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Angelo Mai (March 7, 1782 – September 8, 1854) was an Italian Cardinal and philologist. He won a European reputation for publishing for the first time a series of previously unknown ancient texts. These he was able to discover and publish, first while in charge of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan and then in the same role at the Vatican Library. The texts were often in parchment palimpsests; he was able to read the lower text using chemicals such as Gallic acid. In particular he was able to locate a substantial portion of the long known of and much sought-after De re publica of Cicero.
In 1799 he entered the Society of Jesus, and in 1804 he became a teacher of classics in the Jesuit college of Naples. After completing his studies at the Collegium Romanum, he lived for some time at Orvieto, where he was engaged in teaching and palaeographical studies. Though he returned to Rome, the deteriorating papal relations with Napoleon and the city's subsequent occupation by General Miollis in 1808 necessitated Mai's withdrawal to Milan, where in 1813 he was made custodian of the Ambrosian library.
He now threw himself with characteristic energy and zeal into the task of examining the numerous manuscripts committed to his charge, and in the course of the next six years was able to restore to the world a considerable number of long-lost works. Having withdrawn from the Society of Jesus, he was invited to Rome in 1819 as chief keeper of the Vatican Library. In 1833 he was transferred to the office of secretary of the Congregation of the Propaganda Fide; on February 12, 1838 he was raised to the dignity of Cardinal. He died at Castel Gandolfo, near Albano Laziale, on 8 September 1854.
It is on his skill as a reader of palimpsests that Mai's fame chiefly rests. To the period of his residence at Milan belong:
- fragments of Cicero's judicial orations Pro Scauro, Pro Tullio, Pro Flacco, and his In Clodium et Curionem, De aere alieno Milonis, and De rege Alexandrino (1814)
- M. Corn. Frontonis opera inedita, cum epistolis item ineditis, Antonini Pii, Marci Aurelii, Lucii Veri et Appiani (1815; new ed., 1823, with more than 100 additional letters found in the Vatican library)
- portions of eight speeches of Quintus Aurelius Symmachus
- fragments of Plautus
- the oration of Isaeus' De hereditate Cleonymi
- the last nine books of the Antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and a number of other works.
- Cicero's De Re Publica, published as M Tullii Ciceronis de republica quae supersunt, Rome, 1822
- Scriptorum veterum nova collectio, e Vaticanis codicibus edita in 1825-1838
- Classici scriptores e Vaticanis codicibus editi in 1828-1838
- Spicilegium Romanum in 1839-1844 (Tomus III, Tomus IX)
- Patrum nova bibliotheca in 1845-1853
His edition of the celebrated Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1209, completed in 1838, but not published (ostensibly the ground of inaccuracies) till four years after his death (1858), is the least satisfactory of his labours and was superseded by the edition of Vercellone and Cozza (1868), which itself leaves much to be desired.
Although Mai was not as successful in textual criticism as in the decipherment of manuscripts, he will always be remembered as a laborious and persevering pioneer, by whose efforts many ancient writings have been rescued from oblivion.
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Karl-August von Reisach