by Leslie Xavier– 03/17/2009
I was recently invited by some friends to tour the Biblioteca Nazionale located in the Royal Palace. When I think of old libraries I think Trinity College, New York City Public Library or Harvard Library;
prodigious centers of learning and scholarly research with huge tomes containing secrets long forgotten. Bespectacled clerks solemnly stamping endless piles of books in the reverent silence; dim research
rooms lined with ceiling-high bookshelves lit only by the small lamps with green glass shades in the precise center of each research table. And finally, the smell – that sweet stuffy smell of old books and old
wood or the carbon matter of brains burning brightly. Needless to say, I was thrilled to join them.
My tour starts with a “cappuccio” at Gran Café Gambrinus, one of Naples oldest and most venerable cafés. This is an adventure in itself. Rumored to have been the hangout of Oscar Wilde, its polished and
often snooty staff now serve pricey coffee and cocktails to an interesting cross-section of humanity. Don’t get me wrong, the show is worth the cost of admission (have a coffee, but at the bar). The clientele
vary from local gentry nodding and talking to their favorite waiter, the chic exec impressing a date or clients, ragazzi gathered in raucous groups or the smitten tourist bedazzled with just being
in Naples. For those of you who love to people-watch, this is a real treat.
After coffee we headed across the street to the East Branch of the Royal Palace which is on Piazza Trieste e Trento. We enter through the lush gardens designed by botanist Denardt and pass the massive Main Entrance to the Royal Apartments. There’s a sumptuous staircase laden with pink marble from Madragone, Portovenere and Vitulano and crushed stone from Sicily. It is not difficult to imagine gallant courtiers arriving on mounts and others lingering to enjoy the shade of the garden with its exotic plants.
We step into the library entrance and meet our tour guide, Lucia Marinelli, who is with the American Section. Yes, I said American Section. The library maintains an excellent collection of American works.
Lucia is the unoffical English speaking embassador for the library.
We begin in the heart of the library – the research areas. I’m thrilled to see it just as I had imagined but I would certainly have a difficult time studying here as I would find my time spent studying the art and
architecture over my books. Lucia explains the lovely rooms with its baroque decorations along with stories behind the elegant moldings. Rumor has it that the queen used certain moldings to spy on courtiers
to insure she was the most elegant woman there before presenting herself to court.
The library’s holdings have an incredible history starting with its inception in 1734 around the Farnese collection from Capodimonte and increasing in size with the addition of new material from monastic libraries after the dissolution of religious orders as well as from donations and acquisitions of private collections. The library was officially opened in 1804 to the public. We wound our way through a miriad of book collections and unusual rooms.
We eventually found our way to the Papyri Room. The room contains 1,792 ancient papyri from the city of Herculaneum which was destroyed along with Pompeii in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. When the Villa of the Papyri was was excavated in the 18th century, many of the papyri were thought to be merely charred pieces of wood. On display are a few of the carbonized papyri along with a peculiar machine invented by Antonio Piaggio to miraculously unroll them (it took nearly 40 years to unroll the 900 that are visible today). We were actually able to actually see the papyri – its texture like a dried leaf that at the slightest touch would crumble. Tthe curator Agnese Travaglione explained the efforts being made to photograph, preserve and decipher the ancient texts on these scrolls which are thought to be from the 3rd century to the 1st century AD. Modern day spectral analysis and computer-enhanced photography done by Brigham Young University have done an incredible job of saving the contents for posterity. Mrs. Travaglione provided a very informative commentary on the research and significance of these texts, comparing them to other literary works of the time. All of this translated for us by Lucia in great detail and with great enthusiasm and expertise.
Next, the Fondo Aosta Room, a collection of memorabilia from the French duchess Elena d’Aosta, wife of Emanuel Filiberto, Duke of Aosta. This has to be one of the most eccentric exhibits I’ve seen in
Italy. The exhibit contains two rooms of trophy animals and some 9,000 pictures documenting the life and times of the woman who won the hearts and imagination of the Neapolitans. Imagine the head and
pelt of a huge giraffe mounted on the wall across from a now extinct triple-horned black rhino. Don’t trip on the Zebra head that is part of a rug. Black and white photos tell the story of an intrepid
adventuress as well as a decorated nurse and explorer. I felt a bit chagrined though as Lucia explained that the exhibit was important as many of the animals displayed there are now extinct. Hmmmm, maybe
we took one too many trophies? Regardless, you cannot help but feel the exhilaration of her personality still there among her belongings. This exhibit is open to the public only upon special request.
Finally we ended our tour with the “Manuscripts and Rare Items Section” which is one of the most important archives of its type in Europe. The curator, Maria Rosaria Grizzuti, was waiting for our group and filled us with enthusiasm for her work and that of the library. How could she not be excited with the delicious assortment of manuscripts: from examples of the 11th century “Scriptura Beneventana” to a manuscript of the “Gerusalemme Conquistata” by Tasso. In all, I believe the library’s archies hold over 32,000 manuscripts; the ones display were used as teaching tools and her explanations of the history of the illuminated texts were wonderful. I came away with a much broader understanding of manuscripts in general.
What a fabulous tour and the cost????? Zero, nada, niente – that’s right nothing! This is a service offered to the public free of charge. How do you get into the library and see these wonderful sights? The
Room of the Papyri is open each day and you are free to visit. Check out this link to the library’s site in English – http://www.bnnonline.it/traduzio/eng/info.htm . Here you can get the hours for your visit as
well as a map and directions to the library. The manuscript room and the Fondo Aosta Room require a guide. You can reserve an English speaking guide. I will be scheduling a small tour like this one in
April in conjunction with our April tour. I will post information on this later so stay tuned and check out the site http://www.iasnaples.org/index2.htm.