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The Hidden treasures in Italian libraries

1 December 2017

Leave the packed streets of the city behind. The beauty of Italy can be discovered within the halls of its reading rooms

In the madness of late spring at San Marco Square in Venice, amid the hordes pouring in from land and sea, 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 and deep history? 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 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. With a pirate’s flashing grin, Campana left his post to take me on a tour of the library’s monumental public rooms.

“The Marciana was built here as part of the 16th-century 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 Italian architect, 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 using the same admission ticket that gives you access to the Doge’s Palace and the nearby Correr Museum.

I gazed at the Titians, Veroneses and Tintorettos that adorn the walls and ceiling. Yes, the library has books, too – one million of them – but to my eyes the Marciana itself is as precious as its holdings.

Rome has no shortage of important, and stunning, libraries, 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 centre anchored by Piazza Navona. 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 16th-century 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 Counter-Reformation, 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. 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.

The next day, I visited the Angelica and the Casanatense libraries 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 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.”

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 “too-muchness” of Rome. Whitewashed, cavernous and presided over by a pair of enormous 18th-century 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, including the frescoed Saletta di Cardinale (the “little hall” of Cardinal Girolamo Casanate, who founded the library in 1700).

Among the Casanatense’s most prized holdings is an illuminated 14th-century “Teatrum Sanitatis” with its vivid depictions of medieval daily life, a collection of 18th-century herbals and the personal papers of composer Niccolò Paganini.

After Rome, I made the journey to Florence to check out the only library designed by Michelangelo, the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana. “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 grey 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 terracotta. 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.

“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 that enjoys the good fortune of having Michelangelo as its architect.”

In Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana comprises an art gallery, art school and ecclesiastical college, all housed in a rather severe neoclassical building 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.

With a collection of ancient manuscripts rivalling the Vatican’s, the Ambrosian library is world-class. The library’s ornate 17th-century reading room, the Sala Federiciana, is incorporated into the museum, and, since 2009, 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 barrel-vaulted ceiling, I lost myself for half an hour in Leonardo’s inspired doodles of catapults, primordial pontoon bridges and tripod-mounted 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 centre of a great city and peer into the mind of genius.

Words: David Laskin

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