A par­adise of pages

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS - by Jane For­tune

Florence’s his­tor­i­cal li­braries are repos­i­to­ries for some of the world’s most im­por­tant writ­ten col­lec­tions, and are a bib­lio­phile’s heaven.

The term ‘pub­lic li­brary’ meant some­thing very dif­fer­ent in the Re­nais­sance from what it means to­day. Many of Italy’s li­braries be­gan as the pri­vate col­lec­tions of a hu­man­ist, a no­ble or a car­di­nal. With rare ex­cep­tions, these venues were orig­i­nally re­stricted to elite cir­cles of lo­cal aris­to­crats; they were learned places to study an­cient works as well as a place to be­hold these works. Here are seven Re­nais­sance li­braries that you can visit to­day.

Bi­b­lioteca di San Marco Pi­azza San Marco, 3

In Florence, the San Marco Li­brary, lo­cated in the Do­mini­can monastery of San Marco, be­came the foun­da­tion for the city’s first pub­lic li­brary in 1444. It was built by Mich­e­lozzo (1396-1472) for Cosimo the El­der de’Medici. Mich­e­lozzo de­signed an in­ti­mate and pure space ded­i­cated “to preser­va­tion and study, to con­cen­tra­tion and calm”. The fresco painter Fra’ Beato An­gelico dec­o­rated its walls, and those of the monks’ cells, with works of pro­found spir­i­tual sig­nif­i­cance. The li­brary’s im­pos­ing space, with its dou­ble col­umns and cross-vaulted ceil­ings, hosts an­cient Greek and Latin sa­cred and sec­u­lar manuscripts.

Its foun­da­tion was the col­lec­tion of Ital­ian Re­nais­sance hu­man­ist, Nic­colo de’ Nic­coli (13641437). It was he who in­tro­duced Duke Cosimo to the clas­si­cal world and in­spired him to study and col­lect. The former’s col­lec­tion was a mix­ture of sec­u­lar and sa­cred works, which he wanted schol­ars, as well as the pub­lic, to use upon his death. When Nic­coli died, he was in a great deal of debt, which Cosimo paid off. In turn, Nic­coli’s es­tate granted Cosimo, who was restor­ing the

monastery at that time, con­trol over his col­lec­tion of 800 books, which he placed in the San Marco Li­brary and were avail­able to the Floren­tine pub­lic.

This Re­nais­sance gem, con­tin­ued un­der hu­man­ist Lorenzo Il Mag­nifico and was a favourite meet­ing place for Floren­tine hu­man­ists to con­sult books in Latin and Greek and a space to dis­cuss philo­soph­i­cal ideas, which char­ac­ter­ized Florence from 1450s to 1500. With its green plas­ter walls, it was a space of calm ded­i­cated to study. Sev­eral il­lu­mi­nated manuscripts were re­cently dis­cov­ered, by the Ad­vanc­ing Women Artists Foun­da­tion and re­stored, that were copied by con­vent artist Plau­tilla Nelli and her sis­ter, Petron­illa. To­day, a num­ber of il­lu­mi­nated books are dis­played and the con­vent li­brary spe­cialises in the­ol­ogy and phi­los­o­phy.

Bi­b­lioteca delle Oblate Via dell’Ori­uolo 24 -26

The Oblate Li­brary, lo­cated in the former Con­vent of the Oblate, is a hid­den gem, whose café has one of the best views of the Duomo. Opened in 2007, it is a cul­tural and mul­ti­me­dia cen­tre which com­bines the old with the new. The Oblate, built at the end of the 14th cen­tury, was a sec­u­lar or­der of clois­tered women who took care of sick women. These de­voted ladies vol­un­tar­ily lived there un­til 1936. The women’s ward and kitchen are where the li­brary’s sec­tion of lo­cal his­tory and con­ser­va­tion is housed. Books linked to Florence’s an­cient his­tory can be found here (the Mu­seum of Pre­his­tory).

The per­fectly re­stored com­plex is 10,000 square me­tres and has three lev­els. The first floor also hosts mod­ern-day work sta­tions with com­put­ers, TVs and DVD play­ers, Wi-Fi ac­cess and shelves filled with books, all for free use. The sec­ond floor is ded­i­cated to chil­dren, where work­shops are held all year round. The Oblate, to­day, is an im­por­tant cul­tural cen­tre for Florence, where Ital­ian stu­dents and in­ter­na­tional visi­tors to the city meet.

Bi­b­lioteca Medicea Lau­ren­ziana Pi­azza San Lorenzo 9

This his­toric li­brary, part of the Basil­ica of San Lorenzo, is in the up­per clois­ter of San Lorenzo’s

monastery, and is reached through the fa­mous staircase de­signed by Michelan­gelo, as a trib­ute to the Medici col­lec­tions. It was built by Man­ner­ist Bar­tolomeo Am­man­nati un­der the pa­tron­age of Medici Pope Cle­ment VII.

The read­ing room con­tains an ini­tial 3,000 manuscripts from the Medici pri­vate col­lec­tion. In to­tal, it hosts 11,000 manuscripts, 4,500 early printed books, of which 1,600 are from the 16th cen­tury. Its hold­ings also in­clude 15th cen­tury litur­gi­cal books, il­lu­mi­nated with gold let­ter­ing and hand-painted by the fri­ars. Works by Vir­gil, da Vinci, Pe­trarca, Machi­avelli and Michelan­gelo can be found here. In the 1900s, 2,500 Egyp­tian pa­pyri were ac­quired, mak­ing it one of the most im­por­tant col­lec­tions of its kind in the world.

Michelan­gelo’s ex­tra­or­di­nary pi­etra ser­ena staircase is one of the most orig­i­nal in the world. Con­struc­tion for the li­brary be­gan in 1524 and fin­ished in 1568. The staircase looks more like a sculp­ture with its steps and balustrades sur­rounded by stained glass win­dows. When Duke Cosimo I opened it to the pub­lic in 1571, the manuscripts be­long­ing to the Medici pri­vate li­brary were stripped of their orig­i­nal cov­ers and re­bound in red leather bear­ing the Medici coat of arms. These pre­cious vol­umes were chained to li­brary benches, for fear they would be stolen. The chain marks can still be seen on the an­cient book cov­ers to­day.

Bi­b­lioteca degli Uf­fizi Log­giato degli Uf­fizi

Un­til 1998, the Uf­fizi Li­brary was orig­i­nally housed in the foyer of the Medici the­atre, de­signed by Gior­gio Vasari. It was founded in the sec­ond half of the 18th cen­tury by Grand Duke Peter Leopold

of Hab­s­burg-Lor­raine. Over the years, its spe­cial­ity was the field of art his­tory, and was only avail­able to schol­ars. In 1998, it was moved to the former halls of the Bi­b­lioteca Magli­abechi­ana, lo­cated near the en­trance of the Uf­fizi Gallery. It pre­serves 470 manuscripts from Florence mu­se­ums’ col­lec­tions and spe­cialises in his­tor­i­cal and artis­tic pub­li­ca­tions for schol­ars and re­searchers. The li­brary con­tains 78,600 ti­tles, 192 16th-cen­tury books, 1,445 books printed be­tween 1601 and 1800s and 1,136 pe­ri­od­i­cals. The li­brary is not well known to the gen­eral pub­lic but its read­ing room is spec­tac­u­lar.

La Bi­b­lioteca Ric­car­diana Via de’ Gi­nori 10, near the Pi­azza San Lorenzo

The li­brary was founded in 1600 by Ric­cardo Ric­cardi and was moved to its present lo­ca­tion in 1670. In the 15th cen­tury the Palazzo Medici was bought from the Medici by the Ric­cardi fam­ily (hence Palazzo Medici Ric­cardi) and be­came a place for the Ric­cardi fam­ily’s col­lec­tion of books and art. The palazzo’s re­cep­tion room ceil­ings, fres­coed by Luca Gior­dano, be­came the li­brary room, filled with un­usual and mag­nif­i­cent carved and gilded book­shelves. It was open to the pub­lic in 1715 and, at the same time, the Ric­cardis faced fi­nan­cial trou­bles.

The col­lec­tion risked be­ing auc­tioned off and leav­ing Florence. In 1813, the City Coun­cil stepped in and bought it. Two years later, they sold it to the State and opened it to the pub­lic. It con­tains an ex­ten­sive col­lec­tion of sci­en­tific and philo­soph­i­cal texts. Among its col­lec­tion, there is an au­to­graphed man­u­script of the Floren­tine his­to­ries of Nic­colo Machi­avelli, and au­to­graphed manuscripts of Pe­trarch, Boc­cac­cio, Savonarola, as well as works by well-known hu­man­ists and Dante’s Di­vine Com­edy.

The Bi­b­lioteca Nazionale Cen­trale di Firenze Pi­azza dei Caval­leg­geri

Since Italy was so frag­mented po­lit­i­cally for much of its his­tory, there was no Ital­ian equiv­a­lent of a com­pre­hen­sive state li­brary like the US Li­brary of Congress, un­til this li­brary was founded.

It is the largest in Italy and one of the most im­por­tant col­lec­tions in Europe. It owns 6 mil­lion printed vol­umes, 2,689,672 pam­phlets, 25,000 manuscripts, 4,000 in­cunab­ula, 29,000 edi­tions from the 16th cen­tury and over 1 mil­lion au­to­graphs. In the Re­nais­sance it was lo­cated in­side the Uf­fizi and moved to its cur­rent lo­ca­tion in 1935 (build­ing of which be­gan in 1911).

In 1743 it was re­quired that a copy of ev­ery work pub­lished in Tus­cany be sub­mit­ted to the li­brary. Known orig­i­nally as the Maglibechi­ana, it was opened to the pub­lic in 1747, and com­bined its col­lec­tion with the Bi­b­lioteca Palatina, in 1861. In 1885 the li­brary was re­named the Na­tional Cen­tral Li­brary of Florence.

The flood­ing of the Arno River in 1966 dam­aged one-third of the li­brary’s col­lec­tion - mainly its pe­ri­od­i­cals and the Pala­tine and Magli­abechi col­lec­tions. It was flooded up to 6-feet, and un­for­tu­nately the un­der­ground stor­age held the li­brary’s most valu­able col­lec­tions, thus bury­ing cen­turies of books and manuscripts un­der mud and de­bris. Over a mil­lion works were dam­aged. A restora­tion Cen­tre was es­tab­lished, in­side the li­brary, shortly af­ter the flood, and laid the ground for suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions of pro­fes­sion­als to ad­vance the prac­tice of con­ser­va­tion and preser­va­tion, but sadly, 52 years later, many works still need restora­tion.

Bi­b­lioteca Mau­r­cel­liana Via Cavour 43-45

Ab­bott Francesco Mau­r­cel­liana (1625-1703) spent his life col­lect­ing books and do­nated his per­sonal col­lec­tion in or­der to cre­ate the foun­da­tions of a Floren­tine li­brary for the city’s less af­flu­ent cit­i­zens. The first venue of its kind in Florence, the li­brary was con­sid­ered a rev­o­lu­tion­ary idea. The build­ing was com­mis­sioned by the ab­bot’s grand­son, Alessan­dro Maru­celli, who was also a book col­lec­tor. It opened in 1752 on the same premises it cur­rently oc­cu­pies and funded by var­i­ous abbeys in Tus­cany. The orig­i­nal col­lec­tion of all dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines, com­prised 6,000 manuscripts. Its first li­brar­ian, An­gelo Ban­dini, held that post for 50 years. He was the first to

Its first li­brar­ian, An­gelo Ban­dini, held that post for 50 years. He was the first to al­pha­be­tise works by au­thor and ti­tle

al­pha­be­tise works by au­thor and ti­tle. It is in­ter­est­ing to note that the li­brary’s sec­ond li­brar­ian, also held his post for fifty years.

In 1783, prints and draw­ings were added to the li­brary’s col­lec­tion. In the early 1900s, all printed ma­te­ri­als, manuscripts, unbound pa­pers and pe­ri­od­i­cals, opera li­bretti, pub­lished in Florence were, by law, de­posited there. It holds a treasure trove of lo­cal his­tory, con­sist­ing of 40,000 vol­umes, 2,0000 manuscripts and 10,000 let­ters and doc­u­ments. The li­brary re­cently ac­quired draw­ings by Anna Anni (1926-2011), a well-known Floren­tine cos­tu­mist and stage de­signer, who worked with Or­son Welles and Franco Zef­firelli. In the Con­sul­ta­tion Room on the ground floor, char­coal draw­ings, water­colours and oil paint­ings and manuscripts of Bri­tish poet and artist, Louisa Grace Bar­tolini (1818-1865) can be found. Let­ters be­long­ing to sculp­tor and neo-fem­i­nist, Ade­laide Pan­di­ani Maraini (1836-1917) can be stud­ied there. Her hus­band, Cle­mente Maraini, was an in­dus­tri­al­ist and the edi­tor of Rome’s left-wing news­pa­per,

Above: The grand ex­te­rior of the Bi­b­lioteca Nazionale Cen­trale di Firenze Right, top: The in­te­rior of the Bi­b­lioteca Mau­r­cel­liana Right: An­gelo Ban­dini, first li­brar­ian at the Mau­r­cel­liana

Above: The Uf­fizi Li­brary. Grap­pling with ‘the gen­der gap’ at the Uf­fizi Li­brary at Wikipedia Edit­ing Marathon

(Images: Linda Fal­cone)

Right: The Ric­car­diana Bi­b­lioteca

Be­low, left: A book from the col­lec­tion at the Lau­ren­tian li­brary Works on show were owned, au­thored or crafted by women artists, pa­trons and princesses Be­low: Michelan­gelo's mon­u­men­tal staircase at the Lau­ren­ziana (Images: © Linda Fal­cone)

Left: The Lau­ren­tian Li­brary's cur­rent 'Women's Voices' ex­hi­bi­tion fea­tures art, archival doc­u­ments, manuscripts and let­ters.

Above: The Uf­fizi Li­brary's for­mi­da­ble col­lec­tion of art his­tory vol­umes spot­light­ing the mu­seum's as­sets (Im­age: © Linda Fal­cone) Right, top and mid­dle: Views of the San Marco Li­brary Right, bot­tom: Court­yard of the Bi­b­lioteca delle Oblate (Images: ©...

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