Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Going To The Library - Part I

A week ago Tuesday I spent the morning at the public library here in Roma - well okay not just any old public library but the first known public library in Europe. Biblioteca Angelica was founded in 1604 by Bishop Angelo (hence Angelica) Rocca, a writer and collector of rare books. He was also in charge of the Vatican Printing House during the pontificate of Pope Sextus V. He entrusted the care of some 20,000 volumes to the Monks at the convent of St Augustine, provided a building, an annuity and regulations for its operation: the principle rule being that it was open to all people regardless of income or social status. It has functioned as a public library since 1609 and except for a few periods of renovation and civil upheaval has been a major source of learning and research material to anyone over the age of 16 ever since.
I believe the crest above the library entrance is that of the founder Bishop Angelo Rocca - however I'm a little confused by the Cardinal's hat incorporated into it as I don't believe he ever reached that exalted rank. Though it may also reflect the enormous contribution of Cardinal Passionei to the collection.

In 1661 Lukas Holste, the curator of the Vatican Library, gave his collection of 3,000 printed volumes to the Augustinians. During the period of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation its position as a repository of Augustinian thought and writings means that it is one of the prime research centres for history of that period. The acquisition in 1762 of the huge library of Cardinal Domenico Passionei, collected as he traveled through Protestant Europe as a Papal envoy, meant that books that had been banned where now in a public library.

Vanvitelli's reading room was built in 1765 and with the exception of modern lighting and electrical has remained much the same since. Books are housed on three levels on all four sides of the room. As with most library reading rooms silence, monitored by severe looking ladies who could be someone's nonni, is the rule.

It was during this period that the monks commissioned Luigi Vanvitelli to rebuild the reading room in 1765. It is this same room that is still in use today. Since 1873 the library has been the property of the Italian state and is currently undergoing restoration and reorganization.
The stacks are accessed by interior spiral staircases located at the four corners of the reading room. The ground floor doors are surmounted by busts of various worthies, the doors on the second and third levels are painted with trompe d'oeil shelves of books. And I found it strange that each shelf had fabric skirting?

Some Biblioteca Angelica facts:

It houses:
  • over 200,000 volumes in its Heritage Collection
  • 100,000 of which were edited between the 15th and 19th centuries
  • 24,000 unbound manuscripts
  • 2,700 Latin, Greek or Oriental documents
  • 1,100 incunabula - books printed before 1501
  • 460 unbound maps
  • 10,000 maps bound in volumes
  • over 120,000 volumes in its Modern Collection

Though the collection is now indexed on computer there are still facsimile copies of the first catalogues available around the room. The first handwritten record of the entire contents of the library was begun in 1748 and finally complete in 1786.

And the entire collection is still available to anyone over the age of 16 who shows up with a valid identity card. After 400 years it is still very much a public library.

I will be putting up a few posts on some of the rare books in the collection in the next few days.

10 febbraio - Santa Scolastica

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David said...

Nothing daunted by earlier silence, I've one more suggestion for your trip, which I read about yesterday: Paul Nash exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Great gallery, though bit of a haul to get to, wonderful visionary artist.

Anonymous said...

This must have been a wonderful visit. what a lovely reading room.



oh my Goddess...I actually started to hyperventilate...all those books..oh about my idea of heaven.

sageweb said...

How wonderful...What did it smell like? All those old books..I bet the smell is amazing.

Doralong said...

Wow! SO that's what heaven looks like! (I presume the wine & ham bar is in the basement or somesuch)

Anonymous said...

Hi, Will. Greetings from Galiano! I hope you two had a good visit with K & B recently.

We had rented the Italian made-for-TV (but in a good way, without Meredith Baxter x-Birney) melodrama, called "La Meglio Gioventu", which was very good. There was a scene in the library you describe.

Here's my very recent attempt at a food blog, if you've a moment: Do let me know what you think, Will!



Elizabeth said...

As usual, Dora and I think as one (I know we're kin somehow...) and that is precisely my idea of Heaven. Wow!