The Englishwoman visits the Leopardi Library/Biblioteca Leopardi

This library has survived intact for over 200 years thanks to Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), one of Italy’s best-loved poets. He spent the greater part of his childhood and youth reading in this library, the creation of his father, Monaldo Leopardi.

The Italian class system is not the same as ours; however, I think it is safe to say that the Leopardi were what we would call gentry, and quite comfortably off. Monaldo was an “avid book collector” (p 363 of Canti / Giacomo Leopardi ; translated and annotated by Jonathan Galassi. London : Penguin, c2010). In fact he spent so much money on this library that his wife had to sell her jewellery to restore the family fortunes.

I like Monaldo because he was more than a bibliophile. His instincts were those of a librarian; in other words, he wanted to share his books with everyone.

To children friends citizens Monaldo Leopardi [gives] the library in the year 1812
To children friends citizens Monaldo Leopardi [opens] the library in the year 1812
Unfortunately for poor Monaldo, although his children shared his love for his library (I don’t know about his friends) the citizens of Recanati didn’t visit his library. This made him very sad. The library is still open for consultation on request, and to the general public for guided visits, so I hope his shade is consoled.

The Prima Sala, Room One, Giacomo's favourite room in the library.
The Prima Sala.

This was Giacomo’s favourite room, from whose window he could see the bustling piazza  and see and hear Teresa (whom he called Silvia), a maidservant,  weaving and singing. Have a look at my other blog for more about this.

Monaldo took advantage of the Napoleonic suppressions of religious houses in Rome to offer a temporary home to their books, many of which he bought when they were being sold off by the authorities. He remarked that the two French occupations of Rome (1798-99 and 1809-14) were “tempo felicissimo per l’acquisto dei libri, perché se ne mise in commercio una massa immensa, spettante non solo a i conventi soppressi, ma a cardinali, prelati, avvocati e gente di ogni classe [a most fortunate time to buy books, because there was a vast mass of them on the market, belonging not only to the suppressed convents, but to cardinals, prelates, lawyers and people of every class]” .He said he would give the books back when the convents and monasteries re-opened, but somehow he never did. He was in good company – a lot of manuscripts and books went to the Vatican, and the most valuable ones are still there. I found this out at a conference I went to in 2012 – here is the link for those who are interested.

There are a number of incunables in Monaldo’s library, which are not on display, presumably because most visitors are interested in his son the poet and the books he used. However, I searched for Recanati in what my readers already know is my favourite catalogue, the British Library’s Incunabula Short Title Catalogue, and found this:

Juvenalis, Decimus Junius
Title: Satyrae (Comm[entators]: Antonius Mancinellus; Domitius Calderinus; Georgius Merula; Georgius Valla)
Imprint: Venice: Johannes Tacuinus, de Tridino, 24 July 1498 [Giovanni Tacuino]

For a reproduction of the title page follow this link: and scroll down.

The guide took pains to point out to us the “Prohibiti” section. These are books on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum”, i.e.forbidden by the Roman Catholic church, but Monaldo had obtained permission not only to possess them but for himself and his family to read them.

Giacomo was an omnivorous bookworm, with a photographic memory and a love of languages. He taught himself Greek and Hebrew from Dr Brian Walton’s (former Bishop of Chester) 1657  polyglot Bible, printed in London with a dedication to Cromwell, the Lord Protector and effective ruler of England in the absence of a monarch.  After the Restoration in 1660 Walton tried to get back as many copies as he could and replace the dedication to Cromwell with one to King Charles II.

Title page of Leopardi's Polyglot Bible
Title page of the Polyglot Bible. Thanks to Salisbury Cathedral.


Monaldo Leopardi was a political conservative, though apparently he declared his support for Napoleon and thus protected his family and library, and I wonder whether he was aware of, and what he thought of,Walton’s Bible’s chequered history.

Books from the Leopardi library
The bottom right-hand book is a Xenophon.

The books in the photo give you a good idea of Giacomo’s wide-ranging tastes, though I hope they were only arranged like that for the photograph.

Monaldo doesn’t seem to have had a librarian. Who needs a librarian when you can get your children to do the cataloguing? There’s nothing new about getting your readers to volunteer, and this seems to have been the way Monaldo related to his children. We are certainly supposed to come away with the impression that they quite enjoyed it.

In his poem “A Silvia”, Giacomo does say, “Io gli studi leggiadri Talor lasciando e le sudate carte”, which Galassi translates as “Sometimes I left the cherished books and labored  pages”. I’m relieved to know that the poet did have other interests.

So was Giacomo Leopardi a librarian’s ideal reader? Or would he have been a bit of a know-all. I’d love to know what you think.





Rare books and the Franciscan special collection in Ostra Vetere : Part II

Sanctorius Sanctorius.De statica medicina; The Hague, Adrian Vlacq, 1657.
Sanctorius Sanctorius <1561-1636>.De statica medicina; The Hague, Adrian Vlacq, 1657.

The man in the weighing chair is supposed to be a portrait of Sanctorius Sanctorius himself. The British Library‘s version of this is missing its frontispiece. I was reluctant to include a picture of a book published by Vlacq, who was a mathematician as well as a publisher, and published a book of logarithm tables.  How well I remember throwing my log tables into the bin as I left the maths O level exam hall.  (Why did I assume I’d passed?)

On the trail of incunabula in central Italy

The Marche region of central Italy – about one third down the Adriatic coast – is full of small, fortified hill towns.  It is an area I have come to know well through regular holidaying and, as a librarian, I was intrigued to start investigating some of its small, semi-forgotten book collections.

My starting point was the public library in Corinaldo, a small town (pop. 5,200) about fifteen miles inland. In the local tourist office I had already bought a couple of books (Pongetti, below) which referred to the communal library’s collections of antiquarian books, and I was keen to have a look at them.

They turned out  not to be on display, but the helpful librarian, D.ssa Monia di Cosimo,  welcomes interested visitors and will show the collection to you on request.  It includes some 16th century books or cinquecentine as the Italians call them, which have recently been conserved by the Cappuccini friars at Fabriano, a centre of paper-making for hundreds of years, an hour’s drive away from Corinaldo.  The province (the next tier up of local government) helped to fund the commune (basic unit of local government) to restore these books.

A few years ago in the regional capital, Ancona, I had seen an exhibition, Collectio Thesauri, displaying, among many others, a book from an even smaller commune, Mondavio (pop. 3,840) across the valley from Corinaldo.  On visiting, it turned out to have many more antiquarian books, (about 1,300 from 1450-1800) of which a few have been conserved and displayed in glass cases in the museum.  Opening times are few and far between, but the helpful staff may well open up for you specially.

Fascinated by this, and by the contrast between these communal libraries and British branch libraries serving similar-sized communities,  I began to dig a bit deeper to find out why and how two small communal libraries came to own significant collections of antiquarian books, always bearing in mind that Italian campanilismo, or pride of place, means that no locality, however small, is willing to surrender any part of its heritage to a larger body, however much more (allegedly) fitted for stewardship.

Until the unification of Italy in 1860 the Marches were part of the papal state and thus hosted many religious houses, many of which in turn had significant libraries.  After unification, most religious orders were suppressed and their property passed in many cases to the communes.

The Marches have also benefited from the enthusiasm for book collecting shown by private individuals, be they priests or laymen.  In some cases, these collections were to raise money for the collectors’ families, and dispersed.  Most of Corinaldo’s aristocratically-owned books are thought to have come to the library via second-hand booksellers.  Sometimes collections were donated to the collector’s townsfolk; but not in Corinaldo or Mondavio.

Corinaldo’s antiquarian collection reflects its character as a community dominated by a few aristocratic families and the Church.  It consists of 17 titles (18 volumes) which used to belong to the town’s aristocratic families, and 25 titles (37 volumes) from the Cappuccini convent.  These have been catalogued by D.ssa Francesca Pongetti in the two publications which I bought locally.

Turning first to the secular collection, the libraries from which these books come were the product of that love of book-collecting mentioned above.  This is exemplified by a 1584 Horace which belonged to Tommaso Ciani (1812-1889) and which bears on the fly-leaf a verse exhorting the book “so much loved by me,” if lost, to tell its new owner that it wants to return to its lost  owner Tommaso  (Quintus Horatius Flaccus: Omnia poemata.  Venice, Giovanni Griffo, 1584.)  (Pongetti 2004).

The collection does include one example of an individual book donation; Tommaso Boscherini (active 1681-1725) gave the citizens of Corinaldo his 1686 “Labyrinthus Creditorum” (a treatise on voluntary liquidation) by Salgado de Somoza, a 17th century Spanish jurist, printed in Venice by Giovanni Battista Tremontini in 1686  (Pongetti 2004).

Although the Cappuccino convent in Corinaldo was suppressed after unification and the friars had to leave in 1867, they found temporary shelter elsewhere and were allowed to reclaim their home in 1874.  Nevertheless, some of their books did find their way to the communal library.

The collection reflects the interests of the friars and the purpose of the library.  There are a number of religious texts, including Bibles, theological treatises, and, as preaching was an important part of their duties, collections of sermons.  Among these is the library’s oldest book: a collection of sermons by Hugo de Prato Florido, printed in Lyons by Antonius du Ry in 1528.  (Pongetti 2002.)

Sermons by Hugo de Prato Florido (Pongetti 2002)
Sermons by Hugo de Prato Florido (Pongetti 2002)

In contrast, Mondavio’s collection of antiquarian books derives from one source only – the Cappuccino convent of Mondavio, which, lacking the gentry support which the Corinaldese convent enjoyed, was definitively suppressed in 1867.  Its library (about 2,800 books) was offered to the commune of Mondavio.  They decided to take it in 1868, and, as a small commune without the dominant gentry families of Corinaldo, they seem to have bitten off more than they could chew.  The collection as a whole has never been fully open to the public.  Nowadays, some of the most valuable and interesting books are conserved and on display (not for reading), but the rest of the collection is closed to the public.  Its incunabula and cinquecentine have been catalogued by D.ssa Barbara Lepidio as part of her degree thesis, of which she has kindly sent me a copy, but which is not widely available.  In 2006 the commune did ask the province for Eur. 4000 to publish a catalogue of incunabula and cinquecentine (presumably Lepidio’s), but without success.

The library boasts 7 incunabula, including a Latin version of an Arabic treatise on medicine, the Al-Hawi of Rhazes: (Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakarija: Liber expositio; medecinarum simplitu elhavi [sc Al-Hawi]) printed in Brescia in 1486 by Iacobus Britannicus).

There is also a complete Seneca printed in Venice in 1492 by Bernardino de Coris of Cremona, and a prologue to the letters of Marsilio Ficino printed in Venice by Matteo Capcasa of Parma in 1495.  (Lepidio.)  Generally, the collections reflect the spirit of the age in which they were acquired, and these fifteenth century books reflect the humanistic spirit of enquiry of the period – even to the extent of including a book by a Muslim, albeit a standard medical text-book.

For full details of the incunabula see the British Library’s Incunabula Short Title Catalogue an indispensable  research aid.

Mondavio library also has a fine example of a book printed locally in the Marches, in 1513, by Ottaviano Petrucci of Fossombrone.  Petrucci was one of the earliest printers of music; born in the small town of Fossombrone, he worked in Venice and moved back to Fossombrone in 1511, where his first book was a long and complex treatise, familiarly known as the Paulina, by the local bishop, Paolo da Middelburg, on the calculation of the date when Easter should be celebrated (Mei).

Petrucci's 'Paolina'
Petrucci’s “Paolina”

Considering the history of these two small Italian collections, one naturally asks “Is bigger better?”  Does a collection need to be owned by a large authority, to be properly looked after?  I would answer: “not necessarily”.  Small collections mirror their local communities and would lose their uniqueness if moved or merged. Belonging to a large organisation is no guarantee that any special collection will be cherished as it deserves.  With help and support from higher-tier authorities, and awareness and support from their citizens, the small towns of the Marches can flourish as proud owners of precious books.


Lepidio, Barbara. Tesi di laurea: La libraria dell’ex-convento dei Cappuccini di Mondavio – edizioni del XV e XVI secolo dal fondo antico della biblioteca comunale di Mondavio. Urbino, Universita degli Studi, 2001.

Mei, Mauro (ed.) : Collectio thesauri delle Marche; …Vol. II; l’arte tipografica dal XV al XIX secolo. Ancona: Regione Marche, 2004.

Pongetti, Francesca: I Cappuccini nella diocesi di Senigallia e il valore singolare della libraria e del convento di Corinaldo. Fano: Grapho 5, 2002.

Pongetti, Francesca: La “Marca” e le famiglie nobili e notabili di Corinaldo. [Fano:] Futura, 2004.

Thanks to Margaret Curson of Brighton and Hove Libraries, Monia di Cosimo of Corinaldo’s Biblioteca Comunale, Barbara Lepidio, librarian at the University of Urbino, and Carol Marshall of Hampshire Libraries.