Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Italy: an old library

The library I was in yesterday -- see the previous blog -- was the working end of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice -- the National Library of St. Mark. It's in the old mint, called the Zecca.

Today we went to the showy end of the same library. Here's a library to beat all libraries.

It was the poet Petrarch who had the idea of a library for Venice, in 1362.
The library got started a century later, when the humanist Cardinal Bessarion (they had humanists in the Roman Catholic church then) donated a thousand "codexes" -- or books in MS. -- and some "incunabula" -- early printed books to the city of Venice. These included the main sources of Homer's poems for the modern world.

About another century passed and the Republic of Venice built this gorgeous library to house the books. Three hundred years later, or so, Napoleon ended the Republic and annexed the library to his new palace, which blocked off the end of the Piazza San Marco and generally annoyed the citizens no end.

The library is decorated with paintings around the walls and ceilings, of course. This is a movie with a 360 degree view.

The decoration includes about a dozen pictures of philosophers -- some by Tintoretto, others by lesser artists. They are burly, strong men, mostly, men whose strong thinking seems to have gone into their bodies as well. (I can't pull a picture in here, but try clicking here for Tintoretto's Aristotle).

These scholars and scientists are uncomfortably crammed into niches, torturously turning to get themselves into the available space. They are focused on books, thoughts, geometries, inward. Great figures for a library in the Renaissance: think about the world, they say, in the broadest possible way; but do it in your body, in the space that's given to you. It's not going to be easy.

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