Cognoscenti 73 : Biblioteca Malatestiana

The Elephant Never Forgets

Perhaps the elephant who remembers everything, therefore, is the ideal symbol for a library.   It happened also, in 15th century Italy, to be the symbol of the Malatesta clan which ruled Rimini and Cesena, where our Renaissance City tour will soon visit. The Tempio Malatestiana in Rimini is filled with elephants. But this post is about a library.

Just before the middle of the century, the great sculptor Donatello’s one-time student and assistant, Michelozzo di Bartolomeo, was building the monastery of S. Marco in Florence. This gem is best known today for the wonderful Fra Angelico paintings but, architecturally, Michelozzo’s library was the great innovation, an elegant, long pillared hall with two side aisles.

Only eight years later, in 1452, and much less well-known today, an equally important library was opened in the Malatesta city of Cesena.

Carved above the library door is this elephant with its Malatesta motto: “The Indian elephant isn’t afraid of mosquitoes”

The form of this great reading hall is remarkably similar to its contemporary in Florence: a long barrel-vaulted central nave carried on columns and two side aisles of cross-vaulted bays.   But the experience here today is quite different, in two ways.

First, Biblioteca Malatestiana seems hardly to been touched in five and a half centuries. The two windows at the end of each bay provide good reading light, all 58 original rows of reading desks remain in place, with Malatesta arms carved on the end of each, the volumes on a shelf under each lectern are still today held with elegant wrought-iron chains.   The ribbed columns are elegant and light, the walls and vaulting still retain shades of their original pale green wash. The end rose window illuminates the central nave and original tiled floor.   It is a magical space.

This possibility remains, partly, because of its second peculiarity: Biblioteca Malatestiana seems hardly noticed on today’s tourist trails. We have never seen more than one other visitor when we were there.   It is, therefore, as wonderfully peaceful as it must have been centuries ago when built in the middle of a monastery. (It forms the upper floor of a long wing which stood between the monastery’s two cloisters.) By contrast, its contemporary, the monastery of S. Marco in Florence today often overflows with visitors, and I have never seen the library without strong electrical light: this here in Cesena is a completely different experience.

Moreover, unlike the slightly older S. Marco in Florence (which, I presume, must have been known to Matteo Nuti who designed this library), although it also was in a monastery it was not of the monastery. The lord of Cesena, Novello Malatesta, whose personal project this was, was very clear that this was to be a quite new, humanist project.   He engaged the friars of S. Francesco in an agreement that their library would be rebuilt within the new concept of a library available to all the citizens.   (All citizens, I presume, who could read and, moreover, read Latin.) Within the great reading hall, the books in the left aisle would be those of the fathers of the Church, those on the right would be the classics which in the later 15th century were being resurrected at a pace.

It was, in a sense, a perfect built definition of what the word Renaissance, the rebirth of classical culture and its spirit of enquiry, really meant. And to ensure that this dual spirit – the Christian and the Classical, the sacred and the secular, was held to, the great doors – which remain in place carved with the date 15th August 1454, 561 years ago to the day as I write this – have two locks, one key to be held by the abbot, the other by the city.

Our visit to this hidden gem is one of the highlights of the Renaissance City tour next month.

With the library, there was originally an important scriptorium where books were copied. Here are two examples of illuminated initials among the many early music manuscripts on display today but not necessarily created here.

15 Aug 2015

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