Gentile Bellini: Procession in St. Mark’s Square (1496). Gallerie dell’Accademia – Venice.

Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana: A Treasure Trove of Ancient Manuscripts

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The main public square of the Italian city of Venice is the Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square). Around this square are some of the most recognizable buildings in Venice. The most famous of these are the Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco (St. Mark’s Basilica) and its iconic bell tower, the Campanile di San Marco (St. Mark’s Campanile). As St. Mark is the patron saint of the city, it is little wonder that many of the public buildings in Venice are named after him. Another building on the Piazza San Marco named after the city’s patron saint is the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (the National Library of St. Mark’s).    The Biblioteca Marciana is located at the end of the Piazza San Marco, and separated from the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) by the Piazzetta San Marco. This building, which symbolizes the city’s wealth and tradition of public investment in intellectual and artistic pursuits, was designed by the Italian architect, Jacopo Sansovino.

Portrait of Jacopo Sansovino, architect of the famous Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice.  Artist: Tintoretto 1560-1570. Currently on display at the Uffizi Gallery.

Portrait of Jacopo Sansovino, architect of the famous Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice.  Artist: Tintoretto 1560-1570. Currently on display at the Uffizi Gallery. ( Wikimedia Commons )

The story of the Biblioteca Marciana begins with Cardinal Bessarion, a Cardinal Bishop of the Roman Catholic Church, and the titular Latin Patriarch of Constantinople. In 1468, the cardinal donated, to the Republic of Venice, about 750 codices in Greek and Latin as well as 250 manuscripts, followed soon after by a number of printed works, all from his personal collection. It is said that Cardinal Bessarion had intended to make these works accessible to the public. Incidentally, such a project was first envisioned by the Renaissance scholar, Francesco Petrarch, about a century earlier. Like Cardinal Bessarion, Petrarch also intended to donate his personal library to the Republic of Venice, though its contents never made it to the city.

Portrait of Cardinal Bessarion, 1473-75 by artists: Justus van Gent and Pedro Berruguete. Currently at the Louvre Museum, Paris.

Portrait of Cardinal Bessarion, 1473-75 by artists: Justus van Gent and Pedro Berruguete. Currently at the Louvre Museum, Paris. ( Wikimedia Commons )

In the collection of Cardinal Bessarion was a copy of Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca. This was a compendium of Greek myths believed to have been compiled during the 2 nd century AD, but was nearly lost in the 13 th century AD. Only one incomplete manuscript has survived, and is now only partially preserved in Paris. As Cardinal Bessarion’s copy was made when the aforementioned manuscript was still intact it is highly valuable, other later manuscripts are derived from it.  

Although Cardinal Bessarion’s gift to the Republic of Venice was made in 1468, it was only much later that the Doge, Andrea Gritti, decreed the construction of a building to permanently house these precious works. Designed by the Italian architect, Jacopo Sansovino, construction began in 1537, and was only completed in 1588. Unfortunately, Sansovino would not live to see his masterpiece completed, as he died in 1570.

Prior to his death, however, Sansovino had completed 16 of the façade’s 21 arcaded bays, and began work on the frescoes and other decorations. Following Sansovino’s death, the task of completing the building fell on the shoulders of Vincenzo Scamozzi.

Photograph taken inside the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, the ornate ceilings, walls and marbled floors resemble the grandeur of the time when it was built, the artwork and intricate details are astounding.

Photograph taken inside the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, the ornate ceilings, walls and marbled floors resemble the grandeur of the time when it was built, the artwork and intricate details are astounding. Photo by Wga. Hu ( Wikimedia Commons ).

Portrait of architect Vincenzo Scamozzi by Paolo Veronese, dated mid 1500’s. He took over the architecture of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana after the death of Sansovino.

Portrait of architect Vincenzo Scamozzi by Paolo Veronese, dated mid 1500’s. He took over the architecture of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana after the death of Sansovino. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Over the centuries, the Biblioteca Marciana’s collection was gradually enlarged by personal donations as well as by the acquisition of some manuscripts from the libraries of monasteries. In 1603, a law was introduced in Venice requiring printers to donate a copy of every book published to the library. It is said that this was the first law of its kind in Italy. During the Napoleonic era, some religious institutions were suppressed and a portion of their libraries collections were given to the Biblioteca Marciana.

View from the lagoon, Venice, of Sansovino's Libreria which contains the Biblioteca Marciana, and the two columns in the Piazzetta. Photo by: Peter J.StB.Green.

View from the lagoon, Venice, of Sansovino's Libreria which contains the Biblioteca Marciana, and the two columns in the Piazzetta. Photo by: Peter J.StB.Green. Taken in 2000. ( Wikimedia Commons )

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