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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

Classroom Encounters

Graduate Student Detectives Tackle the Case
of the Renaissance Forgeries


For hour upon hour last spring, the young detectives labored underground, hot on the trail of a forgery case so old it could easily be termed ancient. The suspect in the case, Annius of Viterbo (a.k.a. Giovanni Nanni), was long dead. The witnesses, mostly Renaissance humanists, were dead, too. But the paper trail was long. Very long.

And so their eyes burned with fatigue, and their backs ached as they perused the evidence in the reading room of Special Collections at the Milton S. Eisenhower Library: a 342-page tome published in 1498 and officially known as Commentary on Works of Various Authors Who Spoke of Antiquity. The book, more commonly referred to as The Antiquities of Annius, was written in scholarly Latin and is filled with cryptographic abbreviations. But for first-year graduate student Tania Zampiri and the rest of the detectives in the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures seminar, the task at hand was engaging enough to keep them riveted all semester. The case: Take the work of a known forger, pore over his references to hundreds of other authors, and use those authors' writings in their original form to determine the origin and purpose of the forgeries.

"It's an exercise in patience," says Zampiri, of slogging through the difficult-to-read typeface and language in Annius' book—as well as 20 or so 15th-century titles that Annius himself used. "You're sapped of energy by the time you get through half of what you are supposed to get through."

The task, though, was worth the effort, says classmate Shana O'Connell. "There is absolutely no substitute for this," says O'Connell, a second-year graduate student in the history of art. "While you are looking at these texts it's hard to remember that they were printed during the life of Annius. But then you take a step back and it's just inspiring."

"Read the authors that our authors read," has long been a mantra of Walter Stephens, the Charles S. Singleton Professor of Italian Studies in the School of Arts and Sciences and the teacher of Representing the Ancient Past in the Italian Renaissance. The seminar was designed to give students a sense of what it was like to be a humanist scholar in the late 15th century and an opportunity to do research using books printed during that period from the Rare Books and Manuscripts Collections of the Sheridan Libraries. The course was just one of about 80 last year that made use of the library's extensive rare books collection.

"My goal was to get the students to be able to understand what went into studying and writing a book on a scholarly topic around 1500," Stephens says. "And in the 15th century, knowledge is acquired by studying a limited number of classical texts that would have been located in the library of a church, a monastery, or a prince."

The books—which include Pliny the Elder's Natural History (1472) and an illuminated manuscript of Flavius Josephus' Wars of the Jews (1579)--are impressive to see. Some have ornate metal clasps on their bindings to keep the paper block tight. Others have stunning illustrations and evidence of prior ownership. All were placed on a designated shelf in the Rare Books Reading Room at the library and made available to the graduate students in the seminar. "This really is a creative form of pedagogy that not every institution can offer in one place--a 'scholar's bookshelf' of the Renaissance," says Earle Havens, curator of rare books for the Sheridan Libraries.

Annius of Viterbo was a Dominican friar who in The Antiquities collected newly discovered texts by 11 ancient Babylonian, Egyptian, Persian, Greek, and Latin historiographers. He accompanied these texts with learned commentaries he wrote that cited a wide variety of ancient and biblical authors ranging from Aristotle to Vergil. "Annius' book was The Da Vinci Code of its time," Stephens says. "It proved a grand conspiracy by Greeks to rewrite history so as to obliterate all memory of the Etruscans and their biblical ancestors, especially Noah, the founder of their empire." But, soon after publication, it was discovered that Annius faked 10 out of the 11 texts he "discovered."

Stephens, who is known around the library as a "heavy user" of rare books, wrote his dissertation on Annius. Although Annius was a forger, what makes him worth studying is the manner in which he cited the sources of the day in his commentaries, Stephens says. "What this guy did was to take the scholarly methods of his time and use them to turn the history of the world upside down," he says. And deconstructing Annius' work, Stephens believes, "is the best possible set of monkey bars with which to train students to work with medieval and Renaissance scholars."

Perhaps the biggest discovery that came out of the seminar was one that occurred before the class even began. For the last 30 years Stephens has worked with a photocopy of The Antiquities of Annius made from an original 1515 imprint at the University of Pisa. Then, last spring, Havens and his colleagues discovered a copy of the book in the Eisenhower collections. (No one had known the rare text existed because it had been cataloged insufficiently.) The book, published just 10 years after the Gutenberg Bible, was once owned by Winston Churchill's great-great-grandfather, George Spencer-Churchill, who amassed one of the greatest rare book libraries of his generation.

The discovery meant that Stephens and his students would no longer have to work from a set of tattered photocopied pages. In theory, anyway. When Stephens found that a few pages were missing in the library's book, he presented Havens with his photocopied pages, which can now be found inside the 1515 imprint.

"They tell us books are doomed by electronics, and we know general literacy is plummeting," says Stephens. "But the graduate students adventurous enough to be interested in older literatures will always buck these trends. It's up to my generation to prepare them to read old books, not just classics in paperback. Their stories are the story of culture."