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 — an alcove for the card catalog, the frescoed Saletta di Cardinale (the “little hall” of Cardinal Girolamo Casanate, who founded the library in 1700 with a donation of 20,000 volumes to the adjacent Dominican convent of Santa Maria sopra Minerva), an airy corner room reserved for laptop-wielding students, a hushed darker space for scholars consulting manuscripts.
Among the Casanatense’s most prized holdings are 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 the composer Niccolò Paganini.
After Rome, I had to make a choice. Jack was going to the small industrial city of Brescia, between Milan and Venice, to spend a day examining manuscripts at the Biblioteca Queriniana. One option was to tag along so I could scope out this 18th-century library’s intimate Rococo reading room and marvel at its most vaunted possession, a sixth-century gospel manuscript written in silver ink on purple dyed vellum known as the Evangeliario Purpureo. The other option was to head to Florence to check out the only library designed by Michelangelo, the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana.
I chose Florence.
Though summer was still a month away, Florence’s centro storico was already dense with tourists. But the cloister of the Church of San Lorenzo, which houses the Laurenziana, though just a stone’s throw from the Duomo, was so deserted when I arrived at 11 a.m. that I wondered if I had come to the right place. I bought my ticket, followed the signs and pushed open the door, and for the next hour I had Michelangelo pretty much to myself.
“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 gray 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 terra cotta. 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.
Michelangelo’s library is so rational, so resolute, so majestically realized that not in my wildest dreams could I imagine working here. In fact, as in the other great libraries I visited, the Laurenziana’s reading room is now primarily a showpiece, with side rooms of a later and lesser vintage used for lectures and exhibits. Scholars from all over the world, drawn by the vast collection of manuscripts, labor in less imposing spaces tucked away in the cloister.
“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 enjoys the good fortune of having Michelangelo as its architect.”
Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, where Jack and I reunited for the final day of our trip, comprises an art gallery, art school and ecclesiastical college, all housed in a rather severe neo-Classical building very 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. The architecture reflects the cardinal’s aim: From the second-floor galleries, museumgoers can look down at academics working in a nobly proportioned atriumlike reading room.
With a collection of ancient manuscripts rivaling the Vatican’s, the Ambrosian Library is world-class. But nonscholars like me are not deprived of its riches. The library’s ornate 17th-century reading room, the Sala Federiciana, is incorporated into the museum, and, starting in 2009, it 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 center of a great city and peer into the mind of genius.
If You Go
The public rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana may be visited using the ticket (19 euros) that provides access to the Museo Correr, Ducal Palace and National Archaeological Museum, all in San Marco Square. Guided tours of the reading room are offered the second Sunday of every month; at other times, guided tours must be reserved by emailing email@example.com or phoning 39-04-1240-7238. Information: marciana.venezia.sbn.it.
The Biblioteca Vallicelliana is open to readers aged 16 and older with a valid ID such as a passport. Information: www.vallicelliana.it.
The Biblioteca Ambrosiana is open to readers 16 and older with a valid ID such as a passport. Additional information: bibliotecaangelica.beniculturali.it/index.php?it/1/home.
The reading rooms of the Biblioteca Casanatense are open Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. To arrange a free guided tour (in Italian), contact Isabella Ceccopieri at Isabella.firstname.lastname@example.org or 39-06-6976-0331. Information: www.casanatense.it/it.
The vestibule and the great reading room that Michelangelo designed for the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana are open to the public during temporary exhibitions. Information: bmlonline.it/en.
The Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, open only to accredited scholars, can be glimpsed from the art gallery (the Pinacoteca) in the same building. The library’s original reading room is now part of the Pinacoteca. Information including hours and ticket prices is at ambrosiana.eu/cms/pinacoteca_liv2/18-orari-biglietti-norme.html.
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