Most of Italy’s stunning old libraries, which got their starts as the private collections of a humanist noble or cardinal, are a feast not only for book lovers, but for art and architecture enthusiasts as well. They are concentrations of fantastic art, exalted architecture, deep history.
Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (Venice). The Marciana was built in front of the Palazzo Ducale to create a triumphal entry to the city from the lagoon, while highlighting the prestige of the book in the culture of the city. The immense, hushed, empty reading room was designed by Jacopo Sansovino and decorated by Titian and Veronese. When it opened in 1570, Palladio described it as the richest and most ornate building “since Antiquity”.
Biblioteca Ambrosiana (Milan). It comprises an art gallery, art school and ecclesiastical college, all housed in a severe neo-Classical building very close to the Duomo. From the second-floor galleries of the museum it is possible to look down at academics working in a nobly proportioned atrium-like reading room. In the library’s ornate 17th-century reading room, the Sala Federiciana, overlooked by a Caravaggio’s still life, there is the impressive exposition of Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus, a collection of 1,119 sheets of drawings and captions on subjects ranging from botany to warfare.
Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana (Florence) Close to the Duomo, the Laurenziana, is the only library designed by Michelangelo. The library is austere, rational, resolute, and majestically realized and it has an impressive reading room with rows of “plutei” – walnut benches that ingeniously double as lecterns. Its manuscript collection, which runs to 11,000 items, is comparable with that of the British Library or the National Library of France.
Ilona Catani Scarlett