“In a good bookroom you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom contained in all the books through your skin, without even opening them.”
― Mark Twain
The Malatestiana Library, known as the Biblioteca Malatestiana in Italian, was the first European civic library open to the public, and still open today. This means it belonged to the Commune, and not the Church. Built in 1447, it is the oldest library in Europe.
Malatestiana Library is what is known as a humanistic-conventual library. This means that they have preserved its structure, furnishings, and codices (manuscripts of hand-written books) since its opening in the mid-15th century, all of this despite wars and natural disasters. This became a model and inspiration for monastic libraries.
The reading room itself, known as the Aula del Nuti, after its architect Matteo Nuti. He designed the rectangular plan with three naves surmounted by barrel and groin vaults is still accessed through the original wooden doors, which need two separate keys to open. Wandering Italy blog, explains, “Originally, one key belonged to the abbot, the other by a representative of the city; the sacred and the profane.”
According to Italian Ways, “with its 17,000 autographs and letters, and 250,000 volumes – including 287 incunables, about 4,000 books from the 1500s (‘cinquecentine’), 1,753 manuscripts from the 16th and 19th century, and even the smallest book in the world that can be read without a magnifying glass: a letter by Galileo Galilei to Christina of Lorreine, printed in 1897 and bound in just 15 x 9 mm.”
In 2005, it was recognized as the first UNESCO Memory of the World site in Italy. It is a “rare example of a complete and wonderful collection from the 15th century, just before printing became popular in Europe.”
If you want to see what books and manuscripts are in the Biblioteca Malatestiana, and can’t travel to Italy (on my bucket list!) check out the Open Catalogue of the Malatestiana Project, which has lots of manuscript images under the “Collection” link.
Featured image courtesy of Jerome Levine for The Boston Globe.
For Further Reading:All the UNESCO registered Memory of the World sites
- Biblioteca Malatestiana
- Reading in Restraint: The Last Chained Libraries
- A small library in Italy whose history rivals its volumes – Boston Globe story, December 2010.[Also where featured photo comes from]