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Nature of the Library

The importance of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, with its collection of nearly 11,000 manuscripts, is based mainly on two converging factors, both extraordinary: the specific nature of the Library's holdings and the character of its building, which was planned and partly realized by Michelangelo Buonarroti.The story of this Library, from its core collection the Medici's private library to the various acquisitions which followed, has in fact been influenced by a constant aim, viz. the possession of books of a highly textual or esthetical quality.

Miscellany containing medical and pharmaceutical texts (9th cent.). Firenze, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Pl. 73.41, f. 93v. Amongst the treasures of the Laurenziana are listed some of the most ancient or unique manuscripts containing Tacitus, Pliny, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Quintilian, the codex of Vergil, corrected in 494 by Turcius Rufius Apronianus Asterius, and the oldest extant copy of Justinian's Corpus Iuris, copied just after its promulgation. The Laurenziana also preserves one of the three complete collections of Plato's Dialogi in so called carta bona, given by Cosimo the Elder to Marsilio Ficino to translate, the Squarcialupi codex, the only existing source for the study of profane music between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, some autographs of Petrarch and Boccaccio, the Storie by Guicciardini with notes by the author as well as the autograph biography of Benvenuto Cellini.

In particular, the Library bears witness to some of the most significant stages of Florentine Renaissance. Coluccio Salutati, Poggio Bracciolini, Niccolò Niccoli, Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola are all present in the collections not only as authors but as copyists and owners of manuscripts as well. The codices in the Laurenziana also offer many splendid examples of Humanistic reformed script and of the art of the Florentine schools of illumination inspired by Cimabue, Botticelli, the Pollaiolo and Ghirlandaio. Thus, the pursuance of excellence has inspired the growth of the Laurenziana ever since its beginning: from Cosimo de'Medici, tireless founder of libraries, to his descendants, Lords of Florence and Popes of the Holy Roman Catholic Church; from the Medici Grand Dukes to those from Lorraine, who followed their example with intelligence and liberality, up until the enlightened ministers of the newly formed Italian State. As can be expected, such growth was ensured through expropriations, donations and acquisitions.


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Two key-dates mark the story of the Library.

1571: the origins

View of Michelangelo's Library.In 1571, by wish of the Great Duke Cosimo I, the Library was opened to the public in the setting planned by Michelangelo, although the building was still incomplete. The two attributes that have qualified the Library ever since Medicea and Laurenziana bear witness to its noble origins as well as to its location in the S. Lorenzo complex. The manuscripts that once belonged to the Medici private library were stripped of their original covers, rebound in red leather with the Medici arms and arranged on benches. The chains still visible on the lower covers of many of these manuscripts bear testimony to the reading practices of the time and the librarians' concern for the safeguard of the collection


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Between the 18th and the 19th cent

Angelo Maria Bandini. Portrait painted possibly in 1795. In 1757 Angelo Maria Bandini was appointed Librarian of the Laurenziana: during nearly fifty years of office he managed an extremely shrewd acquisition policy and published a series of monumental catalogues of the collections, still unrivalled.No great changes occurred in the Library's organization in the two centuries that followed Bandini's death in 1803. The manuscripts coming from libraries once belonging to private families or religious houses suppressed by wish of the Great Duke Pietro Leopoldo or Napoleon were distributed amongst the Florentine libraries according to the usual criterion: the Laurenziana received the Greek and Latin classics, the illuminated specimina as well as an extremely interesting group of Oriental codices. Finally, in 1783, some of the most precious exemplars of the Medici library kept at Palazzo Pitti and passed on to the Biblioteca Palatina Lorenese entered the Laurenziana.



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Donations and acquisitions

Gold-tooled red morocco binding commisioned by Angelo Maria d'Elci (end of the 18th cent.). Firenze, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, D'Elci 740


In 1818 the Florentine bibliophile Angelo Maria d'Elci donated his precious collection of Greek and Latin classics to the Library, all first editions which he had recently rebound, and at the end of the nineteenth century (1884) the Laurenziana acquired the library belonging to Lord Bertram Ashburnham. The latter comprises many splendid items such as the treatise Architettura civile e militare by Francesco di Giorgio Martini, the manuscript of Petrarch's Rime with the arms of Galeazzo Maria Sforza and also a precious little Book of Hours, probably owned by a member of Lorenzo il Magnifico's family. 




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Papyrus fragment of the 'Coma Berenices' by Callimachus (1st cent. b.C. from Oxyrhynchus). Firenze, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, PSI IX 1092r..


The papyri collection, which counts around 2,500 items, is certainly an unusual sight amongst Italian and foreign libraries alike. It's origin can be ascribed to the various campaigns which Italian papyrologists organized in Egypt at the beginning of the twentieth century. Owing to their discoveries, the Laurenziana boasts unique witnesses of the literary production of the ancient world such as verses by Sappho and Callimachus. Having survived the risks of WW2 by storing the manuscripts in the Abbey of Passignano and the benches (the so-called plutei) in the vaults of S. Lorenzo, the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana is still, today, an inexhaustible source for classical and humanistic scholars. Finally, the Library's acquisitions policy involves the buying of significant exemplars papyri, tablets, codices, rare prints and documents from international antique dealers. The manuscripts and documents thus acquired augment the Acquisti e doni holding, the only one which is still open and comprises, at the moment, around 900 items.



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