Home Again: The Repatriation of a Stolen Venetian Manuscript

In Conservation, News

Guest Blog by Medieval Scholar Lisa Fagin Davis

This guest blog is by Lisa Fagin Davis, an Associates board member and the Executive Director of the Medieval Academy of America. 

In 2009, I was hired by the Boston Public Library to catalog and research the Medieval and Renaissance European manuscripts collection, with funding from the Associates of the Boston Public Library. With nearly 200 manuscript codices and fragments to be studied, the project would keep me busy for several years and would result in the digitization and online availability of the manuscripts as a Collection of Distinction in Digital Commonwealth website’s open access repository (with special thanks to Jay Moschella for creating the digital records). Thanks to the support of the Associates, this extraordinary collection is now available for study by scholars worldwide. 

Over the course of my work, one manuscript stood out. Manuscript f Med 203, a beautifully illuminated and carefully written Renaissance book, records the policies and procedures of a fourteenth-century Venetian confraternity, a type of text known as a Mariegola.

In Renaissance Venice, confraternities played a fundamental role in religious, social and civic life. These groups promoted religious life but were independent of the church and offered an alternative form of service for church members who did not want to commit themselves to the strict behaviors of monastic or convent life. Perhaps the most celebrated incarnation of the Venetian confraternity was the scuola dei battuti (literally the gathering “of the beaten”), whose organizing principle was to atone for the sins of humanity by engaging in periodic, public self-flagellation. These lay societies celebrated religious feasts, funerals, and other special days by putting on white hooded processional robes and marching through the streets of Venice scourging themselves.  


The Manuscript Formerly Known as BPL f. Med 203

The Scuola della Valverde, also known as the Scuola di Santa Maria della Misericordia, was one such organization. Founded in 1308 on Valverde, an island on the north shore of Venice, the original fourteenth-century church and meetinghouse were replaced in the fifteenth century and updated again in the seventeenth, such that only remnants of the original buildings survive today. This was the original home of the BPL Mariegola. 


The Scuola di Santa Maria della Misericordia, Venice

As I examined the manuscript, I noted several problematic features: the pages were out of order; someone had carefully erased all of the chapter numbers and page numbers; several leaves were missing; and it was not in its original binding. All of these defects required an explanation. I spent several weeks visiting the sub-basement of Harvard’s art library to read as much as I could about Venetian confraternities and their Mariegola manuscripts. I found a reproduction of one of the missing leaves, an elaborate frontispiece that gave the date of the manuscript (1392) and confirmed that the Scuola di Valverde was the subject of the guidelines. Digging further, I discovered that the manuscript had been deposited at the National Archive in Venice in the 1800s. I also discovered that it had been stolen from the Archive during World War II before being acquired in good faith by the Boston Public Library in 1960. To try to hide the manuscript’s origin, the thief – or a later bookseller – had rebound the manuscript, shuffled the pages, and erased the chapter and page numbers (for more details about my research and discoveries, see my 2017 blogpost, “Flagellants, Thieves, a War Refugee, and a Very Unscrupulous Bookdealer”). 

When I presented my discoveries to then-BPL Keeper of Special Collections Susan Glover, she immediately and without hesitation began repatriation proceedings. Any evidence of the acquisition of a stolen artifact – even one purchased in good faith – must of course be further investigated and a repatriation considered; when that object is suspected of having been stolen during World War II, repatriation is almost always mandated. 


Mayor Marty Walsh Examines the Mariegola

But repatriation, even when voluntary, is a lengthy procedure requiring depositions, multiple lawyers, careful reviews of international treaties, and significant documentation. After several years of formal investigations, it was determined by the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which handles such proceedings, that the BPL Mariegola had indeed been stolen from the Venetian State Archive in the 1940s and must be repatriated. The manuscript was returned to the Republic of Italy in 2017 in a formal ceremony at the Boston Public Library attended by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and representatives of both ICE and the Italian government. BPL Keeper of Special Collections Beth Prindle and I found ourselves teary-eyed as the manuscript was carefully placed in a crate and handed over to the representatives of the Italian consulate. It’s hard to say goodbye to an old friend, but we were both happy to see the manuscript heading home. 

Fast forward six years. In October of 2023, I was on vacation in Venice with my husband. We decided to visit the Scuola and the Archive, so that I could see where the manuscript’s journey began and where it finally ended. 

I had the opportunity to meet the Archivist that day, and when I explained my role in the repatriation, he invited me to return to the Archive several days later to see the manuscript and tell its story to a group of visiting dignitaries from the British cultural-heritage charitable organization Venice in Peril.


The Author at the Archivio di Stato

I immediately changed my travel plans so that I could come back to the Archive to say hello to my (very) old friend.


Visiting the Mariegola

It was an absolute joy to see the Mariegola back where it belongs. The work of the Associates of the Boston Public Library was critical in making this research possible, and I remain extremely grateful to the Associates for its support. The story of the Mariegola of the Scuola di Santa Maria della Misericordia demonstrates the importance of this kind of work. Eighty years after it disappeared, the Mariegola has come home.