The Biblioteca Capitolare, the library of the Chapter of Verona, is the oldest still functioning library in the world. Originally, it was founded as a Scriptorium: a sort of writing laboratory, dedicated to the production of parchment books for the education and the spiritual training of the future clergymen.
The scribes, in charge of copying the books, belonged to the Schola majoris Ecclesiae, the Cathedral Chapter’s school (“Capitulus” is the Latin word for “Chapter”, from which the name “Capitolare” comes from). During the transitional centuries between the Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, marked by deep crisis, it was mainly churchmen who were given an education. Despite the political, social, demographic and economic decadence, they had the chance to receive and pass on the ancient classical culture.
One of those scribes, Ursicinus, left us the first written evidence of the Scriptorium’s existence. The book he copied, now known as Manuscript XXXVIII, contains the narration of the lives of St. Martin of Tours – written by Sulpicius Severus – and of St. Paul of Thebes, by St. Jerome. At the end of the last page, he added some data which were very unusual for the time: his own name, the place and the date. The date, written as “the Kalends of August in the year of consulate of Agapitus”, is identifiable as 1 August AD 517: a time when Verona was under the rule of Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths.
The note, although very concise, is extremely important. In fact, it bears witness of a first form of cultural activity, organized for the book copying, back in the early 6th century. It is therefore likely that the first installation of the Scriptorium had been founded at least one century before. According to other scholars, its foundation might also be connected to the establishment of the first Basilica in the late 4th century.
Amongst the other treasures of the Capitolare there are also a few books even older than Ursicinus’: for example, Manuscript XXVIII, the oldest known copy of the “De Civitate Dei” (The City of God) by St. Augustine. It dates back to the early 5th century, and it is therefore contemporary with the author.
When was the Italian language born?
It is known that Italian comes from spoken Latin, which evolved through changes, distortions and the influence of other dialects.
The oldest known written evidence of this evolution is found in the “Riddle of Verona”, written in the top margin of folio 3r in Manuscript LXXXIX: a Spanish prayer book written in Visigothic characters.
From the Iberian Peninsula, after some travelling, the book landed in Verona. Here, perhaps to test his quill’s point, a scribe wrote:
«Separeba boves, alba pratalia araba, albo versorio teneba et negro semen seminaba»
which means: “he pushed forward the oxen (the fingers), he ploughed white fields (the blank pages), he held a white plough (the quill) and he sowed a black seed (the ink)”. The answer can be easily guessed: it’s the scribe at work.
The Early Middle Ages
The golden age of the Scriptorium was the 9th century, the period of the “Carolingian Renaissance”. This phase is worthily represented by the Archdeacon Pacifico. Versatile in all the fields of the human knowledge, he gave a great impulse to the activity of the Scriptorium by contributing to the production of 218 books: a very remarkable figure for those times, when only about 70 books were enough to form a rich library.
Also during the 10th century the Scriptorium went on working relentlessly, as was witnessed by Bishop Raterius. Despite the many hardships he met there, he benefitted the Schola and considered Verona as the “New Athens”. He commissioned the first graphic representation of Verona, the “Raterian Iconography”. The original was lost, but we can still admire it through the 18th century-copy donated to the library by Scipione Maffei.
In the 11th century, the local calligraphy activity was represented by Stephanus Cantor, Master of the Dome Chapel. He left us the Manuscript XCIV, called “Carpsum”, written in his own hand. It’s a music-liturgical anthology, and a very useful resource to learn about the local religious habits.
From the 13th to the 18th century
Around the beginning of the 13th century, as the need to make new books progressively declined, the Scriptorium acquired the features of a proper library: a place dedicated to the study, consultation and conservation of books, attended by illustrious men of culture and literature.
In 1320 Dante Alighieri held his dissertation, the Quaestio de Aqua et Terra, in St. Helen’s canonical church. The church belonged to the same Chapter of Canons which was in charge of the Library. This event is remembered by an inscription on the external wall of the church.
In 1345 another famous literate, Francesco Petrarca, was invited by his Veronese friend Guglielmo of Pastrengo to consult the books of the Capitolare. Petrarca’s visit is documented in his letters and on an inscription on Palazzo Augusto Verità. Among the shelves of the Capitolare, Petrarca found an unknown manuscript (now lost): Cicero’s letters to Atticus, Quintus and Brutus.
With the invention of the printing press, around 1450, the library got its first incunabula (early printed books, produced between 1450 and 1500). In 1501 G. Paolo Dionisi, the librarian canon, expert in civil and canonical law, donated a conspicuous number of manuscripts and incunabula, mostly on legal topic, to the Capitolare. Its already remarkable collection was therefore expanded even further.
In those times, the library’s headquarters were located on the ground floor, in the eastern side of the cloister. In 1625, these rooms were dedicated to the Canons’ meetings, and plans were made to move the books to a new room, that had to be built above the sacristy. While waiting for the construction to be completed, the librarian Agostino Rezzani hid some precious manuscripts and printed books behind the cornices of the wardrobes in an adjoining room, and compiled a catalogue of manuscripts. However, a few years later he died in the 1630 plague that killed almost two thirds of Verona’s inhabitants, and he took to his grave the secret of the books’ hiding place. Only in 1712, the scrupulous researches of Scipione Maffei and the canon Carlo Carinelli were able to bring those relics back to light. The news of their recovery aroused surprise and enthusiasm among scholars, who often knocked at the Capitolare’s door to consult them. In 1725, the canons decided to build the new headquarters of the Library, on the western side of the cloister. In 1781 it was enlarged, thanks to the generosity of Bishop Giovanni Morosini, who undertook half of the expenses.
Meanwhile, the collection of books kept on expanding, thanks to the many donations by Veronese families and celebrities, such as Dionisi, Bianchini, Muselli and Maffei. Among the donated books there were many beautiful examples of illumination, the art of decorating the pages with vibrant mineral colors and gold leaf.
Such a great richness attracted the attention of Napoleon Bonaparte, who sent a commission to select 31 manuscripts and 14 incunabula, amongst the rarest and most valuable of the Capitolare, to refurnish the National Library of Paris. After Napoleon’s Empire fell, only two thirds of them were returned.
From 1800 to the present
During the 19th century, an intense philological activity took place at the Capitolare, especially by of German scholars. Thanks to special chemical reagents, they brought back to light the hidden written layer of the palimpsests. Palimpsests are parchment books, mostly written in the 5th century, which were later scraped again to recycle the parchment and reuse it to write a new text on top of it. One of the most precious among the palimpsests that were then discovered is Manuscript XV, the “Institutes of Gaius”: the only surviving text of the classical Roman law, free of the Byzantine manipulations which occurred during Emperor Justinian’s reform.
The library also went through dramatic moments, which jeopardized its collections and sometimes its very survival. For example, during the flood of the River Adige in 1882, the ground floor was flooded, and the 11,000 parchments of the Archive were covered in mud. In 1923, the librarian Giuseppe Turrini started to clean them up and thoroughly catalogue them.
On Thursday, 4 January 1945, the great hall was shaken and destroyed by bombs. Luckily, the damages to the books were limited, once more thanks to Turrini. In fact, he had already removed the manuscripts and the most valuable printed books, and stored them in the rectory of Erbezzo – a small town on the nearby mountains. Other precious books had been previously hidden in a secret room inside the Cathedral. Those which were left, buried in rubble, were then partially retrieved and put back on the shelves after the hall’s reconstruction. They still show signs of the damage they underwent from the damages of the explosion.
In the immediate post-war period, the library was rebuilt and enlarged to make space for other donations. The new hall, rebuilt in part on the basis of the original 18-century projects, was completed in 1948.
Recently, on 16 April 1988, Pope John Paul II met delegates of all the main cultural institutions of Verona in the Great Hall of the Capitolare, where he held an important speech