Editing, Libraries, Publishing, Writing

Rome’s oldest public library

The ancient Bibliotheca Angelica in Rome , which has almost 20,000 volumes.

I’m lucky. Being an editor is the best job in the world. I often think that it’s like being an invisible seamstress. I help writers present their words in the best possible way, without leaving a trace of myself behind. When an audience compliments my client’s speech, applauds my author’s story or pens great reviews about their book, I’m quietly triumphant because I know their success means I’ve done my job well.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’m a bibliophile – that I cherish and collect books. That when I travel, I constantly seek out interactions with the written word. When I hold a beautifully written and designed book in my hands I am excited by the meaning of its words, the texture of its paper between my fingers and the intangible scent of its pages that could change my life.

I’ve found many remarkable libraries and bookstores in my travels, and among them the Bibliotheca Angelica in Rome is one of the most historically significant and memorable. 

In the early 1600s, when the Angelica opened its doors, books were generally kept under lock and key or in chained libraries – such as the 15th-century Bibliotheca Malatestiana in Cesena and the Hereford Cathedral Library in England. Books took thousands of hours of painstaking work to copy by hand and they were valuable items. But, in a revolutionary step, the Angelica was opened to all people with no class distinctions or government restrictions. All they needed to access this remarkable collection of volumes, rare maps and other invaluable material was a curious mind, a yearning to read and a thirst for knowledge.

It was a momentous decision to grant ordinary people access to scholarly knowledge. Looking back we can see that Bibliotheca Angelica and other early public libraries, such as the Milan’s Bibliotheca Ambrosiana, helped bring about the democratisation of education when, rather surprisingly, ordinary people were free to embrace the archives of human knowledge and history.

Bibliotheca Angelica 

Bibliotheca Angelica’s unassuming entrance provides no indication of the inestimable treasures inside.

Even for somebody accustomed to Rome’s ancient piazzas and stone alleyways, it’s easy to get lost searching for the Bibliotheca Angelica. The library’s humble street presence belies its pre-eminence as Rome’s oldest public library – and as one of the first public libraries in the world.

The entrance to the library provides no indication of the historically significant treasures within it. Like the adjacent Basilica di Sant’Agostino, which is home to works by Caravaggio, Raphael and Sansovino, its riches are cloaked by a plain unassuming exterior. 

The Angelica’s collection grew from an acquisition in the 13th century and today it contains more than 200,000 volumes, including 1100 incunabula.

The Angelica’s collection consists of almost 200,000 volumes. It includes works on the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, along with texts from the 15th–18th century related to what the library calls “religious controversies of the period”. There are texts on Italian literature and theatre from the same period and almost 3000 Latin, Greek and Oriental volumes. 

Acquisitions dating back to the 13th century grace the ancient shelves of the Angelica. These hand-inscribed manuscripts were bestowed upon the Monastery of Sant’Agostino before becoming part of the Angelica collection. Some of these invaluable manuscripts were donated to the Augustinians by Roman nobles in previous centuries.

Safely stored within its walls are 1100 incunabula, which are books or broadsides printed in Europe before the year 1501 – when books were printed using metal type. 

Rare incunabula include a manuscript from the ninth century – the Liber Memorialis from Remiremont Abbey. The first book printed in Italy, in 1465, De Otatore by Cicero is also in the collection. So, too, is one of the earliest copies of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The Angelica’s collection includes works of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, as well as texts from the 15th–18th century.

The person responsible for the founding of Bibliotheca Angelica was Bishop Angelo Rocca, who was born in Rocca in 1545. He earned a doctorate in theology from the University of Padua, and went on to become head of the Vatican Printing House in 1585. A renowned editor and book lover, his vast collection of 20,000 volumes was incorporated into the Angelica’s collection.

The building and funds required for the library were provided by Bishop Rocca and, as mentioned earlier, on condition that it would welcome all people, regardless of social status or income.

In 1873, the Angelica became the property of the Italian State, and in 1975 it became part of the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Environment.

You probably need to be a local or a determined tourist to find the Bibliotheca Angelica, but once you step inside this ancient place of shared knowledge it’s a remarkable feeling to be surrounded by millions of timeworn pages and their stories from the ages.

When in Rome, this beautiful library is a treasure not to be missed.

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