Circulation of knowledge has taken many forms in the course of human history. The predominance of digital media at the turn of the 20th century has often been compared to the invention of printing in the Renaissance, because of the way the spread of knowledge and information has been revolutionized.
We are long past the time when the survival of literary works depended on the laborious copying of manuscripts. Though those of us in the library world are more than positive that the form of the physical book is as relevant as ever, we are at the same time the most ardent promoters of access to culture and knowledge through the world of digital media.Today more than ever before, digital access is of major interest for scholars, researchers and the general public, and a top priority for educational and cultural organizations.
The Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation, actively contributing to the ever growing demand for free access to digital materials, hosts several digital projects, which aim to highlight different aspects of Greek culture, namely literary, intellectual and maritime history. Such projects include Travelogues (digitized and fully documented graphic materials found in travel accounts of journeys to Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean) and the most recent website of its Digital Archives. The Foundation is one of the first organizations in Greece to have adopted the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF), while all digitized materials are included in the platform SearchCulture.gr of the Greek National Documentation Center. The Foundation’s digital collections are fully accessible free of charge.
The Foundation’s Historical Library holds over half a million items and more than 10,000 volumes of early printed books as well as a large number of other rare materials. In an effort to participate further in the creation of the large intangible library, the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation also created a Digital Library. It contains selected editions, mainly from the Special Collections, with the aim to make available rare and significant editions that are not yet available elsewhere on the internet and to complete important series that are only partly digitized. We aspire to continue enriching the content of the Digital Library prioritizing, in addition to the above, items of particular interest in terms of their provenance and other copy-specific characteristics.
The first items that were selected to be digitized belong to the collection of P. C. Laskaridis, one of the most complete collections of travel and historical literature of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Greek world in general. It counts in total over 3,000 items from the late 15th to the early 20th century. Rare editions of unique beauty, which often include intricate illustrations and maps are available on our virtual shelves.
The most recent addition to the Digital Library includes a collection of rare Greek 19th century pamphlets, from the library of Constantine Th. Dimaras, a prominent Greek scholar and historian. Greek pamphlets, interesting specimens of 19th century production of books in the Greek language, usually survive in few copies and some are even unique, “sole survivors” of their print run. Usually unimpressive and printed in poor quality paper, they nevertheless disclose important aspects of the political, social and intellectual life of their era.
For the purpose of this presentation we have selected an example that brings us back to the manuscript tradition and the unparalleled excitement of discovering long lost works of antiquity. But there is a twist to the story.
The pamphlet in question survives in only four known copies (according to the most comprehensive study of 19th century Greek bibliography, that of Philippos Iliou and Popi Polemi). It is an “Angelia”, an advertisement of an upcoming edition of a work on hagiography. Only 7 pages long, printed in very thin, poor quality paper, one would think it’s a run-of-the-mill item with nothing to interest today’s reader.
And yet, it’s part of the infamous legacy of one of the most controversial personalities of the 19th century, a “genius who deceived Europe”: Constantine Simonidis.
Trained in calligraphy from a young age, Simonidis visited the monasteries of Mount Athos from where he seems to have stolen some manuscripts as well as blank parchment leafs.
In an era when the European countries had discovered the idea of cultural heritage and had started amassing objects of the past, Simonidis offered to buyers, in Greece and abroad, a wealth of Greek manuscripts.
Along with selling the stolen manuscripts, he exploited his talent in calligraphy to create a plethora of fake ones. But here the plot thickens: they were not just copies of existing manuscripts. In fact, a lot of his works contained texts created by himself. He claimed to have discovered extremely important texts and authors, who in fact never existed, usually describing a glorious past and claiming that newer inventions, such as the steamship or printing, had already been invented and used in Antiquity. As Alexandros Rizos Rangavis, a contemporary scholar, writes with biting irony, “this lucky person discovered … all of California’s worth of the purest gold of ancient literature!”.
Despite the fact that his fraud was finally revealed, first in Greece and then abroad, Simonidis had managed for many years to deceive scientists and sell his creations to large European libraries and private collectors. Until today, it is not certain whether all of his forgeries have been uncovered.
He even falsified his own life, as not only did he write a laudatory (self) biography under the pseudonym Charles Stewart, but he reportedly announced his own death from leprosy in 1867, when in fact he died in 1890. Or 1902. We will probably never know for sure.
In the digitized text of the “Angelia”, we find an example of Simonidis’ claims that newer inventions have much earlier beginnings. He claims to have found a manuscript of the work of Dionysius of Fourna on hagiography (a real work) that contains an additional passage that had, until then, remained unpublished. According to Simonidis, this addition attributes to the Byzantine painter Panselinos (whom he dates to the 6th century AD, p. 3) the invention of “heliotypia” (literally sun printing, a form of photography), which he claims had much better results than his contemporary daguerreotype (p. 5). In fact, the passage in question is Simonidis’ own addition to Dionysius’ text. The idea of heliotypia was just another product of his imagination.
This story reminds us once again that things are not always what they seem. Behind a lauded historic discovery, an ingenious fraud might actually be hiding – a rare but certainly not unheard of phenomenon. Meanwhile, objects of the humblest exterior often bear witness to unexpected and exciting stories from the past. Thanks to the new possibilities of digital media, we are able to share our stories far and wide.
Angeliki Papadopoulou, Kleopatra Kyrtata, Dr Vera Andriopoulou
Special Collections, Historical Library, Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation