A Sunny Sunday Expedition to an Exhibition

Last Sunday was one of those glorious winter days we can get here in Roma: it had been cold at 0730 (around 0c) when I walked the Hounds from Hell but by 1000 when we set off for Piazza San Pietro it was sunny and warm – in fact it got up to around +18c.   I was surprised at how few people were in the square on a Sunday morning but it was not too difficult to pick out the tourists – many wearing short sleeves and – lord help us – some even in shorts while the locals were still sensibly wearing their scarves and gloves.   Experience has taught that it may be warm in the sun but those churches and old buildings hold the cold. The jaunt over to the Country Across the River was the first activity of a rather full day of exhibition viewing, pranzo with friends, a late matinee at the opera and a dinner with two of our dearest friends here.

Pope Sixtus IV Appoints Bartolomeo Platina Prefect of the Vatican Library, a fresco by Melozzo da Forlì, 1477.

Though it was formally established in 1475 by Sixtus IV – he of the Sistine Chapel – the Biblioteca Vaticana had existed as a loose collection of manuscripts and documents from the early days of the papacy. With its creation and the construction of a proper building to house the collection in 1587 – a building still in use today – the Library became one of the major repositories of the written and pictorial word in the modern world.

This stero-card from 1909 shows the Great Hall (Sistine Hall) of the Library, the photo below shows how little it has changed in the past 100 years.

The Biblioteca was closed in July of 2007 for renovations, remodelling and restoration of Domenico Fontana‘ s building to meet the ever expanding collections and modern library technology.  After three years of intensive work it was reopened this past September.

At its reopening the Library inventory held 1,600,000 printed volumes, 80,000 manuscripts and 100,000 archival units, 8,400 incunabula, about 300,000 coins and medals, 150 thousand prints, drawings and engravings, and over 150 thousand photographs.

The Library is not open to the general public but can be used by scholars for research and study.  Some 4,000-5,000 people access it every year under strict supervision and stringent rules – no food, no liquids, no pens.  Security measures are closely observed following the theft of pages of a rare manuscript in 1987.

The scope of the holdings covers manuscripts, incunabula, books, documents, periodicals, photographs, coins and medals from around the world – writings in Arabic, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Chinese, pictographs from Mesoamerica – some 2 million items.  As with any library the contents are constantly growing as new books, and in some cases collections, are acquired.  A sophisticated computer chip system was part of the three year project both to ensure security and to assist in filing.  The mere thought of attempting to find a miss-filed book in the 60 kms of shelving and storage would cause any librarian nightmares.

To celebrate the reopening the Vatican mounted Conoscere La Biblioteca Vaticana – which rather prosaically translates as Getting to Know the Vatican Library – at Il Braccio di Carlo Magno in Piazza San Pietro.  The Curators have fashioned a multi-media exhibition which highlights the collections, the collectors, the conservation and the history of the Library.  The use of facsimiles in the first room means that it is possible to leaf through beautifully reproduced copies of rare books adding the tactile to the audio and visual.  With the exception of a rather pompous introduction and a fair bit of revisionist propaganda – at one point I had to stifle laughter at both the pomposity and hypocrisy of the section on coins –  the audio guide provides clear and detailed information on the Library and the items displayed.

Well-known rare holdings along side little known gems in the collection are displayed behind protective glass with sufficient descriptions in Italian and English – though the curators could take a tip from the remarkably detailed carding used at the recent Bronzino exhibition in Firenze.  The logical progression moves us room to room and floor to floor from the earliest works on to prints, coins and photography.  Display rooms reproduce the frescoes from the Library and connecting passageways are lined with life-sized photos of the shelves and storage areas of the Library itself giving the displays an added context.

The exhibition has been extended until March 13 and despite any reservations I may have is well worth the visit.  One further caveat – the catalogue is available only in Italian – very strange given the number of foreign visitors through the Vatican on any given day.

In the next few days I’ll be posting photos I took of a few of the more intriguing displays – yes we were allowed to take photos as long as they were not flash.

10 febbraio – Santa Scolastica da Norcia

Author: Willym

A senior with the heart of a young'un

3 thoughts on “A Sunny Sunday Expedition to an Exhibition”

  1. Great description of your visit. But Will I must warn you that unless you're going to the tropics next, you and Laurent have to start acclimatizing yourselves to real winter temperatures soon.


  2. Reblogged this on Willy Or Won't He and commented:

    I was a little confused when I received my daily update from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford this morning. They referred to March 1st as being World Book Day and included some very interesting books from their incredible collection. For some reason I had it in what’s left of my mind that WBD was sometime later in the calendar. A Google search – is anyone else finding Google less and less helpful? – showed April 23 being World Book Day according to the UN. A further searched revealed that it may well be according to the crew at 46th and 1st but in the United Kingdom it’s March 1st.

    So not wanting to neglect any occasion that celebrates books I thought I’d revisit a trip to the Vatican Library back in February of 2011. Not exactly the Library itself – that was one of the few areas I didn’t get to visit – but an exhibition to celebrate it’s reopening after a three year renovation and restoration project. It was the first event in a day of food, opera, friendship, and books!

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