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Ambrosian Library

One of the famous libraries of the world

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Ambrosian Library, the, one of the famous libraries of the world, founded between 1603 and 1609 by Cardinal Federigo Borromeo at Milan. This library is unique from the fact that it was not intended by the Cardinal to be merely a collection of books and masterpieces of art, but was meant by him to include a college of writers, a seminary of savants, and a school of fine arts. It is situated in what at that time was nearly the center of the city of Milan, near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The plans were drawn by the architect, Fabio Mangone, and the sculptor, Dionigio Bussola. The buildings were ready in 1609, and became at once, on account of their ample dimensions and elegant decoration, an object of universal admiration. The following description, although of the present day building, is an accurate one of the original, as no alterations have ever been permitted; even the floor of plain tiles, with four tables (one in each corner) and a central brazier, is left as the Cardinal arranged it.

A plain Ionic portico, on the cornice of which are the words BIBLIOTHECA AMBROSIANA, gives access to a single hall, on the ground floor, seventy-four feet long by twenty-nine feet broad. The walls are lined with bookcases about thirteen feet high, separated, not by columns, but by flat pilasters, and protected by wire work of an unusually large mesh, said to be original. At each corner of the hall is a staircase, leading to a gallery, two feet and six inches wide. The cases in this gallery are about eight feet and six inches high. Above them again is a frieze consisting of a series of portraits of saints in oblong frames. The roof is a barrel-vault, ornamented with plasterwork. Light is admitted through two enormous semicircular windows at each end of the room. A splendid view of the interior, together with a ground-plan, may be seen in Clark’s “The Care of Books” (p. 271). The arrangement of books was considered remarkable at that time, for a contemporary writer says of it, “the room is not blocked with desks to which the books are tied with iron chains after the fashion of the libraries which are common in monasteries, but it is surrounded with lofty shelves on which the books are sorted according to size” [Gli Instituti Scientifici etc. di Milano (Milan, 1880) p. 123, note].

The library was open not merely to members of the college, which was part of the endowment, but also to citizens of Milan and to all strangers who came to study there; the severest penalties awaited those who stole a volume, or even touched it with soiled hands, and only the Pope himself could absolve them from such crimes (Boscha, “De origine et statu bibl. Ambros.”, 19; ap. Grmvius, “Thes. ant. et hist. Italiae”, IX, Part VI; see also the Bull of Paul V, dated July 7, 1608, approving the foundation and rehearsing the statutes, in “Magnum Bullarium Romanum”, Turin, 1867, XI, 511). The story of the gathering of the equipment of this splendid Library is most interestingly set forth by the writers cited. A digest will be found in the “Catholic University Bulletin”, I, 567.

Cardinal Borromeo first applied to his friends, popes, cardinals, princes, priests, and religious, who responded generously. The Benedictines sent a great number of ancient manuscripts. The Cistercians gave a codex on Egyptian papyrus, containing the “Jewish Antiquities” of Josephus. Count Galeazzo Arconati offered the autograph works of Leonardo da Vinci, which King James I of England could not purchase for 3,000 golden crowns. The Cardinal sent agents abroad throughout Europe and the East. In 1607 his secretary, Grazio Maria Grazi, was exploring the cities of Italy, a most notable purchase being that of the Pinelli Library bought at Naples for 3,400 pieces of gold and filling seventy cases. Other agents gathered treasures in Germany, Belgium, and France, bringing back an ample store of books and manuscripts. They were again dispatched by the Cardinal to Germany and to Venice, while another agent was sent to Spain where he was fortunate in making splendid purchases. Three different agents were sent by Cardinal Borromeo to the East, one of them a converted rabbi. By means of these agents the treasures of the library were vastly increased, Chaldean books, Bibles, treatises of astronomy and mathematics, manuscripts in Turkish, Persian, Armenian, and Abyssinian being acquired; these were collected by a great expenditure of money, one of the agents having spent in the service of the Cardinal more money than any monarch had ever given for such an enterprise. This particular agent underwent many grave dangers in his quest, and finally died of the pest in Aleppo.

Though the Ambrosian Library could not rival the Vatican, nor the Laurentiana at Florence, nor the Marciana at Venice, it enjoyed a greater popularity than those ever possessed, because it was thrown open to all students without distinction, a rare and unheard of thing at that date. It was practically the first library to offer facilities for reading or note-taking. The Cardinal‘s liberality earned the applause of the learned men of his day, and his example was soon followed in the Bodleian at Oxford, the Angelica at Rome, and later on in the Mazarine and the Bibliotheque Royale at Paris. In 1865 a monument was erected to Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, who died September 30, 1631. The monument stands before the gates of the Ambrosian Library as a lasting evidence of the city’s gratitude to this great patron of arts and letters. It bears the following simple but heartfelt inscription: “AL CARDINAL FEDERICO BORROMEO I SUOI CONCITTADINI MDCCCLXV”. On one side of the pedestal is the phrase from Manzoni’s “I Promessi Sposi”: “He was one of those men rare in every age, who employed extraordinary intelligence, the resources of an opulent condition, the advantages of privileged stations, and an unflinching will in the search and practice of higher and better things”. On the other side are the words: “He conceived the plan of the Ambrosian Library, which he built at great expense, and organized in 1609 with an equal activity and prudence”.


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