Saturday, July 28, 2012

Inside La Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana

After waiting far too long to do so, I finally got my Venetian library card last week and, with it, the use of the reading room above as an office away from home. It's a marvelous space, which was until 1904 the courtyard of La Zecca, or the Republic's old mint, whose construction was begun in 1536 after a design by Sansovino. In the office where I applied for--and quickly received--my card, there's an antico torchio, or coin press: massive as an old kitchen stove, its black surface is extensively ornamented in relief and bears the date of its manufacture: MDCCLVI.

To make the reading room (or, as it's officially called, la sala di lettura degli stampati), la zecca's old courtyard was covered with an opaque roof and the arcades which surround it on both the ground floor and the 1st floor enclosed with glass. The arcades were thus turned into offices and rooms for the stacks, while the courtyard, at least in the heat of late July, was left quite stuffy.  

There's only a single fan in the whole room and, as you can see in the top photo, it oscillates exclusively and in close proximity to the librarian. So for the rest of us it's rather hot--but there are certain things I'll gladly suffer for a space and a place like this. 

(A friend recently wrote to me from the United States that she drove by a golf course near Kansas City that has giant fans (about 10 feet wide by 12 feet high) positioned around its fairways to cool its golfers. I leave you to draw your own conclusions about this.) 
There's a large imposing sculpture of Petrarch in the reading room beneath and just in front of which the librarian sits. The comune commissioned it in 1904 from the sculptor Carlo Lorenzetti to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the poet's birth. It was installed in 1905 and from its central archway it commands the room with an expression not exactly pleased and a pose not exactly at ease.

Of course Petrarch lived just up the Riva degli Schiavoni from la piazzatta off which the library now stands in Palazzo Molina (aka Casa Molin delle due Torri) from 1362 until 1368. He lived there with his daughter and her family free of charge as part of an arrangement he'd made with Venetian authorities to leave his personal library--one of the truly great personal libraries of the age--to the Republic. According to this agreement, his library was to become the cornerstone of a great public collection, modeled after that of ancient Alexandria.

It didn't work out that way. After Petrarch left Venice, his priceless collection of humanist texts seemed to have been forgotten about. Venetian scholars, as practical-minded as the rest of their fellow citizens, were interested in the sciences, and Petrarch's humanist library was left to moulder away to very nearly nothing or become soggy illegible lumps of mold.

The pedestal beneath the statue of Petrarch of course makes no mention of this travesty, but everything about the sculpture itself seems--at least to me--to recall it: the way in which he holds the volume to his chest with his large hands, protectively as a mother among a barbaric crowd lacking all respect for children. The set of his mouth, the inwardness of his eyes--his attention withdrawn almost self-protectively it sometimes seems to me from the Venice of his time (and perhaps ours), in which science and its practical and money-making applications could lead to a complete neglect of human concerns, and of a priceless cultural legacy.       


  1. Fascinating- thank you.

    1. I'm glad it interested you, Andrew. I know that one can now see those stunning rooms (with paintings by Titian, Veronese et al) in the upper floor of the library as part of a visit to Museo Correr, but I don't know how many people visit the reading room/old mint courtyard, as a library card is required for entry. Though perhaps if one asked just to take a quick look, the guard would let one by.

  2. I had no idea about Petrarch and the loss of those precious texts.

    What a beautiful building. We saw an exhibit there dedicated to Aldus Manutius many years ago.

    Congratulations on the library card!

    1. I think the loss of that library is something the Venetians would prefer not to mention, Susie. I think I first came across it in one of John Julius Norwich's books.

      I would love to see an exhibit on Aldus Manutius! I hope there will be another.