Provenance in the Aggregate: The Social Life of an Unremarkable Arabic Manuscript Collection
Colonial Knowledge Production
Università degli Studi di Napoli L'Orientale (UNO)
This is a biography of a collection of eleven Arabic manuscripts at the library of the Università degli Studi di Napoli L'Orientale (UNO). These manuscripts do not contain otherwise unknown or even rare texts, since the titles in the collection exist in dozens of manuscript copies in northern African libraries in addition to printed editions. While the bulk of their content may be known to historians, the objects themselves have led rich social lives that merit attention. Like many biographies, however, the story of these objects suffers from a lack of detail. In this article, I suggest that if approached in the aggregate, the long-term provenance of Arabic manuscript collections like this one have a fascinating story to tell about their social histories. Even in the absence of every detail, these objects have much to say about the multiple and overlapping historical contexts through which they have moved. I begin by showing how these manuscripts at the UNO started their lives as Italian papers, situating them in the world of maritime and terrestrial trade that linked the northern and southern coasts of the Mediterranean from the 17th-20th centuries. I then demonstrate how the production and circulation of these texts speaks to widespread intellectual networks of a Muslim minority community and its manuscript culture in the Maghrib during the 18th and 19th centuries when the Ottoman empire attempted to exercise influence over the region. Finally, I show the ways in which these manuscripts were participants in the process of European (specifically, Italian) colonization and colonial knowledge production in northern Africa at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. By placing the aggregated biographies of the manuscripts in dialogue with the history of the broader Mediterranean world, I show how Arabic manuscript collections like this one have much to offer historians.