IIt’s easy to miss the Archiginnasio, lost amid the earthen red maze of colonnades, churches and Renaissance palaces that make up the sprawling Centro Storico of Bologna. However, follow the arcade street to the left of the Basilica of San Petronio until you reach a gap in the porticoed halls, where a passage leads inside into a wide courtyard. This is the humble entrance to one of Italy’s largest libraries and the latest in Beast Travel’s monthly series of the world’s most beautiful libraries.
The Archiginnasio is the largest library in the Emilia-Romagna region with around 850,000 volumes, 2,500 incunabula, 15,000 tomes from the 16th early days of printing.
The origins of Archiginnasio are linked to those of the University of Bologna, the oldest university in the world, founded when fraternal student organizations began to recruit teachers from local ecclesiastical schools to teach them subjects outside the ecclesiastical canon. These informal schools gradually merged in 1088 to form the University of Bologna. In the middle of the 16th century it was decided to group them together in a building called Archiginnasio. The task of designing this new university center was entrusted to the local architect Antonio Morandi, better known by his nickname Il Terribilia, who was supposedly bestowed on him because Giorgio Vasari found his vivid zoomorphic motifs “terrifying”. Work began in early 1562 and the building was inaugurated on October 21, 1563.
Like much of the architecture in Bologna, the Archiginnasio is characterized by its red color, its colonnades, its inner courtyard and its ornate loggias. Two flights of stairs lead to the upper floor, which houses the library, reading rooms and the anatomical theater.
Anatomical theater? Yes. Built in the mid-16th century, it’s a sublime amalgamation of Renaissance aesthetics and medical functionalism, with a series of wooden benches rising amphitheater-like around a central white panel from which professors dissect corpses in front of curious students. The wall is adorned with wooden sculptures of famous doctors, both ancient (Hippocrates, Galen) and modern (Gaspare Tagliacozzi, a pioneer of rhinoplasty portrayed with a nose in hand), while two beautifully grotesque statues of skinned people die Canopy over the professor’s chair. The whole thing is absolutely spectacular and unforgettable.
With a three-euro ticket you not only have access to the anatomical theater, but also to the Stabat Mater room, formerly the humanities school. It’s a bibliophile’s dream, full of centuries-old books arranged in rustic cabinets with nostalgic genres like mineralogy and “military art”. Through a locked gate you can look into the library’s archive room with its intimate, colorful frescoes and the seemingly endless corridor of leather-bound books.
Hall V in the Archiginnasio City Library, walls with coats of arms celebrating the history of learning, Bologna, Emilia-Romagna, Italy.
DeAgostini / Getty Images
The rest of the building can roam freely. Take some time to appreciate the coats of arms that flood all of the available wall space. There are about 6,000 of them, making it the largest wall coat of arms complex in the world. Each one contains a student’s name, their origins and their family crest. In some sections they huddle together like mushrooms, in others they seem to bloom and flow in an endless tapestry. Amid this colorful urban sprawl are significant works of art by Lionello Spada and Giovanni Valesio honoring local professors and clergymen, and several overtly religious sculptures (Bologna was the second largest city in the Papal States, and the church was damn sure you knew). The entire interior ensemble is littered with Renaissance details, baroque expression and trompe l’œil playfulness. Oh, and see if you can spot the bell with the inscription 1604 that was rung to signal the start and end of the class. It’s on the southwest corner of the courtyard.
In 1803 the university was relocated to a new building and in 1838 the Archiginnasio assumed its primary function as the city’s library, storing thousands of tomes available to them due to the closure of the city’s religious orders by Napoleon. The collection was then expanded through acquisitions and donations from important Bolognese figures such as Prime Minister Marco Minghetti, Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti and Laura Bassi, the first woman to become a university professor.
Although much of the building is open to hiking, access to the library itself is a bit of a mystery. The transparent door teases a long corridor that leads to a large reading room, but a sign firmly says “No visits to the library allowed”. This is just a place for serious study, not a place to act out your dark academic imagination for the day.
If you succeed in convincing the ladies at the reception that you are eager to learn, you will be asked to hand in an ID for a key and then be directed to the changing room to deposit everything except essential items. No bags, no food or drinks are allowed. I was even sent back for trying to take my laptop bag with me. You could hide a rare book in there, I was told.
The main reading room is a huge chamber with banquet tables above which more heralds sit with an eclectic mix of human and animal iconography. Several of the tables are littered with esoteric signs, such as one indicating that it is “reserved for the consultation of books prior to 1831”. Unlucky if the book you’re looking for is from 1832.
The rooms continue to expand like pages turning, each room smells of the joys of human knowledge and the miasma of history. There is the roll room with its musky black cupboards, then the art room, in which the bookshelves tower twenty meters high, arranged in a circle, with wobbly ladders that stoically offer their services, and finally the foreign literature room, which also contains several more desks To learn. The feeling of studying here at the Archiginnasio – at the intersection of history, high art and culture – is a strange mixture of comfort and excitement.
At 7 p.m. the library closes and it’s time to go back to Bologna. When you don’t feel like wandering home, students love to congregate in the nearby Quadrilatero – a grid of claustrophobic streets lined with bars, grocery markets, and shops selling Tigelle, the local flatbread that’s usually filled with mortadella and squacquerone cheese, and with a glass of Lambrusco. A nice nightcap to complete the experience of Bologna’s mysterious, seductive and unique library.