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  • The library Michelangelo designed

    Close-up view of columns and stairs leading to Michelangelo's library.

    The library Michelangelo designed

    By Sharon Lapkin *

    A few years ago, I attended a writing workshop in Florence’s historical district of San Niccolo. The location was perfect for exploring the quieter, non-touristy parts of Firenze.

    The magnificent Bardini Gardens were nearby, and it was an exhilerating walk up the hill to Basilica San Miniato al Monte and Piazza Michelangelo.

    One sun-drenched Florentine morning, I found time to set off in search of a unique library I’d wanted to visit for years. Starting out at the Ponte a San Niccolo, a bridge spanning the Arno River, I meandered through the ancient streets for a couple of kilometres until I reached my destination. 

    The Laurentian Library, also known as the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenzia (and the library Michelangelo designed), is adjacent to the Basilica di San Lorenzo, which is the second largest church in Florence.

    When I arrived at the Brunelleschi courtyard it was bathed in soft, muted light and carpeted in velvet green grass. Nuns coming and going through small brown doors were mostly silent or whispering to each other.

    Then a window was pushed heavenward and a smiling nun began selling tickets to visit the library Michelangelo designed.

    The library Michelangelo designed in Florence from the outside
    The Brunelleschi cloister, with entrance to the library in the far left corner.

    After securing my admission, I walked up some plain wooden stairs to the entrance of the library. It was an unremarkable door in the corner on the first floor and it provided no clue about the incalculable treasure behind it. I might have been walking into a storeroom.

    Michelangelo's David

    On my last visit to Florence, I’d stood at the feet of Michelangelo’s David in the Accademia Gallery and couldn’t find any words.  

    Weighing more than 560 kilograms and standing almost 14 feet tall, David is carved from a single block of white marble.

    Michelangelo had a deep knowledge of human anatomy, and he acquired this skill from participating in public dissections.

    As a young teenager he joined the court of Lorenzo de’ Medici and became acquainted with the physician–philosopher members there. It wouldn’t have surprised anybody that by the age of 18, he was performing his own dissections.

    The pulsing veins on the back of David’s hands are testament to Michaelangelo’s understanding of anatomy. So are the flexed muscles juxtaposed against David’s beautifully contoured limbs. 

    In 1501, when Michelangelo began to carve David, he was only 26 years old. 

    Over the next three years he worked in secret, often at the expense of his health.

    His biographer, Ascanio Condivi, wrote that Michelangelo barely ate during this time. He snatched brief naps while fully clothed between bouts of work.

    View into Michelangelo's library from the entrance.
    Looking down the tiled hall to the entrance of the reading room.

    Finally, on 14 May 1504, David was finally ready to be moved to his first home, the Piazza della Signoria. It took 40 men to push the statue there on a large wooden cart.

    The beginning of the library Michelangelo designed

    A lauded architect, painter and sculptor, it wasn’t until 19 years later that Michelangelo began sketching the design of the Laurentian Library.

    Construction began on the library in 1524, and continued until he left Florence for Rome in 1534.

    After his departure, Michelangelo’s followers – Medici court artist Giorgio Vasari and Bartolommeo Ammannati – continued with the construction of the library. They based their work on plans and verbal instructions from Michelangelo.

    The library designed by Michelangelo was finally opened in 1571. It was 37 years after Michelangelo left Florence and seven years after his death. 

    Michelangelo's staircase to heaven

    The vestibule, or entrance hall, of the library is almost entirely overtaken by a colossal staircase. It’s composed of three adjoining flights that ascend to the library.

    Built by Ammannati in 1559, he used a clay model created by Michelangelo as a guide.

    The staircase design is said to have come to Michelangelo in a dream. The three flights of stairs are composed of smooth grey sandstone and plaster, and the centre flight is convex with three complete elliptical steps at the base.

    On exiting the library, the steps look like lava waiting to float you down to the level below. It’s a remarkable effect and characteristic of Mannerist (or Late Renaissance) architecture for which Michelangelo is well known.

    The multiple staircase leading to the library that Michelangelo designed.
    The entry with its three flights of stairs was designed my Michelangelo.
    The main staircase to the library that Michelangelo designed.
    The design for the stairs is said to have come to Michelangelo in a dream.

    The purpose of the library

    Michelangelo designed the Laurentian Library for Medici Pope Clemente VII. The library’s purpose was to store 11,000 manuscripts and 4,500 early printed books collected by Cosimo the Elder and Lorenzo the Magnificent.

    It’s considered to be one of the most valuable collections of ancient manuscripts in the world. Manuscripts and books were organised by subject, and a panel attached to each lectern displayed a table of contents that are read from the centre aisle.

    The books and manuscripts lay on shelves built into the lectern, while a sloping platform allowed the reader to position their reading material.

    The Laurentian Library was a chained library, which was a common feature of public libraries in the Middle Ages when books were scarce and valuable. 

    Shelves and seats in the library Michelangelo designed.
    Functional lecterns support both seats and desks.
    Shelves and seats in the library Michelangelo designed.
    Books were chained in the space under the reading slope for easy access.

    It’s long rectangular reading room has simple well-defined lines. The reading desks, which sit effortlessly in ordered rows, are set off by ancient red and white terracotta floor tiles that reflect the rust-coloured tones of the timber. All of this is complemented by stained glass windows that run the length of the reading room on both sides.

    The linden wood ceiling is glorious. It was carved between 1548–1550, using early drawings by Michelangelo. And the entire space is transformed into a visual tapestry of familiar rustic tones when warm sunlight streams through the windows.

    These superb architectural elements blend so harmoniously with the practical seating and reading arrangements that you feel as if you’re in a great cathedral. 

    Rare and ancient manuscripts

    Among the ancient and rare manuscripts in the Laurentian Library collection are Tacitus, Pliny, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Quintilian.

    The Codex of Vergil is also there, along with the oldest extant copy of Justinian’s Corpus Iuris Civilis.

    One of the most fascinating acquisitions is an early complete collection of Plato’s dialogues. It’s one of only three in existence.

    Single carved post supporting both reading table and seat in the library Michelangelo designed.
    A lectern with a list of contents that can be read from the centre aisle.

    The library Michelangelo designed is now owned by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities. Unfortunately, it’s open only on selected weekdays.

    Don’t expect to see crowds of visitors, as this is a place of study and research. The library encourages conservation and study of its manuscript and rare book collection.

    If you manage to find your way to Michelangelo’s library, it will stay with you long after you leave the warmth and humility of the Brunelleschi cloister.

    Take a tour of the Laurentian Library in Florence.

    Smarthistory (2011). Laurentian Library.

    How to find the library Michelangelo designed in Florence.

    Before you go read this ...

    If you love ancient libraries, you might also like to read Searching for Rome’s oldest public library.

    If you want to travel slowly, savour the moments and connect with locals, check out How to have a slow travel experience.

    And if you’re keen to write about authentic slow travel jump into my Slow travel writing tips and experiences.

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    About Sharon Lapkin

    Sharon is a content writer and award-winning editor. After acquiring two masters degrees (one in education and one in editing and comms) she worked in the publishing industry for more than 12 years. A number of major publishing accomplishments came her way, including the eighth edition of Cookery the Australian Way (more than a million copies sold across its eight editions), before she moved into the busy world of corporate publishing.

    Sharon worked in senior roles in medical colleges and educational organisations until 2017. Then she left her role as editorial services manager for the corporate arm of a university and founded Textshop Content – a content writing and copyediting agency that provides services to Australia’s leading universities and companies.

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  • Searching for Rome’s oldest public library

    Interior of Rome's oldest public library.

    Searching for Rome’s oldest public library

    By Sharon Lapkin

    I love working as a professional editor.

    It’s like being a tailor who works away quietly behind the scenes.

    We help writers present their words in the best possible way, leaving no part of our own voices behind.

    When an audience applauds our client’s speech, compliments our author’s story or pens great reviews about their book, we’re quietly rejoicing because we know their success means we’ve done our job well.

    So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many editors are bibliophiles – that we cherish and collect books.

    That when we travel, we look for historic libraries to explore.

    When I hold a beautifully written and designed book in my hands I’m drawn to the meaning of its words, the texture of its paper and the scent of its pages.

    I’ve found many remarkable libraries and bookstores in my travels. On my quest to find the oldest public library in Rome, I discovered Bibliotheca Angelica. It’s one of my favourites now, not only for its overall charm but its unforgettable interior. 

     

    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. It took thousands of hours of painstaking work to make a book.

    An example of a book curse, or warning from Medieval times, about stealing a book.

    They’d be copying text by hand, adding decorative elements, illustrations, page numbers and indexes before binding the pages together and adding a cover. 

    This made books expensive and valuable items. Medieval books sometimes had ‘book curses’ placed at the front, warning people that if they stole or defaced the book they would be cursed. (See Medieval book curse above.)

    But, in a revolutionary step, the Angelica opened its door to all people with no class distinctions or government restrictions.

    All they needed to access this remarkable collection of volumes, rare maps and other 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 history and knowledge.

    Even for somebody accustomed to Rome’s ancient piazzas and cobblestone alleyways, it’s easy to get lost searching for the Bibliotheca Angelica.

    The library’s humble street presence belies its importance as Rome’s oldest public library and one of the first public libraries in the world. 

    Interior of Rome's oldest public library.

    The entrance to the library provides no indication of its historical or the 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.

     

    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 them were donated to the 

    Interior of Rome's oldest public library.

     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 in Rome’s oldest public library 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 Angelica library.

    So, too, is one of the earliest copies of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

    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

    Interior of Rome's oldest public library.

     collection of 20,000 volumes was incorporated into the Angelica’s collections.

    The building and funds required for the library were provided by Bishop Rocca and, as mentioned above, it was on condition that the library 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 Bibliotheca Angelica, but once you step inside this ancient place it’s a remarkable feeling to be surrounded by millions of timeworn pages and their stories from the ages.

    Rome’s oldest public library is a treasure worth searching for.

    Bibliotheca Angelica is located at  Piazza di S. Agostino 8, in Rome, Italy.

    Take a minute to see the interior of Biblioteca Angelica in Rome.

    Harper's Bazaar Italia (2021). Unique interiors in Rome: Biblioteca Angelica

    Before you go

    If you love reading about ancient libraries, you might also enjoy The library that Michelangelo designed in Florence.

    If you’re interested in slow travel you’ll want to read How to have a slow travel experience.

    Love writing about travel? Dive into my Slow travel writing tips and examples.

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