Summer School in Greek Palaeography and Byzantine Epigraphy

A weblog entry by Laura Borghetti
Spending the first week of July on a Greek island, from whose jagged shores one can almost catch Turkish coast's faraway profile, may sound like a dreamy vacation plan. But, if this idyllic landscape just happens to frame seven days spent by reading medieval Greek manuscripts in the labyrinthine library of a Byzantine monastery and by exploring ancient churches and historical buildings seeking out Byzantine inscriptions, well: "vacation" is a quite humble way to define the experience of the Summer School in Greek palaeography and Byzantine epigraphy, organized by the National Hellenic Research Foundation, that took place in Patmos from the 2nd to the 8th of July [Fig. 1].
Figure 1: View of Patmos Island (Photo by Laura Borghetti)

Before beginning to describe my amazing experience in Patmos, I would like to spend a couple of lines about the island's history and major institutions. Patmos is one of the northernmost islands of the Dodecanese complex, Greek archipelago situated off the coast of Asia Minor, and its main communities are Chora (the capital city) [Fig. 3], and Skala, the only commercial port. All churches and communities on Patmos typically are of the Eastern Orthodox tradition and Patmos is even mentioned in the Gospels' Book of Revelation. And not by chance. The book's introduction, in fact, states that its author, John, was on Patmos when he was given (and recorded) a vision from Jesus. Early Christian tradition identified this writer as John the Apostle, though some modern scholars are uncertain, and thus call him the less specific "John of Patmos". No matter the authenticity of this attribution, John the Apostle has become patron of the island and official foundation documents prove that Saint Christodulos, far back in 1080, established the Monastery of John the Theologian, on the top of Chora's hill. In 1999, the island's historic centre Chora, along with the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian and the Cave of the Apocalypse [Fig. 2], where – according to legend – Saint John was given his vision, were declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.

Figures 2/3: The Cave of the Apocalypse and a view over the historical centre of Chora (Photos by Laura Borghetti)

In this idyllic frame, I happened to be accepted and have the chance to attend a Summer School in Greek Palaeography and Byzantine Epigraphy. The National Hellenic Research Foundation, represented in loco by Vassiliki Kollia, had chosen two special locations where the courses would be held. First and foremost, the Library of Saint John's Monastery, and then the lovely Nicolaides Mansion, in the historical core of Chora. The Monastery Library owns an amazingly rich treasure in manuscripts: 330 manuscripts (267 on parchment) are housed here, including 82 manuscripts of the New Testament, some of them decorated with precious miniatures [Fig. 4]. The Nicolaides Mansion in Patmos town is a two-storey house built between the 17th and 18th century, considered a representative example of the architecture fostered by the island's prosperous middle class. Particularly interesting is the single nave chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas, which was incorporated into the facade, and the lavishly decorated ambataros, a wooden structure on the upper floor which served as a partition and storage space [Fig. 5]. It has been truly exciting for us students to be taught in such beautiful historical buildings, which made the learning experience properly unforgettable.

Figures 4/5: The inside of the Monastery Library and the Chapel of the Nicolaides Mansion (Photos by Laura Borghetti)

The program of the courses was really fascinating as well. Both the Greek Palaeography classes, held by Zisis Melissakis – Senior Researcher at the Institute of Historical Research (Department of Byzantine Research) of National Hellenic Research Foundation – and the Byzantine Epigraphy ones, held by Nicholas Melvani – researcher at the Institute of Historical Research of the National Research Foundation in Athens, where he has been teaching a course in Byzantine Epigraphy since 2012 – were divided in theoretical and practical sessions. The theoretical classes successfully responded to the challenge of gathering massive information and concepts in the few days at disposal. During the Greek Palaeography classes, we dealt with majuscule and minuscule, graphic abbreviations and different styles and traits, namely the evolution of handwriting throughout the Byzantine history. Besides, Zisis Melissakis also illustrated to us all different writing supports and materials, such as papyrus, parchment and paper, codices and rolls. In the end of the Summer School, Greek Palaeography had no more secrets for us. On the other hand, Nicholas Melvani had similarly structured his classes, with a closer focus on reading epigraphs and inscriptions both on paper fac-simile and in loco, due to the lower amount different kinds of handwritings and material supports. The practical exercises, both palaeographical and epigraphical ones, took place in wonderful locations, such as the Library and the Museum of Saint John’s Monastery, the Cave of the Apocalypse – where Saint John is said to have been given his vision and have written the Apocalypse – and the tiny but stunningly beautiful Nunnery Zoodochos Pigi [Fig. 6/7]. 

Figures 6/7: Samples of a manuscript and an epigraphy both from the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian (Photos by Laura Borghetti)

During the "Fieldwork" we were also provided with very interesting notions about care and conservation of both manuscripts and epigraphs. We even had the luck to meet the famous Italian palaeographist Prof. Anna Clara Cataldi Palau, who was spending a research visit in Patmos, in order to analyse the famous Gospel manuscripts of the Monastery. She showed us some samples of stunning preciously decorated manuscripts, some of which we had had the chance to indirectly admire only in books and catalogues so far [Fig. 8]. The last class day was particularly interesting due to the visit to the manuscripts restoration laboratory of the Monastery, where Alexia Melianou – Art Conservator specialized in Book Conservation in Thessaloniki – was so kind to show us some samples of ancient books before and after the treatments [Fig. 9]. Being conscious of how delicate the manuscripts are and how decisive the environmental conditions of their conservation are, is of high importance.

Figures 8/9: Prof. Cataldi Palau and Alexia Melianou talking to the students (Photos by Laura Borghetti)

To conclude, I can say that I am very happy about my experience in Patmos from several perspectives. First of all, both the instructors and our group of students managed to make the best out of the Summer School, in spite of the little time given to us combined with the high amount of notions to be learnt and practical exercises to be accomplished. Both subjects were taught so well and the teachers were so helpful, that eight hours of classes a day were never heavy, but always useful and fascinating. The international group of participants quickly found a nice connection and the time we spent together out of the classes was a lovely occasion to share projects, ideas and contacts [Fig. 10/11]. Last, but not least, the almost unbearable heat wave of the first two days was soon toned down by the Meltemi, the strong wind of the Aegean islands, that was following us through our classes, explorations of the islands and – in some cases – also through the long hours of extra PhD-work during the peaceful Greek nights.

Figures 10/11: Some of the students enjoying a coffee and a glimpse from Chora (Photos by Laura Borghetti)