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“Treasure Chest of Books”: 6 Historic Libraries in Italy

“A drop of water molds stone not by force, but by falling often. So man learns not by force, but by reading often.”

Il candelaio by Giordano Bruno

Reading feels like the smell of books, allowed to linger for a long time under the sun’s rays, and the moss-like softness of pages when a storm bursts and the rain melts little by little into the ink of the printed letters. Reading feels like flipping through a paperback at the bookstore, deciding whether or not to leave with it under your arm. Reading feels like the fascination of exploring the plethora of libraries scattered around Italy, new or old, sacred temples of knowledge, where your fingers and eyes point to the rich shelves and where even the most avid reader feels overwhelmed. Reading awakens all the senses, especially when in the beautifully intricate, historic libraries of Italy.  

Library means “treasure chest of books” from the Greek βιβλίον (biblíon, meaning “book” or “work”, itself derived from βύβλος, býblos, papyrus, the material on which people anciently wrote) and θήκη (théke, meaning “treasure chest” or “closet”). And in Italy one finds wonderful “treasure chests”–sometimes majestically frescoed, sometimes simply minimalist.  

Mesopotamian and Greco-Roman traditions established some of the world’s largest archives as early as the 7th century B.C. in the cities of Nineveh, Pergamum and Alexandria, capitals of ancient culture. With the invention of movable type printing in Germany by Johannes Gensfleisch of Gutenberg in 1455, it gradually became easier and easier to reproduce texts and new, even larger libraries emerged. But over the centuries, much of these priceless archives were lost to fires, wars or social and political causes, such as high illiteracy rates and political or religious censorship. While the Catholic Church played a central role in the spread of education in Europe, thanks to the Benedictine monasteries and the work of Cassiodorus in Vivarium, it also filtered the spread of books. (Vivarium was a monastery founded in the 6th century by Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus in Calabria. Within the monastery, Cassiodorus established a center for Bible studies and a library, a place for the preservation of classical Greek and Latin literature.) With the eyes of religious doctrine, the Church preferred the transmission of some texts at the expense of others.

From 1559, in Italy, until the middle of the 16th century, the Inquisition–an ecclesiastical court that investigated people and theories considered contrary to Catholic orthodoxy–banned the reading of particular works considered heretical, impious or lascivious. Pope Paul IV drew up a veritable Index of Forbidden Books (which included the names of pivotal Italian writers like Dante Alighieri and Boccaccio!)

Thanks to several copies kept by private collectors, these books were not permanently lost, and today in Italy, there are about 7,425 libraries that hold priceless literary works from the peninsula’s history. 

Archiginnasio in Bologna – Originally a Studium (a medieval university) for artists and lawyers, and since 1803, a library, home to the world’s largest heraldic complex. The walls and loggias feature 6,000 coats of arms, each with the name and provenance of a student who led one of the university’s organizations.

Biblioteca Ambrosiana (Pinacoteca) In a secret courtyard in the heart of Milan stands the Pinacoteca museum and its Biblioteca Ambrosiana, the latter of which was commissioned by Cardinal Federico Borromeo in 1607 and is home to pictorial masterpieces and 40,000 prints and manuscripts rich in miniatures–hand-drawn designs of floral or animal decorations around the letters. These include the Ilias Picta by Gian Vincenzo Pinelli, a collection of 52 fragments from the 4th century book that are the only known surviving illustrations from Homer’s Iliad, and the precious Codex Atlanticus, the largest existing collection of Leonardo da Vinci’s writings and drawings. 

Biblioteca Malatestiana – UNESCO’s Memory of The World chose the Biblioteca Malatestiana in Cesena as one of the most important cultural archives on the planet. It was the first civic library in Europe and is a rare, if not unique, example of a humanistic monastic library that arrived in the 21st century with the original building, furnishings and book collection. Founded in the 15th century, it preserves more than 250,000 volumes.

Biblioteca Malatestiana

Braidense National Library – Also in Milan, one of the fathers of 19th century Italian literature Alessandro Manzoni’s favorite place of study was the magical Braidense National Library, inside the Brera Academy, where his original manuscripts are kept today. If you go to study there, you leave your belongings in a yellow cabinet with a numbered key and ask for titles, taking into account an archive of 1.5 million volumes and as many wooden drawers. For this reason, books are reserved, even if only for reference, and some are so precious that they can be browsed only while wearing white gloves. Between pages, you can find postilles (handwritten annotations) of famous authors, dedications, and original signatures. The Braidense was opened to the public in 1786 at the behest of Maria Theresa of Austria in the midst of the Enlightenment period and was the second library in the world, after New York’s, to be equipped with artificial lighting.

Biblioteca Riccardiana – Exquisitely frescoed by Luca Giordano, one of the most skilled painters of the 17th century, the Renaissance Biblioteca Riccardiana in Florence houses the most important manuscripts of Florentine Humanism and of the Renaissance period, many of which are still unpublished. It is located in the Medici Riccardi Palace, once the private home of the famous Medici family.

Marciana Library – Jacopo Sansovino, on the other hand, wanted well-known Italian painters such as Tintoretto, Titian and Veronese to depict allegories and portraits of ancient philosophers and embellish the ceilings and walls of the Marciana Library in Venice, a gilded masterpiece in the lagoon that flanks the bell tower of St. Mark’s and is now one of the earliest surviving public libraries. A large part of the library’s original collection was brought to Venice by refugees fleeing Byzantium after its capture by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. 

Il Giardino dei Finzi Contini

Although nothing enriches the mind more than reading in these places, to travel through the history of Italian literature from your own home, here is a list of some essential classics. 

Il Gattopardo by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa – Set in 1860 in Sicily, it’s a story of politics and love in Prince Don Fabrizio’ family, who attempt to adapt to the social changes during the unification of Italy.

Il Giardino dei Finzi Contini by Giorgio Bassani – A story of love and war, made up of the friendships, life plans and tennis matches of some Jewish boys in Ferrara while Italy allies with Germany and dramatically enters the war.

If This is a Man by Primo Levi – The story of the author, a Jew and partisan (part of the resistance against Nazi fascism in Italy), who is captured by the fascists in 1943 and taken to the concentration camp at Fossoli (Modena).

Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg – A linguistic experiment and an ironic chronicle of a mid-twentieth-century family living in Turin.

L’Amica Geniale by Elena FerranteA very recent tetralogy, thrilling from the first to the last page and if not yet a classic, destined to become one. A passionate coming-of-age novel that chronicles the lives of two friends–amid envy, love and disappointment–in 1960s Naples.

Biblioteca Malatestiana

Marciana Library

Angelica and Tancredi in Il Gattopardo

Biblioteca comunale dell'Archiginnasio

Biblioteca Ambrosiana

Braidense National Library

Marciana Library

Biblioteca Malatestiana