I can only think of one library in the world where you enter through a monastic cloister and ascend a staircase designed by Michelangelo to enter a centuries-old reading room that houses nearly 11,000 manuscripts some of them priceless works by Plato, Galileo, Petrarch, and other fine minds..it is the Laurentian Library in Florence, Italy.
All libraries are sacred places to me, but given its location this former Medici library is truly on hallowed ground. To enter, you walk behind the church of San Lorenzo along the courtyard of its cloister. After walking up the cloister stairs, Michelangelo’s architectural genius strikes you as you encounter an elaborate vestibule with a fantastic staircase he designed and Ammannati built. The staircase leads you into a light, airy reading room with massive wooden desks which once held books inside them (no stacks of bookshelves needed). At the end of each desk is found a card that detailed the texts which could be read at that location. One’s eyes are drawn all over the room from the stately windows to the red and white terracotta floors to the wooden coffered ceiling. The ceiling dates from the mid-1500s, as do the floor and windows, making the library a unified work of the High Renaissance.
This important and prestigious collection of antique books is part of the cultural heritage the Medici family bestowed to Florence…and the world. Cosimo the Elder, Lorenzo the Magnificent, and other Medici family members were enthusiastic bibliophiles. Cosimo the Elder was the patron of San Marco convent and the fantastic library there and he obviously shared his love of books with his son Piero and his grandson, Lorenzo the Magnificent. Lorenzo, in his pursuit of humanistic studies, greatly expanded the Medici collections.
As the Medici family fell in and out of power, their library was transferred around. Giulio de’Medici, a.k.a. Pope Clement VII, ensured the collection returned to Florence and he commissioned Michelangelo to design the library to hold it. The family’s home church was Basilica San Lorenzo so that site was selected. The library is located in the cloister and is elevated quite a bit to help prevent it from flooding damage (an issue with the nearby Arno River).
Today, the Laurentian library exhibits much of their vast collection to the public on a rotating business. It contains more than 11,000 manuscripts and 4500 early printed books. The cloister leading to the library and the architecture of the vestibule and reading room will tantalize you before you ever see a book. After you exit the Reading Room…and before you get to the gift shop though…there is a fabulous exhibit of antique manuscripts and books. I’ve seen incredible maps, illuminated manuscripts, and the writings of some of mankind’s finest minds. Likely due to Medici fascination with humanism and Greek philosophy, the Laurenziana preserves a complete collection of Plato’s Dialogi, as well as manuscripts containing Tacitus, Pliny, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Virgil. It is truly a treasure trove and I highly recommend a visit when in Florence.
Fun facts about holdings: houses around 11,000 manuscripts, 2500 papyri, 43 ostraca, 566 incunabala, and thousands of prints from the 1500s-1900s. The library holds the Nahuatl Florentine Codex, which is the major source of pre-conquest Aztec culture. There are also 6th century Syriac Rabula Gospels and other important religious texts, as well as a fragment Erinna papyrus containing poems of a contemporary of Sappho.
When built: opened in 1571 (construction began in 1525)
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