The Archive of Mauro Perani Tracing Precious Hebrew Fragments in Italy

Antonio Spagnuolo
Universita di Bologna

Until the 1980s, scholars were little aware of the enormous scope of the corpus of Hebrew fragments preserved in Italy and of the importance of this heritage for medieval Jewish history. All this changed thanks to the enthusiasm and painstaking research of Professor Mauro Perani. This is the brief story of his discoveries of manuscripts and their documenting, which grew to constitute a large archive. “Books within Books” project is now including “Perani Archive” on its website in order to preserve and make accessible this record of over thirty years of research on Hebrew fragments in Italy.

The archive began to take shape in 1982/83, when Mauro Perani met Giuseppe Baruch Sermoneta, initiator of the “Hebrew Fragments in Italy Project” [“Progetto Frammenti Ebraici in Italia” – PFEI] one year earlier. From that moment on, Sermoneta started sending him just some notes with reports of fragments of Hebrew manuscripts reused as bindings. However, it was not until 1984 that Perani officially became part of the project and he was entrusted with the task of probing the libraries and archives of Emilia-Romagna. From 1984 onwards, the documentation has been enriched increasingly over the years, also expanding to the search for fragments in other Italian regions. In the 1990s, the excellent results obtained and the growing fame of the “Italian Genizah”, which by then had benefitted from numerous publications, encouraged many archivists, librarians, fellow Hebraist and manuscript scholars to signal the presence of Hebrew fragments, by sending photographs, photocopies and letters. The motivation for research did not stop even upon the death of Sermoneta in 1992 but continued, greatly thanks to Mauro Perani’s passion, who a few years later, in 1996, became a researcher at the University of Bologna. Perani continued assiduously the census and inventory of the Hebrew fragments until the early 2000s, and created a thematic archive, unique in its kind, extremely valuable for still unpublished information it contains.

Prof. Mauro Perani

Today this extended archive is kept at the LECE, that is the Laboratory of Hebrew Epigraphy and Codicology [Laboratorio di Epigrafia e Codicologia Ebraica] of the Department of Cultural Heritage [Dipartimento di Beni Culturali – DBC] of the University of Bologna, based in Ravenna. The archive consists of thousands of pieces and, due to its relatively long time-frame, it is stratified and heterogeneous. Hebrew fragments from Italian archives and libraries are mostly recorded as xerox copies, but there are also good quality photographs, negatives, transparencies, handwritten letters, transcriptions and bibliographical lists or articles related to them there. To date, all the documentation, which continues to be sporadically enriched with new material, is placed within single transparent binders sorted alphabetically by municipality of conservation of the fragment, and sorted in boxes.

This precious archive should be valorised in its entirety. For this reason about a year ago, I was invited by the “Books within Books” project to reorder and digitize all the documentary and photographic resources collected over the years by the Professor of the Alma Mater Studiorum. The first step of the work allowed me to understand the material organization of the archive and its relevance. The reorganization of the archive led to the identification of 182 locations, including 11 outside Italy, for the preservation of fragments of Hebrew manuscripts, classified according to different libraries, archives and collections.

The number of locations and fragments is impressive and some of the fragments recorded in Mauro Perani’s archive have not been yet studied. To render this archive available for a larger scholarly public, I am now carrying out the second step of the project; to include the digital images of the archive in BwB online database (www.hebrewmanuscript.com), while trying to render as closely as possible the character of the physical collection. The digitised items will be consultable online accompanied of their catalogue. This will make these documents available to the broad community of scholars, and help the cataloguers, who will be able to conduct targeted reconnaissance campaigns in better-identified Italian archives and libraries. It will also be a good way to preserve the memory of this valuable archive of reports that Professor Perani has collected with so much passion and dedication over the years.

I want to conclude this short article with an example of the documentary material from the the archive. The photograph reproduced here, which I have recently digitized, is the result of a report that Professor Perani received in 1997. The Hebrew fragment was sent to him in the form of transparency (a type of photographic slide) from one of the archives of the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio of Terni and Narni, two cities in Umbria. The transparency was developed a few years later on photographic paper. The image shows a small fragment of a Hebrew manuscript written in a 14th-century Ashkenazi non-square script. As we can see, the Hebrew fragment was reused as a reinforcement patch for the closing strap of the book. Interestingly, a beautiful Latin manuscript with filigree decorations was reused for the binding of the entire volume.

This photograph is only one of many pieces of evidence gathered by Mauro Perani and preserved in his archive which still await publication and detailed study. All that remains is to find out.

(Photo credit: Mauro Perani)

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