The TLS reviewer of The Library: A World History gives some tantalizing examples from the book, such as “the Tripitaka Koreana (1251), housed in a monastery high in the mountains of South Korea. Its rough-hewn timbers are freighted with wooden printing-blocks comprising a complete set of the Buddhist scriptures. Then there is the Tianyi Chamber (c.1561) at Ningbo in China, the oldest library in China. Its fretted casements open out directly onto rock-pooled gardens cool and green. And then there is the façade of the Library of Celsus (AD 155) at Ephesus in Turkey, enshrining statues of four tutelary goddesses: Wisdom, Diligence, Understanding and Erudition.”

Or this: “The Bibliotheca Malatestiana (1452) at Casena near Rimini in Italy - the oldest library space in the Western world - retains its original fittings and collections. It has remained almost unaltered for over 560 years: an early Renaissance library, columned and vaulted, but still designed on medieval lectern principles, with chained volumes for readers seated in pews.”

Or the library of libraries, Philip II’s Escorial, opened in 1585: “‘The open shelving of the Escorial,’ Campbell notes, ‘was both prescient and influential. It was the first time that a huge room had to be lined with books, visible in serried ranks in cases along the walls. This vision of a great library hall both decorated and animated by the books that it contained was the one that has dominated library architecture ever since.’ In 1846, Alexandre Dumas père was staggered by its unique aura. ‘Nothing,’ he observed, ‘can give you any idea of the Escorial, not Windsor in England, nor Peterhof in Russia, nor Versailles in France. It is like nothing but itself, created by a man who bent his own epoch to his will, a reverie fashioned in stone, conceived during the sleepless hours of a king on whose realm the sun never set.’”

More on: History

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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