Thursday, January 28, 2010

The National Library

Nook of Naples: There was a time when an olfactory sensation went hand in hand with the visual pleasure of reading. Yes, books and libraries had smells that can't be replicated in the on-line world.

To trek back into the past -- and I mean the past of 2,000 years ago -- you can take a free tour of the National Library in downtown Naples. Established within the Palazzo Reale in 1804, the library currently houses more than 1,775,588 volumes and prints.

On an interesting note, libraries in Europe differ from America in that they don't use the Dewey Decimal system. At the National Library, they also don't organize their collection by subject matter. Instead, books are stored in a labyrinth of back rooms. Students, scholars and the general public look up what they want in the card catalog or on-line and then request the materials from the librarians.

If you make an appointment with the public relations department, they hospitably offer free tours that take you inside these back rooms. You can walk through high ceiling hallways and past rooms bursting with materials mostly collected to preserve the art, history and culture of Italy. At the very back of the library, scrolls from the Villa of Papyri are on display.

In the mid-1700's archeologists discovered the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, believed to have been owned by Julius Caesar's father-in-law. The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. carbonized his collection of approximately 2,000 papyri scrolls, turning them into what looked like burnt wood. For two centuries after their discovery, conservators attempted to open the scrolls and succeeded through different methods. By 1984 a Norwegian team used a glue composed of gelatin and acetic acid to separate many more.

Some papyri are, nevertheless, too damaged to read. But others -- when put under strong light -- have writing that can be wondrously deciphered even by an untrained eye. Most of the papyri are written in Greek and are philosophical texts from the 3rd century B.C. to the 1st century A.D., many of them from Epicurus' On Nature. While we visited, the librarians opened one of the glass cabinets and we were able to bring our noses inches away from an original papyrus scroll.

The tour also included a visit to the rare manuscripts department where a librarian put on white gloves and then brought out several illuminated manuscripts, including an original handwritten book by St. Thomas Aquinas and a 500 A.D. manuscript written in Greek about pharmacology.

Best of all, the library is open to anyone who wishes to read in the sitting rooms. You're given a free locker at the entrance for storing your belongings and then, if you wish, you can take in the smells of books, books, and more books.

Getting There: Palazzo Reale, Piazza del Plebiscito 1, 80132 Napoli
Hours: M-Fri 8:30-19:30, Sat. 8:30-13:30
Public Relations department (for tours): or tel: 39 081 781 9231/387


Term Papers said...

For two centuries after their discovery, conservators attempted to open the scrolls and succeeded through different methods.

Barbara said...

An excellent point that I shortened significantly. How the papyri scrolls were unrolled is an amazing history unto itself.

Here's a tidbit more from the exhibition informational "The Herculaneum Papyri" paper I received while at the National Library: "...The Abbot Antonio Piaggio, a conservator of ancient manuscripts of the Vatican Library, devised a system for unrolling the carbonized scrolls. He invented a machine that kept the slowly unrolling scroll under tension by means of silk threads tied to hooks located in the upper part of the machine. He used a natural glue which served both to soften the papyrus sheet and help its detachment as well as to fix the opened pieces on a film composed of pig or sheep bladder. The Piaggio method was used up to the beginning of the 20th century."