Read more books, in order not to be exploited: an interview with Camillo A. Formigatti

Camillo Formigatti works at the Cambridge Sanskrit Manuscript Project and is the author of many wonderful virtual catalogue sheets you can read directly online here. I met him only in 2009, while working at the first Coffee Break Conference, and now I wonder how I survived before without his acumen in the analysis of manuscripts as “things” and not (only) as carrier of a meaning (and without his friendship).

EF (Q. 1): You are an atypical Sanskritist, since you specialise not only on texts, but also on their vehicles, i.e., on manuscripts. How did this interest arise within your Indological curriculum?

CF: First of all, thanks for the interview (if this were a documentary movie, I’de be smiling). And, well, in the first place I don’t think I’m a Sanskritist, precisely because I do not spend —at least now— most of the time only reading Sanskrit texts.

(EF: This is what prompted me to ask, since I am interested in “out-of-place” people (I feel myself out-of-place, both in Sanskrit and Philosophy).)

CF: Coming back to your question, my interest for manuscripts arose gradually. I started studying Indology and Sanskrit as a secondary subject back in Italy, when I was studying Classics at the “Università Statale” in Milan.

EF: Did you have to do with manuscripts at that time?
CF: Yes and no. As a student, I worked in the library of the institute for papyrology (a chair you find only in Italy, by the way) and there I first came in direct contact with manuscripts, but I have to say I’ve always been fascinated by libraries and books as objects. In fact, originally I wanted to study archaeology and the material sources for the reconstruction of the past and I have always been fascinated by what you call “micro history”. Thus, I also studied bibliography and bibliotheconomy during my MA. It’s because I always wanted to feel that i was doing something useful for others —and down-to-earth.

EF: I can understand that books or manuscripts might be more “down-to-earth” if compared to texts, but why do you think that they are useful?

CF: I think that education and access to knowledge is something that should be central in the life of every human being, and it is something worth fighting for. Books —and hence libraries— are useful to others because in our era they are (still) the main means through which knowledge is spread, at least in the West. By preserving the books and facilitating the access to them —be they manuscripts or printed books— I think I can be useful to those who cannot read, to the people who make the revolutions and then end up with a fistful of sand. I know it could sound naïve, but i do feel useful to others, doing this.
Have you ever seen Sergio Leone’s movie Duck, you sucker? There is a very insightful discussion about books between Rod Steiger, who is portraying a Mexican peon and bandit, and James Coburn, who is portraying an Irish revolutionary who is fighting for the Mexican revolution (you can listen to it here). Thus, access to knowledge is of paramount importance for every human being, because it is the only way, i think, to avoid that people are exploited without even knowing it, just in the example of the revolution as told by Rod Steiger in the movie. And in order to guarantee this access, one needs teachers, but also books (and computers) and libraries (since not every one can afford to buy books).

EF: What happened after Marburg?
CF: Then, Germany happened. I mean, I went to Marburg to study Sanskrit, Prakrit and Tibetan as an Erasmus student and decided to continue to study there instead of Milan. At that time, prof. Michael Hahn was still there and as you know, he is primarily a philologist.
I started reading manuscripts and xylographies of Buddhist texts (Sanskrit and Tibetan) for the sake of editing texts. The topic of my MA thesis and of my first PhD project (which I never completed) was Kṣemendra’s Bodhisattvāvadānakalpalatā, but we read manuscripts even during the various seminars, it was an integral part of the curruculum, although mostly to check the correctness or completeness of an edition.

EF: Hence, for purposes different than your actual ones. I mean, at the time of your MA thesis you were still using manuscripts instead of focusing on them, isn’t it?
CF: Yes, then, I got a post in Hamburg in a research project focusing on manuscripts as material artefacts and I started working on a different PhD topic, abandoning the first one on Kṣemendra’s Bodhisattvāvadānakalpalatā. The research group was focusing on manuscripts both as carrier of texts and as archeological artefacts, so to say, and there we go, I was back to archeology!
EF: This also shows that abandoning a project might be for a bigger good (i.e., following/discovering one’s own real interest)
CF: Indeed! It was first in Hamburg that i realised how much historical information you can squeeze out of manuscripts just by asking them the correct questions. In other words, I discovered the world of codicology and manuscript studies.

EF (Q. 2): This brings me directly to the second question: Suppose one wants to specialise on Sanskrit manuscripts (for their own sake, i.e., not in order to do critical editions with them, but with an “archaeological” interest), what would you recommend? Which languages does s/he needs to know? Where should s/he study? What does s/he need to read?

CF: I. One has to learn Sanskrit, of course. Or, better, one should learn Sanskrits.
In other words, one should get rid of the idea that Pāṇinian Sanskrit is the only Sanskrit. One example from another field: you remember for sure how you studied Greek and Latin in high school, and that Herodotos wrote in Ionic, the choirs in Greek tragedies are in Doric etc. Well, there are more ancient Greeks, not only one, but we usually read Attic. If you transfer this to the domain of Sanskrit, you should think of different types of Sanskrit.
One simple example is the so-called Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit. One should start reading texts that are written in less standardised Sanskrit, in order to learn that this is a multifaceted language.
II. Studying Prakrit. Because it is important to get an idea of the fact that languages change. Moreover, a very important element of a manuscript is the colophon, which is the place where you find information as to when, how, by whom, for whom etc. a manuscript has been written. Very often, colophons are written in a very irregular Sanskrit, a sort of ”vernacularized Sanskrit”. Therefore, some knowledge of Prakrits and modern languages is very helpful. It enables you to recognise what phonetical changes might lie behind an irregular form and thus guess the “correct” Sanskrit form. Moreover, one should learn Prakrit even because if you want to work as a codicologist, you should be able to handle, so to say, also manuscripts of texts in Middle Indo-Aryan languages, since they belong to the same manuscript tradition, whereas manuscripts of texts in modern Indo-Aryan languages, although akin to the Sanskrit manuscript tradition, were produced in a different environment.
III. Learning German, English and French, in the sense that you should be able to at least read secondary literature in the relevant languages, and in order to do it more quickly, you have to spend some time abroad, a couple of years at least.

EF: What about learning Italian?
CF: For codicology and manuscript studies, it is still a must, in this sense, I’m very lucky. Since South Asian codicology, in my humble opinion, is still in its infancy, very often I have to turn to works on the codicology of “Western” manuscripts, just to learn the methodologies and see if they fit or not for our material, and as  to Western codicology and book history studies, Italian scholars are still at the top. Marilena Maniaci, Maria Luisa Agati, Guglielmo Cavallo are the Italian scholars that come to my mind immediately, but
I’m sure I left out many other valid scholars. For instance, i studied library science with Giorgio Montecchi back in Milan. But still, this is something else, not codicology.

EF: Other must-read in other languages:
CF: The Dutch scholar J.P. Gumbert and the French Denis Muzerelle.

EF (Q. 3): You are also an atypical Italian Sanskritist insofar as you spent most of your academic life abroad. You said you learnt textual criticism in Marburg and manuscriptology in Hamburg. What about your present experience in Cambridge?
CF: After my PhD, I wanted to catalogue manuscripts, although I could not have foreseen to work in Cambridge. This is an amazing opportunity for many reasons: first of all, the Cambridge University collections of South Asian manuscripts are relatively small (about 1,600 manuscripts, a big collection for Europe, but a small one if you take into account the South Asian ones, e.g., the archives in Kathmandu), but host very important manuscripts; secondly, they include manuscripts from very different manuscript traditions and coming from all over the subcontinent, from the Himālayan range to South India. It is the perfect place to learn, because in the field of manuscript studies more than in others, you always have the feeling that you still have to learn; you think you’ve seen all possible things, and then the next manuscript you open has a feature you have never seen before.

Ah, and one coda, so to say: in fact, I do not think of myself as an “Italian” Sanskritist, precisely because, as you say in the question, i spent most of my time abroad.

EF (Q. 4): You have been working at the Manuscript Project in Hamburg and now at the Sanskrit Manuscript Project in Cambridge. How did you manage to work there?
CF: I guess luck, in the first place. Or better, it’s a mixture of passion, hard work and above all, luck. Let me explain one aspect after the other, starting with the last one. When I say luck, I mean that I have had the best teachers I could have hoped for. I had the luck of finding teachers who listened to me, helped me finding out what were my strengths and told me to pursue them. Codicology is not very widespread as a research field, among Indologists but despite this, I’ve been encouraged to pursue this way. As to the second aspect, it goes without saying that it was a steep way to go: you first have to learn the languages (see above, No. 2) and methodologies (see above, No. 2).


EF (Q. 5): Can you tell me about your future projects?

CF: As I said in the previous answer, it was a steep way to get where I am now, and now i am not sure where to go, to tell the truth. You see, even if you are passionate about what you do, in my case, South Asian codicology, it doesn’t mean that the rest of the world shares your passion, and still, you have to pay the rent or the mortgage, or, if you have a family, you want your kids to have the best opportunities… I am thinking of a solution that enables me to go on with my passion. I think that in our field, and by this I mean South Asian studies, one should always have a plan B, if the academic career is taking its toll and you don’t want to jump from one job to another. In my case, I am seriously thinking of library and information science as a possible plan B. My hope is that at some I point I can work in a library that holds South Asian manuscripts.

EF: What about the plan A?
CF: Working with a great numbers of manuscripts, like we do now, gives you a different view on what might have been the production, use and circulation of manuscripts in a given geographical and cultural area. In our case, we noticed, for instance, that from the 15th century onwards, in the Kathmandu Valley paper started to replace palm-leaf as the main writing material employed in the production of manuscripts, until it completely replaced palm-leaf by the 17th century; and that the 17th century witnessed a flourishing in the production of manuscripts. A major motor of cultural change during the Western Renaissance has been the discovery of movable print and the diffusion of printing presses, which allowed the production and diffusion of books on an unprecedented way. Considering the fact that palm-leaf had to be imported in Nepal, we asked ourselves the following question: like in the case of the printing press in the West, can a technological change like the diffusion of paper as a writing material have triggered a cultural change in the Kathmandu Valley? During our cataloguing work we noticed that many Nepales manuscripts from the 14th to the 17th century are still unpublished and my colleague, Daniele Cuneo, immediately thought of a sort of “Malla Renaissance”. I have presented a paper on the hypothesis of this “Malla Reinassance” at the IATS Conference in Mongolia, August 2013.

Do you agree that new techniques can produce cultural changes, instead of being produced by them?

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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