Mortals and Others: Dispatch from the Archives

by Joseph Nicolello

For at least the next year, I’ll be working on both dissertational research as well as research into another book that I should have information about here in the near future at the University of Pennsylvania. Before proceeding, though, I’d like to offer some information on the Schoenberg Institute here, for those curious:

Guided by the vision of its founder, Lawrence J. Schoenberg, the mission of the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies (SIMS) is to bring manuscript culture, modern technology and people together to bring access to and understanding of our intellectual heritage locally and around the world. Simply put, SIMS acts as a think-tank for manuscript studies in the digital age.

We advance the mission of SIMS by:

  • developing our own projects;
  • supporting the scholarly work of others both at Penn and elsewhere, and;
  • collaborating with and contributing to other manuscript-related initiatives around the world.

At the core of SIMS is the Lawrence J. Schoenberg collection of manuscripts, which was donated to the Penn Libraries in 2011 as part of a landmark gift establishing the Institute—the largest donation of its kind in the history of the library. Closely associated with this is our flagship digital project, also established by Larry Schoenberg: the Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts. This free, open-access resource enables scholars and enthusiasts to trace the provenance of manuscripts from their origins up to today, and has a large, global user community. The Institute publishes a bi-annual scholarly journal entitled Manuscript Studies, which appears online and in print, and also coordinates other occasional hard copy and digital publications. Every year, SIMS hosts a variety of visiting fellows on a rotating basis, ranging from graduate students to senior scholars; their presence forms a key aspect of the institute’s vibrant intellectual life. We also host, in partnership with the Free Library of Philadelphia, the annual Schoenberg Symposium on Manuscript Studies in the Digital Age, which brings together scholars from Penn and around the world every November to present cutting-edge research related to a specific theme.

SIMS staff have also spearheaded major digitization and research initiatives, including the Bibliotheca Philadelphiensis collaborative digitization project (2016–2019), and OPenn, the University of Pennsylvania’s open access digital repository for cultural works. Projects currently in development include the Digital Scriptorium 2.0 redevelopment planning project, VisColl collation visualization web app, and Books as Symbols in Renaissance Art web database.

Alongside these research activities, SIMS staff teach a range of manuscript-related courses in the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts and Sciences and at other venues such as Rare Book School and the Price Lab for Digital Humanities’ Dream Lab. They also host one-off visiting classes from the university and beyond who wish to examine manuscripts housed in Penn’s collections, at levels ranging from kindergarden to advanced graduate study.

SIMS staff offices are located in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts on the fifth and sixth floors of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, at the heart of the University of Pennsylvania’s campus in Philadelphia.


My work at the Institute can be found in abridged form here.

For my first round of examined materials from the Schoenberg Institute I chose four that operate as entrances into the greater projects on various levels.

Augustine of Hippo’s Commentary on Genesis, fragment dated 1650-1750, should not escape the Miltonist at the start of their own sojourn. Prerequisite classic studies into form and function of both Puritanism and Paradise Lost itself should include Perry Miller and C.S. Lewis, among several other works I intend to assemble syllabi with. But I mention Miller and Lewis here because they really opened my eyes into the critical place Augustine holds in the Puritan vision of reality as well as Paradise Lost on the whole. I would likewise recommend these books to colleagues, students, and general readers alike, as I would the life and work of Augustine.


My foray into Pomponius Mela is related to an earlier study concerning Macrobius and Pseudo-Dionysius (see below) in elements of Dante’s political theology, a study which seamed effortlessly into a summer seminar with Milton that was the beginning of many things. I have yet to come across a method by which to weigh the theories concerning the existence of the planet beyond Creation and Apocalypse on one hand, and Eternality and Indestructability on the other, than by undertaking analyses of geographical theories throughout millennia. What can Pomponius Mela tell us? Perhaps, along with Democritus and Heidegger, that there is no ontological progress, but only technological unfolding masquerading as such.


In my work, the dual shadow of Pseudo-Dionysius and Marsilio Ficino cloak Renaissance Rome. I have also been accused of advocating a fusion of Ficino’s and Hegel’s system(s), an accusation I have less denied than built upon, having considered it at length.


Joseph Wittreich’s Latest Donation

Part of the joy of working in the archives is the element of spontaneity that waits in the wings of silent concentration. Most often, this spontaneity is interior, and intertextual; but it can unfold in other ways, too, as in the case of this most recent donation from Joseph Wittreich. It is really miraculous in its own way that of all the Miltonists whose work I have read, I should be present for interactions with one whose books influence my own work so much. Wittreich’s work and kindness as a person have had an enormous influence on me as both a writer and a mortal. I’ll let this gem from his collection speak for itself, dropped off the day before my most recent session at the archives.

Moving forward, I’ll have plenty of textual analyses, translations, and comments on things happening at the archives. For now, I thought it best to just provide an overview before potentially getting too heady. Enjoy!