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May 6

Found: Medieval Manuscripts Stolen From Italy, Hiding in the Boston Public Library

The library obtained them legitimately, but they were never meant to be in America.

Pages from the manuscripts.
Pages from the manuscripts. Boston Public Library

In 1392, the brotherhood of Our Lady of Mercy at Valverde was blessed with a new manuscript, beautifully illustrated. It was the Mariegola della Scuola di Santa Maria della Misericordia, and it laid out the organizing principles for the fraternal religious order, as the Boston Globe reports. Centuries later, in 1803, the brotherhood dissolved, and the manuscript went to the State Archives of Venice. For many years, it was displayed in the one of the archive’s rooms, until, in the 1940s, it disappeared.

Now, it’s been re-discovered, in the holdings of the Boston Public Library.

The 14th century manuscript, along with two other Italian works, one created circa 1420 and the other in 1590, is now being returned to Italy.

The public library started looking into the provenance of the 14th century manuscript after a medieval manuscript expert working on a digitizing project “noticed that the book was not in its original wood-and-leather cover, and the chapter numbers had been scraped away,” the Globe reports. It was clear that at some point in the past, these clues to its origins had been removed on purpose. The manuscript expert, Lisa Fagin Davis, started looking for more information that might explain where the book had originally come from, and finally found a copy of the cover page in a Harvard library.

The Boston Public Library obtained all three manuscripts from reputable dealers, but their rightful home is in Italy, where they are returning.