copies of the Iliad provides a multi-instance dataset for computer scientists at the Vis Center to develop an organizational system for multiple versions of the same story. The E3 and E4 digital manuscripts are part of the growing multi-collection of Homer’s Iliad.

The scholarly commentary in these manuscripts, written on every page in and around the actual story of the Iliad, contains references to material that is long lost.  The marginal notes in this manuscript are about grammar, punctuation, and poetic meter, giving scholars a lesson in ancient Greek directly from ancient Greeks.

Spain Escorial

Researchers also captured images under different lighting conditions (“multi-spectral” images) and tied them together with a 3D backdrop.  Every pixel reveals its unique appearance under many colors of light, and is pinned down to an exact 3D location. Under these conditions, inks may reveal their likely chemistry. Brush strokes have thickness, and letters can be measured exactly.

The E3 Iliad manuscript at the Escorial is particularly challenging to image. Its binding holds the parchment pages tightly and they are far from flat. There are almost one thousand years worth of stains and strains on those storied pages, showing the parchment’s battle against the ravages of time. But once collected, these images can become a definitive benchmark reference for this and other collections.