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.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Italy: old books

This morning, I walked down to San Marco, in Venice. By ten, the crowds were just starting to gather, the families speaking all kinds of languages, laughing, listening to the bands at the expensive cafes. I love watching the crowds in Venice.

But today, instead, I turned in by one of the cafes to go into the national library in Venice. I am working on the poems of Guarini, a poet from about 1600. I had found that the library had three editions of his poems, two of which I hadn't seen, so I went to look at these. Happy sounds filtered in from the cafes and the crowds as I worked with these old books.

One thing it taught me was that Guarini was pretty popular. In one year alone, there were at least five reprintings of his poems -- and that in a day when every reprinting meant laborious type-setting and expensive paper. The fifth, interestingly, was a little pocket-size edition that told me he wasn't just a coffee-table poet.

The first edition, though, was pretty fancy: bound in soft calf leather, with a fancy title-page like this one (here's me in the library with this book). Most luxurious of all, it gave a full page to each poem, some of them only seven lines long. The Venetians knew how to do things right, even then.

Guarini was popular with ordinary readers, but also with composers, which Venice abounded with. Those days, most music was sung music. Composers looked for texts that were expressive and gave them a chance to put in lots of contrasts: I'm in love/I hate being in love; I'm so happy/I bet I won't be happy very long; she's so cool/she's too cool to me.

The composers loved Guarini's poems. So I thought I would look at some of their work. I called up three collections of "madrigals" -- each with about 15 songs in them, one by one Gesualdo, and two by Monteverdi, who had been music director right across the piazza from where I was, in the basilica of St. Mark. (Here's Monteverdi)

In those days, you bought music in parts; that is, you saw only your own part; there was likely no "score," no collected representation of all the parts together. So, that's what I saw too, only parts. The Gesualdo only had two of the five parts, the others were missing. These were thin little books, that would have sat in front of a singer, each sitting around a big table.

One of the Monteverdi collections was well used. Someone, in pen, in a 17th-century handwriting, had made some notes. He or she was interested in where the texts were from, so there were notes on the poets. Also, the music had been performed; there were corrections to some of the wrong notes. One of them was especially interesting -- a little piece of paper, about an inch long, floating in the tenor part, with a music staff, four notes, and some words of text. I couldn't figure out where it had originally gone, but surely it was exactly what I do now when something's wrong and I want a readable part -- I write it out corrected and paste it over the wrong notes. Only the paste hadn't lasted four hundred years.

I didn't really need to look at these first editions of music: these are famous pieces, and they've been edited in modern, scholarly editions and I can see them in Oberlin. But I'm glad I did. It let me touch the work of these Venetians as that work had first seen the light of day, held by people who used them then.