Ten stunning Italian libraries
The books inside a library probably contain countless libraries as well.
Think about the “very stately and magnificent” library of Saint Victor, described in “Gargantua and Pantagruel” as the novel’s protagonist makes a long and hilarious list of absurd book titles.
Or think about the one in “Don Quixote” by Cervantes, where books “guilty” of casting dangerous spells on readers are kept.
Or think of the library in “The Betrothed” that belongs to the erudite Don Ferrante, whom Manzoni makes fun of in the 27th chapter, describing his
considerable collection of books, scarcely less than three hundred volumes.
Moving on to 20th-century literature, think of Elias Canetti’s library in “Auto-da-Fé” and Umberto Eco’s in “The name of the rose”…
Finally, the absolute queen that allows us to really believe that any library contains countless libraries: “The Library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges. Here you can find
he detailed history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalog of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the proof of the falsity of those false catalogs […] the translation of every book into every language, the interpolations of every book into all books, the treatise Bede could have written (but did not) on the mythology of the Saxon people…
We’ll never be able to visit all of the libraries in literature. But at least we would like to take you on a tour of the ten the most wonderful real libraries in Italy.
We start in Venice, right next to Saint Mark’s Campanile (Bell tower), where the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (photo above) was built between 1537 and 1588 according to Florentine architect Jacopo Sansovino’s designs. Its vast collection includes invaluable Greek and Latin manuscripts, as well as a large number of atlases and maps.
Milan is home to the Braidense National Library, built in 1770 and opened to the public in 1786. Located inside the 17th-century Palazzo di Brera, its “roommates” are the famous Brera Art Gallery and Brera Botanical Gardens. It became a “national library” (and was officially entrusted with conserving Italy’s publishing heritage) in 1880.
One of Bologna’s cultural attractions is the Archiginnasio Municipal Library, located since 1838 in the beautiful, 16th-century building of the same name, which used to be the university’s main center. Its collection has grown from the original nucleus that dates back to 1801 to approximately one million pieces, including books, pamphlets, incunabula, ancient books and periodicals.
A little further south, we reach Cesena and its Malatestiana Library, the first civic library in Italy and in Europe, as well as the only monastic (Franciscan, to be precise) library structure to have preserved building, furniture and book collection completely intact. It was built between 1447 and 1454, and was added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme Register in 2005.
In Florence we suggest visiting at least two libraries. One is the Riccardian Library, founded in 1600 and open to the public since 1715. Among the treasures kept in its collection at Palazzo Medici Ricciardi: a 10th-century manuscript with works by Pliny the Younger, and Machiavelli’s autograph manuscript of “Florentine Histories”.
The second library we must mention in Florence is the Laurentian Library, which has the largest Egyptian papyri collection in Italy and the richest collection of Virgil’s works in the world. It is located inside a splendid 16th-century building designed by Michelangelo, and can be accessed passing through the cloisters of the Basilica of San Lorenzo (hence the name, “Laurenziana” in Italian).
In Rome we enter the wonderful Angelica Library right next to the Basilica of Sant’Agostino, near Piazza Navona. Inaugurated in 1604, the Angelica is one of the oldest “public” libraries in the world, and flaunts the largest collection of books on Saint Augustine. It also houses the archives of the literary Academy of the Arcadians.
A stone’s throw from the Angelica, there is the Biblioteca Vallicelliana. Its original nucleus of books belonged to Saint Phillip Neri, founder of the Congregation of the Oratory – the religious institution that entrusted the great architect Francesco Borromini with building the Oratory of Saint Phillip Neri, where the library is now on the second floor.
The Capital is also home to the Casanata Library, which opened in the early 1700s inside the Convent of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, next to the beautiful church that is Saint Catherine of Siena’s final resting place. The Casanatense is named after cardinal Girolamo Casanate, who owned the 25,000 books making up the original nucleus of the library’s collection.
Naples is the last stop on our itinerary, with the Biblioteca dei Girolamini, which inaugurated in 1586 and thus is the oldest in the city. Currently located inside a building that belongs to the late-17th-century complex of the Church and Convent of the Girolamini, it preserves a large and prestigious collection – which unfortunately the public cannot consult.
Biblioteca dei Girolamini
Via Duomo, 114
Tel.: +39 081 294444
Fax: +39 081 2110913