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The National Library of Naples

A national library in Italy is one designated by the government as one that contains items of importance to the entire nation in a vast array of disciples—science, literature, art, music, history, theater,etc. They are not public lending libraries, an institution that still has not taken much hold in Naples (but see "Community Libraries").

Before the unification of Italy, each state on the peninsula, obviously, had its own libraries. After unification, Florence was designated as the first city in Italy to hold a national library; then, when Rome was added to the national patchwork in 1871, it, too, had a national library. Today, many Italian large cities have something called a national library. The one in Naples, in quantitative terms, is the third largest in Italy (after Rome and Florence) and is one of the 3705 libraries in Italy currently hooked into SBN (Servizio bibliotecario nazionale), the nationwide library catalogue data base.

The National library is housed in the large east wing of the Royal Palace in Naples (the photo, above, is of the southern façade, facing the sea). The entrance is not obvious; that is, both gates (one of which is the Russian Horses gate) to the large gardens on the east side of the San Carlo opera have been closed for years. Entrance is from Piazza Trieste e Trento (aka San Ferdinando) from the side of the main west wing of the palace, at which point you wander back through the grounds until you find the entrance to the library. As strange as it seems, it works better that way. You don’t want tourists and other ne'er-do-wells flooding through the gardens while you are trying to read.


The origins of the National Library are in the late 18th century, when the Bourbons ruled the kingdom of Naples. The book collection in the royal palace of Capodimonte was moved to the old university building (the site of today’s archaeological museum. The nucleus of that collection was the Farnese book collection, property of Charles III, the first Bourbon ruler of Naples. The library was opened by Ferdinand IV in 1804 as the Royal Library of Naples. During the subsequent nine years of Bourbon absence and—importantly—anti-clerical French presence under Murat, the collection was augmented enormously as monasteries throughout the kingdom shut down; a thousand years of manuscripts and books held in monasteries throughout the south became property of the state. That situation was repeated throughout Italy after the unification of the nation in 1861 under the anti-clerical Italian government. ("Anti-clerical" doesn’t mean that most Italians were not good Catholics; in this context, the terms refers to the age-old power struggle between the nation and the “temporal power” of the Roman Catholic Church. See this entry on The Papal States.)

Various private collections and archaeological finds such as the scrolls of the Herculaneum papyri found their way into the Naples library such that the old university building was too small to contain everything. Except for the dilapidated and never-finished old Royal Poor House, the only single building in Naples that could house it all (and it really doesn’t, since some collections are still dispersed at other locations in the city) was the Royal Palace. Benedetto Croce was instrumental in getting the city to move the library to that location in the 1920s. (The library is in the east wing, itself a Bourbon extension from the late 1700s. The older west part of the palace contains an art museum and a series of royal apartments.)


Both WWII and the 1980 earthquake damaged the library. (The damage included a particularly mindless episode of cultural vandalism on the part of retreating German forces in 1943—they decided to burn as many books as they could before leaving; see this entry on the National Archives.) The library has come back and since 1990 is part of the above-mentioned SBN. The library hosts cultural activities, seminars, lectures, and even an American-literature discussion group. Besides the obvious cultural “biggies” such as the Herculaneum papyri, there is a significant collection of material relevant to the history of southern Italy; as well, there are important collections at secondary branches in other parts of town. There is also the usual, large selection of old journals and newspapers and a workshop/laboratory for the preservation and restoration of books. The Italian Ministry for Culture lists the holdings of the Naples library as 1,480,747 printed volumes; 319,187 pamphlets; 18,415 manuscripts; over 8,000 periodicals; 4,500 incunabula  (i.e. printed material from before 1500); and the 1,800 Herculaneum papyri.

The National Library, like any institution housed on ad hoc premises (they weren’t meant to be a library and don’t look like one) can be confusing. You really can get lost. You don’t wander in and just browse since the shelves are not open for you to simply take stuff down and read. It’s not that kind of a library; you should know what you want and have armed yourself via the internet with the appropriate reference numbers or you will go blind trying to decipher old hand-written index cards in the catalogues. There are pleasant exceptions. I was looking for something on the dynastic change when Murat left Naples and the Bourbons returned in 1815. I thought there might be something in the Giornale delle Due Sicilie from that year. I also thought that it would be impossible to find, or at least impossible to consult even if I found it. I was directed to the Lucchesi Palli collection, upstairs; this meant two right turns, a trip to the wrong floor in the ad hoc elevator, then back down to the basement, where I actually wandered into book stacks and got lost (it was lonely...I could have been murdered by the Phantom of the Library at any time and people would still be wondering what had happened to me...), then back up and out onto a long balcony and back in at the other end, thus by-passing a blocked door. I finally found the room. While I was standing there waiting for someone to help me, I glanced on the shelves and saw the volumes of the Giornale delle Due Sicilie. I found the one I wanted, pulled it out, sat down and started to read. (The results are here in the entry on Murat.) That’s all there was to it. There can't be more than a dozen or so complete bound copies of that Bourbon journal in existence, and I had walked in and pulled one from the shelf, no questions asked. (So, after I finished tearing out the pages I wanted... you see, you have to sneeze every time you rip a page in order to cover the sound...no, please, that's a joke...don't write me...)

The personnel has always been helpful to me, the more so the stranger the request. They take pride in meeting perverse requests, even when I asked for information on via Toledo di notte, a musical drama by Raffaele Viviani from 1918. I had no catalogue number—nothing. Just, "What have you got?"  The kind lady could have told me to take a hike over to the music conservatory. Instead, Kind Lady disappeared and—just when I had convinced myself that she had gone down to readjust the intruder alert—reappeared with the original (!) conductor's score of the musical. Handwritten. The only copy. "Here," she said. "This?"

Yes, I thought. That'll do.


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