We know precisely what Abraham Lincoln, one of my political heroes, looked like. Photographs from a century and a half ago show him lanky and long-limbed, surprisingly scruffy, with craggy features and a twinkle in his eye. We can see him, for example, in an 1862 portrait by the Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, looking beautifully composed at a desk – and even in a blurry shot taken on the day of his Gettysburg Address.
But here’s the thing: we’ll never be sure what that address sounded like, because there is no recording of Lincoln’s voice in existence. Tantalisingly, although he lived during the first golden age of photography, his life was cut short a decade before Edison unveiled the gramophone.
We know him so well, from his speeches and the thousands of books written about him, that the 16th US president can almost reach out to shake us by the hand – but he’ll always be mouthing his words silently.
That is why Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Lincoln in the 2012 film was so utterly mesmerising: he didn’t give us the booming “Four score and seven years ago” that many expected from Hollywood, but what one of Lincoln’s contemporaries referred to as his “thin, high-pitched” tone. The film gave us Lincoln’s voice, and thus a thrilling insight into the great man himself.
I am quietly rejoicing, therefore, at the news that the Vatican is putting audio recordings of the popes, stretching back to 1884, in a new digital archive. Some 8,000 clips, gathered over the decades by Vatican Radio, will be available to the public from April 27 – the date of the canonisation of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII.
At the click of a mouse we’ll be able to hear Pius XII appealing for peace on the eve of the Second World War: “The danger is imminent but there is still time.” We’ll be able to listen to Leo XIII’s Humanum Genus encyclical, which he recorded in 1884.
And, centuries from now, Catholics will be able to marvel at the sound of Benedict XVI, who – in his unforgettable speech on the day that he formally stepped down as pope – pledged to be “simply a pilgrim starting the last phase of his pilgrimage on this Earth”.
Announcing the new archive, Fr Federico Lombardi said: “This way, the Popes remain among us thanks to their voices.” How lucky we are to be able to hear them.
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