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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice

What is the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana?

The Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, also known in English as the Marciana Library or Library of Saint Mark, is a grand 16th-century library designed by Jacopo Sansovino that holds one of the world’s most significant collections of Greek and Latin manuscripts.

Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana

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Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana

The Marciana Library, known formally as the National Library of Saint Mark, historically as the Public Library of Saint Mark, and popularly as Sansovino’s Library, after its Tuscan architect Jacopo Sansovino, is celebrated as a masterpiece of Venetian Renaissance architecture and renowned as holding one of the most significant collections of classical texts in the world.

But standing outside it, opposite the Doge’s Palace, it’s not obvious that it’s a library – or even, if you know there’s a library inside, exactly where it is. In fact, the project had been commissioned in 1536 before the decision had been made to create a library. Sansovino’s primary task was to evict and dismantle a collection of hostels, taverns, food stalls, and latrines, and create a building that reciprocated the grandeur of St Mark’s Square. In his original designs, Sansovino’s edifice was to extend along the Procuratie Nouve all the way to the west end of the piazza where the church of San Geminiano once stood. At the same time a vast project, called the renovatio urbis (or regeneration of the city), aimed to transform the medieval Piazza San Marco; it included the construction of the Zecca (or Mint), the belltower’s loggia, and this library. In the end, due to the delays in demolishing the old buildings Sansovino only saw 16 bays of the Marciana Library completed before he died in 1570.

Vincenzo Scamozzi took over from Sansovino and finally finished the library in 1588. Inside it’s comprised of shops on the ground floor, with the Great Hall (in practice the Reading Room) and the Vestibule on the first floor; most famous of all, however, is its façade. Sansovino and his friend Titian – now regarded as one of Venice’s greatest master painters – stipulated which artists should paint the walls and ceiling of the interiors. They involved the masters of the Venetian Mannerist period, such as Jacopo Tintoretto, Paolo Veronese, Andrea Schiavone, and Titian himself. The oil paintings depict mythological and allegorical scenes from classical texts and proclaim a clear message: the Neoplatonic ascent of the soul via the pursuit of knowledge towards the attainment of divine wisdom. The imagery claimed a pedagogical function for the young nobles: it encouraged them to imagine the physical journey up the stairs into the reading room as the soul’s progression to the realm of the intellect and the illumination of a higher reality. These lofty aims are echoed by the library’s exterior. Individually, the façade’s components are not novel, but together they exude a classical confidence. The column-arch arrangement is reminiscent of Rome’s Colosseum and has a slower, self-assured rhythm compared to the fast-paced Doge’s Palace opposite. The judicious use of Doric and Ionic orders, ornate friezes, and richly carved Istrian stone combined with the decorations of statues, obelisks, and spandrel figures (between the arches and their rectangular frames) declare the building’s conviction in classical learning.

To historians, however, what’s held within is even more spectacular. The library was founded in the mid-15th century when Cardinal Bessarion (a Greek theologian and scholar) donated his vast and precious collection of Latin and Greek texts to the city. Before him, Petrarch, considered one of the earliest humanists and forerunners of the Italian Renaissance, had left his manuscripts in 1362. Some treasures include a late 14-century illustrated edition of the Divine Comedy by Dante, gospels from the 9th century, Marco Polo’s will, and the famous 15-century world map by Fra Mauro created just decades before the ‘discovery’ of the New World. Today, scholars can consult over one million volumes and some 13,000 manuscripts, mostly held in the Zecca; no doubt Sansovino would be satisfied with what became of his great building.

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