ITALIA ARCHEOLOGIA e RESTAURO ARCHITETTURA: The Hidden Treasures in Italian Libraries, THE NEW YORK TIMES (13 June 2017).
The Hidden Treasures in Italian Libraries, THE NEW YORK TIMES (13 June 2017). By DAVID LASKIN JUNE 13, 2017
In Florence, Rome and beyond, these buildings are a feast not only for book lovers, but for art and architecture enthusiasts as well.
In the madness of late spring at San Marco Square in Venice, amid the hordes pouring in from land and sea, hard by the hissing espresso machines and sizzling panini presses of overpriced cafes, I found the still point of the turning world. I found it in the library.
It was 10 in the morning and I was standing, alone and enthralled, on the second floor balcony of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana. Across the Piazzetta rose the Doge’s Palace. At my feet, tourist insanity. At my back, an immense, hushed, empty reading room designed by Jacopo Sansovino and decorated by Titian and Veronese.
Why go to the library in Italy when all around you there is fantastic art, exalted architecture, deep history and intense passionate people? Because, as I discovered in the course of a rushed but illuminating week dashing from Venice to Rome, Florence and Milan, the country’s historic libraries contain all of those without the crowds. Accompanied by my friend Jack Levison (a Bible scholar at Southern Methodist University who was in Italy to study ancient manuscripts), I hit six libraries in a literary Giro d’Italia. Not once were we shushed or told not to touch.
Carlo Campana, the librarian on duty in the Marciana manuscript room when we arrived, was typical in his affable erudition. Bald, voluble, with a pirate’s flashing grin, Mr. Campana left his post to take me on a quick tour of the library’s monumental public rooms.
“The Marciana was built here as part of the 16thcentury project to create a triumphal entry to the city from the lagoon,” he said, joining me on the balcony off the “salone,” Sansovino’s palatial reading room. “Situating the library in the most important place in Venice reflects the prestige of the book in the culture of the city.” Knit seamlessly into the architectural fabric surrounding San Marco, the Marciana was hailed by Palladio as the richest and most ornate building “since Antiquity” when it opened in 1570.
Originally, the Marciana’s salone was filled with walnut desks to which codices (ancient bound manuscripts) were chained, but in 1904 the chamber was converted to an exhibition and lecture space. Today, you can visit the salone using the same admission ticket that gives you access to the Doge’s Palace and the nearby Correr Museum, or you can ogle the room during a show, talk or concert. The reading rooms on the ground floor are reserved for scholars. While Jack toiled away in one of those rooms on a Medieval Greek manuscript that embellished on the biblical story of Adam and Eve (one of 13,000 bound manuscripts held by the library), I gazed at the Titians, Veroneses and Tintorettos
that adorn the salone’s walls and ceiling. Yes, the library has books too — a million of them — but to my eyes the Marciana itself is as precious as its holdings.
Most of Italy’s splendid old libraries got their starts as the private collections of a humanist noble or cardinal. The Marciana is typical, with its nucleus of 750 Greek and Latin manuscripts donated to the Venetian Republic in 1468 by the Greek cardinal Basilios Bessarion. With rare exceptions, these Renaissance libraries were originally restricted to elite circles of local aristocrats and scholars. Since Italy was so fragmented politically for much of its history, there was no Italian equivalent of a comprehensive state library on the order of the Library of Congress or the Bibliothèque Nationale de France until the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma was founded in 1876. I had two days in Rome to squeeze in as many libraries as possible, but after scoping out the Biblioteca Nazionale online, I crossed it off my list. With some seven million volumes and 8,000 manuscripts housed in a modernist 1970s era building in the decidedly uncharming environs of the Termini rail station, this is clearly a place for serious scholars, not dreamy bookish tourists.
I also skipped the Vatican Library — not because I deemed it insufficiently aesthetic, but because it deemed me insufficiently qualified. The library’s website states that only “researchers and scholars with appropriate academic qualifications” are allowed access to the over one million books and 75,000 codices in its collection. In the film “Angels & Demons,” the Harvard “symbologist” Robert Langdon (played by Tom Hanks) had no trouble penetrating the Vatican Library and its “secret archives.” But I had to content myself with looking over Mr. Hanks’s shoulder at the (entirely fabricated) bulletproof glass barriers and glinting steel elevator doors that he confronts while battling the forces of evil.
Luckily, Rome has no shortage of important, and stunning, libraries open to the public, and I managed to squeeze in three during my culture binge there. The Angelica, the Casanatense and the Vallicelliana are in the part of Rome I know and love best — the historic center anchored by Piazza Navona — but, like the Marciana in Venice, they had all been invisible to me on previous visits. Originally associated with different religious orders (the Augustinians, the Dominicans and the Oratorians), these three libraries, now run by the state, retain some of the unique spirit of the clerics who established them.
To my mind the most fascinating of these clerics was the 16thcentury priest (and saint) Filippo Neri, the charismatic founder of the Oratorians and their library, the Biblioteca Vallicelliana. In the tumultuous world of Rome in the CounterReformation, Neri was something of a folk hero, a street preacher who devoted his life to the poor, and paradoxically won a following among the rich and powerful. The end of Neri’s life overlapped with the beginning of Caravaggio’s career, and the two shared some of the same unconventional religious fire. Neri’s Oratorians took no vows and were bound by no formal rules aside from a commitment to humility and charity, and yet they dwelt in a gorgeous convent designed by Francesco Borromini, the most sought after architect in Baroque Rome after Bernini. The Vallicelliana was their library.
“Neri was a mystic of happiness who believed that music was a great ‘fisher of souls,’” Paola Paesano, the library’s stylish young director, told me as we sat in her office overlooking the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. “I like to think that the library gives architectural expression to Baroque music.” I grasped what she meant by this when I entered the great reading room. On the coffered ceiling, garlands, stars and swoops of stucco harmonize in intricate patterns. White pilasters rising at intervals set up a pleasing counterpoint to the walnut tracery of the bookshelves holding Neri’s collection. Goethe, who admired Neri and wrote a biography of him, said that “architecture is frozen music.” Never before has that old chestnut struck such a resonant chord with me. Back in Ms. Paesano’s office, I savored some of the library’s treasures, including the exquisitely illuminated ninthcentury Alcuin Bible and a pair of 16th century globes, one terrestrial, the other celestial. “The church held this institution in great account during the CounterReformation,” she said. “The Vallicelliana was — and is — a cultural nerve center tightly bound to the fabric of the city.” That fabric all but smothered me as I exited the Oratorian convent into the roar of tour buses and scooters on Corso Vittorio. But I was still under Neri’s spell, and I ducked into Chiesa Nuova, the superb Baroque church he built beside the convent, to pay my respects at his tomb, where his body lies incorrupt in a gemencrusted glass case.
I visited the Angelica and the Casanatense libraries on the next day and found them a fine study in contrasts. Where the Angelica is small, plush and perfectly faceted, the Casanatense is spartan and muscular. The Angelica reflects the wealth of its Augustinian founders, whose church, the Basilica di Sant’Agostino, adjoins the library, while the Casanatense shows its Dominican roots in its deep collection of books and codices on Church doctrine and natural history. The 10 minute stroll from the Angelica to the Casanatense cuts through the densest and most history encrusted area of Rome. As I sauntered along the hallowed streets, I passed the church of San Luigi dei Francesi with its three magnificent Caravaggios depicting the life of St. Matthew. Crossing the riotous fountain cooled piazza in front of the Pantheon, I emerged onto the delightful Rococo stage set of the Piazza Sant’Ignazio and fantasized that I was a Roman and these were my neighborhood libraries. Both are open to general readers; by some reckonings the Angelica is Europe’s first public library. My dream day would begin with a moment of reverence before Caravaggio’s humbly ravishing “Madonna di Loreto” in the Basilica di Sant’Agostino before I settled into a leather chair in the Angelica’s main reading room. I’d ask the staff to fetch me Cicero’s “De Oratore,” just so I could breathe in the scent of the first volume printed in Italy (1465), and then I’d peek into the precious early edition of Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” “The salone of the Angelica is a kind of vaso dei libri — a vessel of books,” the library’s brisk director, Fiammetta Terlizzi, told me proudly as we surveyed the four tiers of bookshelves that line the walls of this splendid chamber. “The room has the height and perspective of a cathedral.” For all its loftiness, the space is tiny compared with the reading rooms of the Marciana and Vallicelliana, with room for only a couple of dozen readers, all of them seated in chairs facing in the same direction. When these lucky few look up from the page, their eyes rest on a soaring altar of books bathed in celestial light.
After lunch, I whiled away what remained of the afternoon at the Casanatense. The library’s “salone monumentale” is the perfect antidote for what the writer Eleanor Clark called the “toomuchness” of Rome. Whitewashed, cavernous and presided over by a pair of enormous 18thcentury globes, this elegantly spare reading room is now used for exhibits and lectures. The rest of the library is a delightful warren of more whimsically decorated chambers — an alcove for the card catalog, the frescoed Saletta di Cardinale (the “little hall” of Cardinal Girolamo Casanate, who founded the library in 1700 with a donation of 20,000 volumes to the adjacent Dominican convent of Santa Maria sopra Minerva), an airy corner room reserved for laptopwielding students, a hushed darker space for scholars consulting manuscripts. Among the Casanatense’s most prized holdings are an illuminated 14thcentury “Teatrum Sanitatis” with its vivid depictions of medieval daily life, a collection of 18th century herbals and the personal papers of the composer Niccolò Paganini.
After Rome, I had to make a choice. Jack was going to the small industrial city of Brescia, between Milan and Venice, to spend a day examining manuscripts at the Biblioteca Queriniana. One option was to tag along so I could scope out this 18th century library’s intimate Rococo reading room and marvel at its most vaunted possession, a sixthcentury gospel manuscript written in silver ink on purple dyed vellum known as the Evangeliario Purpureo. The other option was to head to Florence to check out the only library designed by Michelangelo, the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana.
I chose Florence.
Though summer was still a month away, Florence’s centro storico was already dense with tourists. But the cloister of the Church of San Lorenzo, which houses the Laurenziana, though just a stone’s throw from the Duomo, was so deserted when I arrived at 11 a.m. that I wondered if I had come to the right place. I bought my ticket, followed the signs and pushed open the door, and for the next hour I had Michelangelo pretty much to myself. “Austere” was the word that came to mind as I entered his crepuscular vestibule and ascended to the portal of the reading room on a flight of oval steps carved from a somber gray stone known as pietra serena. No adjective I know does justice to the reading room itself. Rows of walnut benches that ingeniously double as lecterns — “plutei,” they are called — flank the sides of a central corridor paved in intricately patterned rose and cream terra cotta. Along the two lateral walls, stained glass windows face each other in precise rectangular alignment, illuminating the benches.
The heavily carved wooden ceiling seems to flatten and deepen the space to infinity, like the vanishing point in a Renaissance landscape painting. Michelangelo’s library is so rational, so resolute, so majestically realized that not in my wildest dreams could I imagine working here. In fact, as in the other great libraries I visited, the Laurenziana’s reading room is now primarily a showpiece, with side rooms of a later and lesser vintage used for lectures and exhibits. Scholars from all over the world, drawn by the vast collection of manuscripts, labor in less imposing spaces tucked away in the cloister.
“There is a small club of libraries with truly deep holdings, and we are part of it,” said Giovanna Rao, the director of the library, when we met in her office, a former monastic cell off the cloister. “Our manuscript collection, which runs to 11,000 items, rivals that of the British Library or the National Library of France, though we are not a national library. And of course, no other library enjoys the good fortune of having Michelangelo as its architect.” Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, where Jack and I reunited for the final day of our trip, comprises an art gallery, art school and ecclesiastical college, all housed in a rather severe neoClassical building very close to the Duomo. It was the intention of Cardinal Federico Borromeo, who founded the Ambrosiana in 1609 and named it for the city’s patron saint, that the library, museum and schools be integrated and collaborative. The architecture reflects the cardinal’s aim: From the secondfloor galleries, museumgoers can look down at academics working in a nobly proportioned atriumlike reading room.
With a collection of ancient manuscripts rivaling the Vatican’s, the Ambrosian Library is worldclass. But nonscholars like me are not deprived of its riches. The library’s ornate 17thcentury reading room, the Sala Federiciana, is incorporated into the museum, and, starting in 2009, it has been used to display the institution’s greatest treasure: Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus, a collection of 1,119 sheets of drawings and captions on subjects ranging from botany to warfare. Surrounded by the gilded and sepia spines that line this mellow chamber, and dwarfed by its white barrelvaulted ceiling, I lost myself for half an hour in Leonardo’s inspired doodles of catapults, primordial pontoon bridges and tripodmounted cannons. The only other artwork in the old reading room is a Caravaggio still life: a basket of slightly worm eaten fruit stuck with a few pocked, withered leaves. The ingenious improvisations of a restless polymath and this stark memento mori by a disturbed visionary form a perfect pair of bookends for the Italian Renaissance.
Only in Italy, I reflected, and only in a library could I stand, alone and undisturbed, in the center of a great city and peer into the mind of genius.
If You Go
The public rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana may be visited using the ticket (19 euros) that provides access to the Museo Correr, Ducal Palace and National Archaeological Museum, all in San Marco Square. Guided tours of the
reading room are offered the second Sunday of every month; at other times, guided tours must be reserved by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or phoning 390412407238.
The Biblioteca Vallicelliana is open to readers aged 16 and older with a valid ID such as a passport. Information: http://www.vallicelliana.it.
The Biblioteca Ambrosiana is open to readers 16 and older with a valid ID such as a passport. Additional information:
The reading rooms of the Biblioteca Casanatense are open Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. To arrange a free guided tour (in Italian), contact
Isabella Ceccopieri at Isabella.email@example.com or 390669760331.
The vestibule and the great reading room that Michelangelo designed for the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana are open to the public during temporary exhibitions. Information: bmlonline.it/en. The Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, open only to accredited scholars, can be glimpsed from the art gallery (the Pinacoteca) in the same building. The library’s original reading room is now part of the Pinacoteca. Information including
hours and ticket prices is at
FONTE | SOURCE:
— THE NEW YORK TIMES (13 June 2017). A version of this article appears in print on June 13, 2017, on Page TR1 of the New York edition with the headline: Libraries That Speak Volumes.
FOTO | FONTE |SOURCE:
— THE NEW YORK TIMES (13 June 2017). Susan Wright for The New York Times.
— The Biblioteca Angelica in Rome holds the first volume of Cicero’s “De Oratore” that was printed in Italy, in 1465, and a precious early edition of Dante’s “Divine Comedy.”
— The cloister of the Church of San Lorenzo, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, in Florence.
— The reading room of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence.
— An early edition of Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” in the Angelica library.
— The ceiling in the reading room of the Biblioteca Vallicelliana in Rome.
— The entrance to the reading room in the Biblioteca Vallicelliana.
— The exterior of the Biblioteca Vallicelliana in Rome.
— The Salone Monumentale in the Biblioteca Casanatense in Rome.
— The reading room of the Biblioteca Casanatense.
— Books in the Biblioteca Casanatense.