Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana

If I have a religion (used in the sense of “an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group”), it is that of the book. It’s not just that I love reading, but that I respect the knowledge and imagination that are captured in books. As a result, libraries are special to me, especially old ones that, by their design and embellishment, emphasize how precious books were at a point in time. I feel a sense of reverence akin to that felt when entering a church, as I did when I visited the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana.

The library’s core collection consists of manuscripts obtained by Cosimo de’ Medici (1389– 464), which were added to by Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-1492). Michelangelo (1475-1564) was hired to design and build the library, although others eventually took on some of the work of realizing his designs.

The entrance hall is pleasingly symmetrical and emphatically vertical in its architectural elements. It features a staircase designed by Michaelangelo; a term new to me was ‘pietra serena,’ the gray standstone of which it was built. An unusual feature of the staircase is that the central steps are ellipses.

The central section of the entrance hall staircase.

At the top of the staircase, one enters the glorious Reading Room. In contrast to the entrance hall, this room is horizontal in form. The ceiling is of wood and the floor of terracotta, both featuring motifs related to the Medici family. My favorite part of the room is the carved benches that combined the functions of lectern and shelves. The manuscripts and books were organized by subject (did my library-geek heart good to read that) and stored either on the lecterns or the shelves underneath, with the contents of each enumerated by wooden plaques on the end. The manuscripts are no longer in the Reading Room – they are housed in vaults in the library – and the books were given to the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze.

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In the Reading Room, clockwise from top left: label at end of bench; ceiling; segment of floor.

A bonus to my visit was the exhibit in an adjacent room, called “La Forma del Libro” (The Shape of the Book). It was fascinating to see writings on ostraca (potsherds) that dated from the second century AD and follow the development of the written word from papyrus to parchment to paper and from scroll to codex. It’s interesting to see in these ancient writings not only poetry and stories and religious writings, but mundane things like receipts from the public granary or instructions on how to layer vines. These everyday details make me feel connected to the people who came before me.

Among the beautifully illustrated books and scrolls, there was a Japanese scroll from the 19th century that depicted a phallic contest. According to the exhibit label, this was a common motif of Japanese humorous erotica. I could tell when people reached this scroll because they started laughing!

One of the best parts of my visit was seeing other people as fascinated by the Reading Room and the exhibit as I was. I found it reassuring somehow to know that other people cared too about libraries and books and the history of the written word.

“Religion.” Merriam-Webster. 2015. Web.

Library Geek (and proud of it!)

Libraries have been a huge part of my life from the time I was a child. At my parochial grade school, each class made a formal visit to the school library once a week and we were allowed to check out one book, which would be due the next week. We thought that was so exciting!

I usually finished the book in a couple of days, but fortunately, my parents were not only readers, but believers in the public library system. Back then, our closest library was the central library, which was in downtown Fort Worth. On a Sunday afternoon every three weeks (the checkout period), we made a trip downtown to turn in our books, browse the shelves and check out another stack of books for each family member. I can still see the trunk of our ’56 Buick filled with books.

For that matter, I can still see the children’s area of the library, which occupied the basement floor of the building. The checkout desk was in the first room, along with the books for pre-school-age children. The non-fiction books were next, with the fiction around the walls. I remember a series of ‘biographies’ written for children. The titles all followed the same format, e.g., “Francis Marion, Swamp Fox’. (Do not ask me why I can remember that when I can’t remember what I had for dinner last night!)

When I was in fourth or fifth grade, I wanted to read books from the Young Adult section, which was upstairs. The rule, though, was that you had to be at least 13 to check out any books other than those in the children’s section. One Sunday, my dad took me upstairs to one of the librarians in the adult section, pulled a book off a shelf and had me read aloud a paragraph to her. He pulled another book off the shelf and I read another paragraph. At this point, the librarian agreed that I could have access to, and check out, books from anywhere in the library.

By the time I started high school, there was a branch library on the west side of Fort Worth that we patronized. I worked part-time in the library all four years of high school, first as a ‘page’, then as a clerk. To this day, I alphabetize my fiction books by the author’s ‘real’ last name if I know it, not the pen name, because that’s how it was done in our library.

In every place I’ve lived in as an adult, I’ve gotten a library card, even in Warsaw, Indiana, where I worked summer stock one year. Over time, though, while I still used my local library, I started buying most of the books I read – either new or secondhand. At one point, I had over 800 books in my 400 square foot apartment.

Despite my best efforts at occasionally weeding out books for donation, my bookshelves were always full. Maybe it was having to pack all those books for the move to Providence that made me decide to buy fewer books and start checking out books from the library. What a pleasure that has been! From the first time I walked into my neighborhood library, I felt at home. I’m sure that’s due in part to the strong resemblance the Providence Public Library building bears to the Fort Worth library of my childhood.

I can’t count the number of books I’ve checked out in the last three and a half years. Thanks to the Ocean State Libraries system, I am able to request books from libraries all over the state. The library has a computer room that is almost always completely occupied and offers computer and other classes, as well as lectures and exhibits. I like this library so much that I’ve started taking my laptop to the reading room of the library two or three times a week and working there for a couple of hours – the atmosphere encourages working on my photos or my writing.

Yep, library geek and proud of it!