A paradise of pages
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
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: ©...