Petrarch's library

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Crumbling old manuscripts

The poet Petrarch arranged to leave his personal library to the city of Venice,[1] but it never arrived. The Venetian tradition that this was the founding of the Biblioteca Marciana is an anachronism; it was founded a century later.

Petrarch's books[edit]

When Petrarch broke up his personal collections at Parma and Vaucluse he had formed the habit of traveling with large bales of manuscripts in a long cavalcade. In his middle age he became tired of carrying his large collection of manuscripts and books around in his extensive travels. He came to the conclusion that he would offer his collection of manuscripts to the Republic of Venice, on condition that it should be properly housed, and should never be sold or divided. This was in exchange for a permanent residence that he and his daughter's family could live in.[2] He decided he wanted to have his valuable collection of manuscripts and ancient books put into a public library on the concept of those of classical antiquity, like Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who built the Library of Alexandria. He called on his Venetian friend Grand Chancellor Benintendi de Ravagnani on this matter. Benintendi enthusiastically took on the idea of receiving Petrarch's books and manuscripts. He immediately prepared the Deliberation for the Great Council meeting in the beginning of September 1362 on this issue. It gave its approval for the donation of Petrarch's books to the church of Saint Mark (Marciana) as the protector of this precious gift, being the symbol of Venice.

Palazzo Molina

The agreement between Petrarch and the Republic of Venice was that none of the ancient books nor Petrarch's manuscripts were to be dispersed. They were to be preserved in a safe place in memory and honor of the great poet. In return for this Petrarch was to have the use of a worthy residence at public expense during his lifetime. Petrarch received the Palazzo Molina, known locally as Casa Molin delle due Torri. The memorandum agreement stipulated that Petrarch could keep his library until his death and did not say he had to live in Venice. Petrarch and his daughter Francesca with his son-in-law Francescuolo da Brossano moved there in 1362. It became their prime residence from 1362 to 1367 along with his personal library of books and manuscripts.

Petrarch's library was then transferred to the quayside of Riva degli Schiavoni. This collection had about two hundred codices. This is actually thought to be a much higher number of titles however, given that a codex often contained more than one work within it. The library included as much of early antiquities and early Christian culture as Petrarch had been able to select over ten years of assiduous studying, research in the monastic libraries, and in his journeys of discovery. All this fit perfectly to form the ideal library of a man of culture and integrated in with Petrarch's humanism.

Sometime in the year 1367, however, Petrarch decided to leave Venice because the local scholars were not interested in his personal library. Venetian scholars were more interested in scientific knowledge rather than humanistic culture. It could also be because of Petrarch's habitual restlessness to move on to different ventures, or because of the plague then ravaging Venice, or because of the war that broke out between Venice and Padua at that time, or even because he held a canonry in Padua.

When Petrarch left Venice in 1368, he settled in the territory of Padua, normally hostile to Venice; Petrarch's biographer concludes that the agreement with Venice was abrogated at this point.[3] Petrarch built himself a small house about ten miles outside of Arquà, in Paduan territory. A little vineyard with some olive trees were sufficient for his modest household needs at this time. While his health was poor he eased his mind by reading and prepared for the end. There he wrote to his beloved brother Gerard admiring his faithful religious duties. At this point in his life he seems to have given up his love for fine books along with other vanities of the world.

On July 19, 1374 Petrarch died peacefully at Arqua alone in his library.[1] His few remaining manuscripts were dispersed. Some of them may be seen in Rome, Paris, London, or the Vatican. Those which he had given to the Republic of Venice in the "agreement" suffered a strange reverse of fortune. The collection was left neglected for centuries at the Palazzo Molina, Petrarch's past residence. Many of the manuscripts and ancient books had crumbled to powder and others had petrified because of the damp conditions of the storage facilities. Some were even glued into shapeless masses.[4] The antiquary Tomasini found some of Petrarch's books cast aside in a dark room behind the "Horses of Lysippos". The surviving ancient manuscripts were placed in the Libraria Vecchia and are now in Doge's Palace. Many of Petrarch's manuscripts and books found their way to Gian Galeazzo Visconti's personal library in Pavia, later moved to Paris. Many other of Petrarch's books and manuscripts found their way to libraries throughout mainland Europe, as well as the Bodleian Library and the Vatican Library.[5]


In Milan, the Biblioteca Ambrosiana holds a manuscript copy of Virgil illuminated by Simone Martini; it belonged to Petrarch. A very precise catalogue of Petrarch's library was reconstructed by the Italian philologist Giuseppe Billanovich.


  1. ^ a b Symonds, John Addington (1911). "Petrarch" . In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. 21 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 313.
  2. ^ The Age of Petrarch
  3. ^ Morris Bishop, Petrarch and his World, 1963, p. 360.
  4. ^ The Story of Old Books Archived 2007-08-23 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ Gutenberg Books on Petrarch


  • This article incorporates text from The Great Book-Collectors by Charles Isaac Elton and Mary Augusta Elton, a publication now in the public domain.

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