Biblioteca Marciana

The Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (English: National Library of St Mark) is a public library in Venice, Italy.[2] Founded in 1468 as the library of the Republic of Venice, it is one of the earliest surviving public libraries and depositories for manuscript in Italy and holds one of the greatest collections of classical texts in the world. It is named after St. Mark, the patron saint of the city.

Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana
main façade of the historical building
LocationVenice, Italy
Specializationclassics and Venetian history
Size4,639 manuscripts
13,117 manuscript volumes
2,887 incunabula
24,060 cinquecentine
1,000,000 (circa) post-sixteenth-century books[1]
Building details
reading room inside the historical building
Design and construction
ArchitectJacopo Sansovino
StyleHigh Renaissance
Construction1537 (1537)1588 (1588)
Notable artistsTitian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Battista Franco, Giuseppe Salviati, Andrea Schiavone

The original building, prominently located in Saint Mark's Square with the long façade facing the Doge's Palace, is the masterpiece of Jacopo Sansovino[3] and a key work in Venetian Renaissance architecture. The great architect Andrea Palladio considered it "perhaps the richest and most ornate building that there has been since ancient times up until now" ("il più ricco ed ornato edificio che forse sia stato da gli Antichi in qua"),[4] and Frederick Hartt described it as "surely one of the most satisfying structures in Italian architectural history".[5] No less important for its art, the library houses many works by the great painters of sixteenth-century Venice, making it a comprehensive monument to Venetian Mannerism.[6]

Today, the historical building is customarily referred to as the Libreria sansoviniana and is largely a museum. The library offices, the reading rooms, and most of the collection are housed in the adjoining Zecca, the former mint of the Republic of Venice.

Historical background

Cathedral and monastic libraries were the principal centers of study and learning throughout the Middle Ages. But beginning in the fifteenth century, the humanist emphasis on the knowledge of the classic world as essential to the formation of the Renaissance man led to a proliferation of court libraries, patronized by princely rulers, several of which provided a degree of public access.[7] In Venice, an early attempt to found a public library in emulation of the great libraries of Antiquity was unsuccessful as Petrarch’s personal collection of manuscripts, donated to the Republic in 1362, was dispersed at the time of his death.[8]

In 1468, however, the Byzantine humanist and scholar Cardinal Basilios Bessarion donated his vast and precious collection of Greek and Latin codices to the Republic of Venice, stipulating that a public library be established to ensure both their conservation for future generations and availability for scholars.[9] The valuable bequest[10] included the 482 Greek and 264 Latin codices which were transported to Venice in crates the next year.[11] To this initial delivery, more codices and incunables were added following the death of Bessarion in 1472.

The letter of donation, addressed to Doge Cristoforo Moro, narrates that following the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and its devastation by the Turks, Bessarion had set ardently about the task of acquiring the rare and important works of the classical Greek philosophers and adding them to his existing collection so as to prevent the further dispersal and total loss of ancient Greek knowledge. The Cardinal’s stated desire in offering the collection to the Venetian Republic specifically was that the manuscripts should be properly conserved in a city where many Greek refugees had fled and which he himself considered a “second Byzantium” (alterum Byzantium).[12]

But despite the grateful acceptance of the donation by the Venetian government and the commitment to establish a library of public utility, the collection remained crated inside the Doge's Palace, entrusted to the care of the state historian under the direction of the procurators of Saint Mark de supra. Access was difficult and consultation impracticable. To no avail, Marcantonio Sabellico and Andrea Navagero, in their capacity as official historian, and other prominent humanists urged the government over time to provide a suitable location. But the political and financial situation during the long years of the Italian wars stymied any serious plan, notwithstanding a statement of intent to build a library in 1515.[13] However, with the nomination of Pietro Bembo as gubernator in 1530 and the termination of the War of the League of Cognac in that same year, efforts were renewed. In 1531, the collection was transferred to the upper floor of Saint Mark's Basilica, and although the codices were still crated, loaning conditions were improved. The following year, 1532, Vettore Grimani pressed his fellow procurators, insisting that the time had come to act on the Republic's longstanding intention to construct a suitable public library where Bessarion's collection of codices could be housed.[14]



Saint Mark's Square
(a) Saint Mark's Basilica(b) Ducal Palace(c) bell tower and loggetta(d) Biblioteca Marciana(e) mint(f) Procuratie Nuove(g) Napoleonic wing(h) Procuratie Vecchie(i) clock tower

The construction of the library was an integral part of the renovatio urbis, the vast architectural program begun under Doge Andrea Gritti to reaffirm Venice's international prestige after the earlier defeat at Agnadello during the War of Cambrai and the subsequent Peace of Bologna which sanctioned Habsburg hegemony on the Italian peninsula at the end of the War of the League of Cognac. Championed by the Grimani family, the program called for the transformation of Saint Mark's Square from an antiquated medieval town center with food vendors, money changers, and even latrines into a classical forum. The intent was to evoke the memory of the ancient Roman republic and, in the aftermath of the Sack of Rome in 1527, to present Venice as Rome's true successor.[15]

In addition to the mint (begun 1536) and the loggia of the bell tower (begun 1538), the program involved replacing the dilapidated thirteenth-century buildings that lined the southern side of the square and the area in front of the Doge's Palace. For this, Jacopo Sansovino, a refugee from the Sack of Rome, was commissioned on 14 July 1536. Subsequently, on 6 March 1537, it was decided that the area of the building facing the palace was to be destined for the library.[16] This would not only satisfy the terms of the donation, it would also bring honor and glory to the Republic as a center of wisdom, learning, and culture. Significantly, the earlier decree of 1515, citing the examples of Rome and Athens, had expressly stated that a perfect library with fine books would serve as an ornament for the city and as a light for all of Italy. The construction of the library was also seen as an opportunity to promote the publishing industry by providing ready access for printers who needed to periodically consult the original manuscripts whenever printing critical editions and to make working copies of the manuscripts on which to write notes and make corrections.[17]

Sansovino’s superintendence (1537–c.1560)

Construction of the
Biblioteca Marciana
(red) area of meat market – (blue) area of hostelries – (yellow) area of lean-to bread shops

Construction proceeded slowly. The prime site, although owned by the government, was occupied by several taverns and food stalls many of which had longstanding contractual rights. It was consequently necessary to find a mutually agreed upon alternative location. Also, the hostelries and shops provided a steady flow of rental income to the procurators of Saint Mark de supra, the magistrate responsible for the public buildings around Saint Mark's Square. So there was the need to limit the disruption of the revenue by gradually relocating the activities as the building progressed and new space was required to continue. The lean-to bread shops and a portion of the hostelry adjoining the bell tower were demolished in early 1537, but rather than reutilizing the existing foundations, Sansovino built the library detached so as to make the bell tower a freestanding structure and transform Saint Mark's Square into a trapezoid. This was meant to give greater visual importance to the Basilica of Saint Mark located on the eastern side and also make it possible to see the Doge's Palace from anywhere in the square.

Work was suspended following the Ottoman–Venetian War (1537–1540) due to lack of funding in the period of recovery but resumed in 1543. But on 18 December 1545, the heavy masonry vault collapsed. In the subsequent enquiry, Sansovino claimed that workmen had prematurely removed the temporary wooden supports before the concrete had set and that a galley in the basin of Saint Mark, firing cannon as a salute, had shaken the building. Nevertheless, the architect was sentenced to personally repay the cost of the damage which required 20 years,[18] and his stipend was suspended until 1547. As a consequence of the collapse, the design was modified with a lighter wooden structure to support the roof. In the following years, funding was increased, and work proceeded rapidly. The commemorative plaque in the vestibule of the library bears the date of the Venetian year 1133 (i.e. 1554),[19] an indication that the end of construction was considered imminent. By then, the building, now sixteen bays long, had progressed to the lateral entry of the mint, and work was soon halted. Beyond stood the central meat market which was a significant source of rental income for the procurators. The work on the interior decorations continued until 1560. Although it was decided five years later to relocate the meat market and continue the building,[20] no further action was taken, and in 1570 Sansovino died.

Scamozzi’s superintendence (1582–1588)

In 1582, following the demolition of the market, Vincenzo Scamozzi undertook the construction of the final five bays, continuing Sansovino's design. This brought the building down to the molo, or embankment, in correspondence with the main façade of the mint. Scamozzi also added the crowning statues and obelisks. Since the original design by Sansovino does not survive, it is not known whether the architect ever intended for the library to reach its actual length. Scamozzi's negative comment on the chaotic junction of the library with the mint[21] has led some architectural historians to argue that the unsightly result could never have been intentionally designed by Sansovino. But archival research and technical and aesthetic considerations have not been resolutive.[22]

During Scamozzi's superintendence, the debate regarding the height of the building was reopened. When Sansovino had first been commissioned on 14 July 1536, the project expressly called for a three-story construction similar to the recently rebuilt Procuratie Vecchie on the northern side of Saint Mark's Square. But by 6 March 1537, when the decision was made to locate the library within the new building, the plan had been abandoned in favor of a single floor above the ground level.[23] Scamozzi, nonetheless, recommended adding a floor to the library. Engineers were called to access the existing foundation to determine whether it could bear the additional weight. The conclusions were equivocal, and it was ultimately decided in 1588 that the library would remain with only two floors.[24] However, when Scamozzi built the abutting Procuratie Nuove along the southern side of Saint Mark's Square (begun 1583), he continued Sansovino's design for the lower two floors but added a third story based on Palladio's rejected proposal for the rebuilding of the Doge's Palace after the fire of 1577. This third floor employs the Corinthian order and has rectangular aedicule windows, topped by alternating curvilinear and triangular pediments.


Upper floor

The upper story of the library employs the Ionic order and is characterized by a series of “Serlians”, so-called because the architectural element was illustrated by Sebastiano Serlio in his seven-volume architectural book Tutte l'opere d'architettura et prospetiva, a guide for architects and scholarly patrons that explained the Vitruvian principles of Roman architecture. The element, inspired by ancient triumphal arches such as the Arch of Constantine, consists in a high arched opening that is flanked by two shorter sidelights topped with lintels and supported by columns.[25] Later popularized by the architect Andrea Palladio, the element is customarily known as the Palladian window.[26] From his days in Florence, Sansovino was likely familiar with the Serlian, having observed it in the tabernacle of the Merchants’ guild by Donatello and Michelozzo (circa 1423) on the façade of the Church of Orsanmichele. He may also have been aware of the sixteenth-century nymphaeum at Genazzano near Rome, attributed to Bramante, where the Serlian is placed in a series.[27] At the Marciana, the sidelights of the Serlians are narrow as in the Orsanmichele prototype but are separated from the tall opening by double columns, placed one behind the other.[28]

Superimposed upon the series of Serlians is a row of large Ionic columns. The capitals with the egg and dart motif in the eschinus and palms and masks in the collar may have been inspired directly by the Temple of Saturn in Rome and perhaps further influenced by the Villa Medicea at Poggio a Caiano by Giuliano da Sangallo.[29] For the bases, as a sign of his architectural erudition, Sansovino adopted the Ionic base as it had been directly observed and noted by Antonio da Sangallo the younger and Baldassare Peruzzi in ancient ruins at Frascati.[30] The idea of an ornate frieze above the columns with festoons alternating with window openings had already been used by Sansovino for the courtyard of Palazzo Gaddi in Rome (1519–1527). But the insertion of windows into a frieze had been pioneered even earlier by Bramante at Palazzo Caprini in Rome (1501) and employed in Peruzzi's early sixteenth-century Villa Farnesina. In the library, the specific pattern of the festoons with putti appears to be based on an early second-century sarcophagus fragment belonging to the antiquities collection of Cardinal Domenico Grimani.[31]

Ground floor

The ground floor is modelled on the Theater of Marcellus and the Colosseum in Rome. It consists in a series of Doric columns that support an entablature and is superimposed on a series of arches resting on pillars. The combination of columns superimposed on an arcade had been proposed by Bramante for Palazzo di Giustizia (unexecuted) and was employed by Peruzzi for the courtyard of Palazzo Farnese (begun 1517).[32] In adopting the solution for the Marciana, Sansovino was faithfully adhering to Alberti's recommendation that in larger structures the column, inherited from Greek architecture, should only support an entablature, whereas the arch, inherited from Roman mural construction, should be supported on square pillars so that the resulting arcade appears to be the residual of "a wall open and discontinued in several places".[33]

Much discussed and admired was Sansovino's ingenious solution to the difficulty in applying strict Vitruvian principles to the corner of a Doric frieze. These principles required that a triglyph be centered over the last column and then followed by half a metope, but the space was insufficient. With no surviving classical examples to guide them, Bramante, Antonio da Sangallo, Raphael, and other great Renaissance architects had struggled with the dilemma, implementing various, but unsatisfactory, ideas. Sansovino's vaunted solution was to lengthen the end of the frieze by superimposing a final pilaster on a wider pier, thus creating the space necessary for a perfect half metope.[34] According to the architect's son, Francesco, Sansovino further sensationalized the design by challenging the leading architects in Italy to resolve the vexing problem and then triumphantly revealing his own solution.[35]


The extensive surface carvings of the façade are the work of Sansovino's collaborators, including Danese Cattaneo, Pietro da Salò, Bartolomeo Ammannati, and Alessandro Vittoria. High-relief male allegories of generic Rivers (water flowing out of urns and cornucopias) are located in the spandrels on the ground floor with the exception of the arch in correspondence to the entry of the library which has Neptune (trident) and Aeolus (wind-filled sail). The enlarged keystones of the arches on the ground floor alternate between lions’ heads and the heads of pagan divinities (Ceres, Pan, Apollo, Diana, Mercury, Minerva, Venus, Mars, Juno, Jupiter, Saturn, and Phanes). In low relief, the soffits have either mythological scenes related to the divinity in the keystone or grotesques. The spandrels on the upper floor have allegorical female figures with wings, including Knowledge (book) and Intelligence (celestial sphere) but also Fame (trumpet), Glory (palm), Honor (laurel wreath), Immortality (circle without beginning or end), and Reward (crown). These are in mid-relief, thus creating the illusion that they are further from the viewer.[36] This effect serves to emphasize the verticality so as to counterbalance the long, horizontal succession of arcades.

The balustrade above is surmounted by statues of pagan divinities and immortalized heroes of Antiquity. Built by Scamozzi between 1588 and 1591 following Sansovino's design,[37] this solution for the roofline may have been influenced by Michelangelo's designs for the Capitoline Hill in Rome and may have later inspired Scamozzi's own work at the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza. Among the sculptors were Agostino and Vigilio Rubini, Camillo Mariani, Tiziano Aspetti, and Girolamo Campagna. Over time, however, several of the original statues were eroded or otherwise damaged and ultimately replaced with statues that are not always consistent with the original subjects.[38]

The effect of the library, overall, is that the entire façade has been encrusted with ancient archeological artifacts. Statues and carvings all'antica abound, and no large areas of plain wall are visible. In addition to this abundance of classical decorative elements – obelisks, keystone heads, spandrel figures, and a richly carved frieze – there is a correct and erudite use of the Doric and Ionic orders that recalls Roman prototypes and gives the building a sense of authenticity. The proportions do not always respect Vitruvian canons. Nevertheless, the classical references were sufficient to satisfy the Venetians’ desire to emulate the great civilizations of Antiquity and to present their own city as the successor of the Roman republic. At the same time, the design respects many local building traditions, and it fully harmonizes with the gothic Doge's Palace through the common use of Istrian limestone, the two-story arcades, the balustrades, and the elaborate rooflines.[39]


The actual library was always only on the upper floor with the ground floor being let to shops and, later on, cafes as a source of revenue to the procurators. The gilded interior rooms are lavishly decorated with oil paintings by the great masters of Venice's Mannerist period, including Titian, Tintoretto, Paolo Veronese, and Andrea Schiavone. Some of these paintings show mythological narratives, principally drawn from the writings of classical authors: Ovid's Metamorphoses and Fasti, Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, Nonnus’ Dionysiaca, Martianus Capella's The Marriage of Philology and Mercury, and the Suda. In many instances, these stories of the pagan divinities are employed in a metaphorical sense on the basis of the early Christian writings of Arnobius and Eusebius. Other paintings show allegorical figures and include Renaissance hieroglyphics which reflect the renewed interest in the esotericism of the Hermetic writings and of the Chaldean Oracles that impassioned many humanists following the publication in 1505 of Horapollo’s Ἱερογλυφικά (Hieroglyphica), the purported key to unlock the mysteries of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The iconographic sources vary and include Pierio Valeriano’s dictionary of symbols, Hieroglyphica (1556); popular emblem books such as Andrea Alciati’s Emblematum Liber (1531), Francesco Marcolini’s Le ingeniose sorti (1540), and Achille Bocchi’s Symbolicarum quaestionum de universo genere (1555); as well as Vincenzo Cartari’s mythographic manual for painters Imagini colla sposizione degli dei degli antichi (1556). The "Mantegna Tarocchi" were used as iconographic sources for the depictions of the liberal arts and the Muses in the staircase.

Although several images have a specific pedagogical function aimed at forging temperate and stalwart rulers and inculcating qualities of dedication to duty and moral excellence in the noble youth who studied in the library,[40] the overall decorative program reflects the Venetian aristocracy's interest in philosophy as an intellectual pursuit and, in a broader sense, the growing interest in Platonic philosophy as one of the central currents in Renaissance thought. It is conceptually organized on the basis of the Neoplatonic ascent of the soul and affirms that the quest for knowledge is directed towards the attainment of divine wisdom.[41] The staircase largely represents the life of the embodied soul in the early stages of the ascent: the practice of the cardinal virtues, the studious contemplation of corporeal matters in both their multiplicity and harmony, the transcendence of mere opinions through dialectic, and catharsis. The reading room corresponds to the soul's subsequent journey within the intellectual realm and shows the culmination of the ascent with the awakening of the higher, intellective soul, ecstatic union, and illumination.[42] The program culminates with the representation of the ideal Platonic State founded upon a transcendent understanding of a higher reality. By association, it is implied that the Republic of Venice is the very paradigm of wisdom, order, and harmony.[43]


The staircase consists of four domes (the Dome of Ethics, the Dome of Rhetoric, the Dome of Dialectic, and the Dome of Poetics) and two flights, the vaults of which are each decorated with twenty-one images of alternating quadrilinear stuccoes by Alessandro Vittoria and octagonal frescoes by Battista Franco (first flight) and Battista del Moro (second flight). At the entry and on the landings, Sansovino repeated the Serlian element from the façade, making use of ancient columns recuperated from the sixth-century Byzantine Church of Santa Maria del Canneto in Pola (Pula, Croatia).


The vestibule was originally a lecture hall for the public school of Saint Mark which had been founded in 1446 to train future civil servants of the Ducal Chancery. The initial curriculum, focusing on grammar and rhetoric, was expanded in 1460 with the creation of a second lectureship for poetry, oratory, and history. Over time, it evolved into a humanistic school principally for the sons of the nobles and citizens. Among the noted Italian humanists who taught at the school were George of Trebizond, Giorgio Valla, and Marco Musuro.[44] The vestibule also briefly (1560–1561) hosted the meetings of the Accademia veneziana before its clamorous failure for bankruptcy. During this period, the room was lined with wooden benches, interrupted by the lectern which was located under the central window of the western wall.[45]

Beginning in 1591, the vestibule was transformed into the public Statuary Hall by Vincenzo Scamozzi in order to display the collection of ancient sculpture that Giovanni Grimani had donated to the Venetian Republic in 1587. Of the original decoration, only the ceiling remains with the illusionistic three-dimensional decoration by Cristoforo and Stefano De Rosa of Brescia (1559). Titian’s octagonal painting in the center (c.1560) has been alternatively identified as Wisdom, History, or The Soul.

Reading Room

The adjacent reading room originally had rows of desks in the center to which the valuable codices were chained.[46] Other books were shelved around the perimeter of the room according to subject matter.[47] Between the windows were imaginary portraits of great men of Antiquity, the “philosophers”, each originally accompanied by an identifying inscription. Similar portraits were located in the vestibule. Over time, however, these paintings were moved to various locations within the library and eventually, in 1763, to the Doge's Palace in order to create the wall space necessary for more bookshelves. As a result, some were lost along with all of the identifying inscriptions. The ten that survive were returned to the library in the early nineteenth century and integrated with other paintings in 1929. Of the “philosophers”, only Diogenes by Tintoretto has been credibly identified.[48]

The ceiling of the reading room is lavishly decorated with 21 roundels, circular oil paintings, by Giovanni de Mio, Giuseppe Salviati, Battista Franco, Giulio Licinio, Bernardo Strozzi, Giambattista Zelotti, Alessandro Varotari, Paolo Veronese, and Andrea Schiavone. The roundels by Bernardo Strozzi and Alessandro Varotari are replacements from 1635 of earlier roundels, respectively by Giulio Licinio and Giambattista Zelotti, which were irreparably damaged by water infiltrations. The roundels were commissioned in 1556.[49]

Although the original seven artists were formally chosen by Sansovino and Titian, their selection for an official and prestigious commission such as the library was indicative of the ascendancy of the Grimani and of those other families within the aristocracy who maintained close ties with the papal court and whose artistic preferences consequently tended towards Mannerism as it was developing in Tuscany and Rome. The artists were mostly young and innovative. They were primarily foreign-trained and notably non-Venetian for their artistic styles, having been influenced by the new Mannerist trends in Florence, Rome, Mantua, and Parma. The roundels that they produced for the ceiling of the reading room are consequently characterized by the greater sculptural rigidity and artificial poses of the figures, the emphasis on line drawing, and the overall dramatic compositions. They nevertheless show the influence of local painting traditions in both the coloring and brushwork.[50]

For the single roundels, various and conflicting titles have been proposed over time.[51] The earliest titles that Vasari suggested for the three roundels by Veronese contain conspicuous errors, and even the titles and visual descriptions given by Francesco Sansovino, son of the architect, for all 21 roundels are often imprecise or inaccurate.[52]

Later History

Although the procurators remained responsible for the library building, in 1544 the Council of Ten assigned the custodianship of the collection itself to the Riformadori a lo Studio de Padoa, the educational committee of the Senate. Created in 1516, the Riformadori had initially been tasked with reopening the University of Padua after its closure during the years of the War of Cambrai which involved repairing physical damage to the buildings, hiring new professors, and organizing courses. Over time, however, their role came to encompass virtually all aspects of public education, including the nomination of the Librarian, a patrician chosen for life.[53] In 1633, the Riformadori also assumed the function of nominating the custodian of the library.[54] Under the Riformadori, the collection was inventoried and first catalogued (1545). For the loaning of the valuable codices, the Council of Ten established stricter conditions which included the requirement of a deposit in gold or silver in the amount of 25 ducats.[55] This sum, already substantial, was increased to 50 ducats in 1558.[56]

After the fall of the Venetian Republic to Napoleon in 1797, 470 precious manuscripts, selected from public, religious, and private libraries throughout Venice, were turned over to the French as prizes of war. Of these, 203 were subtracted from the Marciana collection along with two musical scores.[57] Six rare incunabula and 10 important manuscripts were also removed during the first period of Austrian occupation (1798–1805).[58]

In 1811, during the second period of French occupation (1805–1815), the entire collection was moved to the former Hall of the Great Council in the Doge's Palace when the library, as a building, was transformed together with the adjoining Procuratie nuove into an official residence for the viceroy of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy. It continued to be used in this capacity during the second period of Austrian occupation (1815–1866), and after the annexation of Venice to the Kingdom of Italy, it came into the possession of the Italian Crown which ceded ownership to the State in 1919.

In 1904, the collection was moved from the Doge's Palace to the former mint, and in 1924 the Marciana once again occupied the historical rooms of the library.


The Marciana Library possesses 548 Greek codices, 337 Latin codices, and 27 incunables that once belonged to Cardinal Bessarion.

Major bequests made to the collection over time include:

  • 1589 - Melchiorre Guilandino of Marienburg: the bequest of the Polish-born doctor and botanist, director of the botanical gardens at the University of Padua and professor of botany and pharmacognosy, consisted of 2.200 printed books dealing with philosophy, medicine, mathematics, botany, theology, literature, poetry, and history.[59]
  • 1595 - Jacopo Contarini da S. Samuele: the bequest of the Venetian patrician, delayed until the extinction of the male line of the Contarini in 1713, consisted of 175 Greek and Latin manuscripts and 1500 printed books and included works on Venetian history, Law, poetry, naval and military matters, astronomy, physics, optics, architecture, and philosophy.[60]
  • 1619 - Girolamo Fabrici d'Acquapendente: the bequest of the surgeon and professor of anatomy at the University of Padua consisted of 13 volumes with hand-colored anatomical illustrations.[61]
  • 1624 - Giacomo Gallicio: the donation consisted of 21 Greek codices, comprising over 90 works, dealing primarily with exegetics, philology, and philosophy.[61]
  • 1734 - Giambattista Recanati: the bequest of the Venetian noble poet and man of letters, member of both the Florentine Academy and the Royal Society of London, consisted of 216 Greek, Latin, Italian, French, Franco-veneto, and Illyric manuscripts among which were several medieval illuminated manuscripts once belonging to the House of Gonzaga.[62]
  • 1792 - Tommaso Giuseppe Farsetti: the bequest of the Venetian patrician consisted of 386 Latin and Italian manuscripts and over 1600 printed books, primarily literature.[63]
  • 1794 - Amedeo Schweyer, called "Svajer": the purchase of the collection of the German-born antiquarian involved more than 340 manuscripts and included genealogies and Venetian and foreign documents among which is the last will and testament of Marco Polo.[64]
  • 1797 - Jacopo Nani: the bequest of the Venetian collector consisted of 716 Greek, Latin, Italian, French Arabic, Egyptian, Persian, Syrian, and Turkish manuscripts covering history, travel, literature, politics, science, military matters, architecture, philosophy, and religion.[65]
  • 1814 - Girolamo Ascanio Molin: the bequest of the Venetian nobleman, collector and author, included 2209 fine printed books and incunables, 3835 prints, 408 drawings, and 136 maps.[66]
  • 1843 - Girolamo Contarini: the bequest of the Venetian nobleman, consisted of some 4000 printed books and 956 manuscripts, including 170 musical codices.[67]
  • 1852 - Giovanni Rossi: the bequest consisted of 470 manuscripts dealing primarily with Venetian history and a collection of Venetian operas.[68]

The library also benefitted from a law of 1603 requiring that a copy of all books printed within the territory of the Venetian Republic be deposited in the Marciana, the first such law in Italy.[69]

Three hundred and three precious manuscripts along with 88 rare printed books were transferred to the Marciana in 1789 from the religious libraries of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Sant'Andrea della Certosa, and S. Pietro Martire di Murano by order of the Council of Ten after an investigation into a theft revealed unsatisfactory security conditions.[70] In addition, during the second period of French occupation when numerous convents and monasteries were suppressed and their libraries dispersed, the Marciana obtained 4.407 volumes including 630 manuscripts.[71]

Today, the collection consists in about 13,000 manuscripts and over a million printed books, including 2883 incunabula and 24,055 works printed between 1500 and 1600. Among the irreplaceable treasures are unique scores of operas by Francesco Cavalli and sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti.


Significant manuscripts in the collection include:

Biblical Manuscripts



  1. Retrieved 21 September 2019.
  2. The library is administered by the Direzione Generale Biblioteche e Istituti Culturali of the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali
  3. Howard, Sansovino…, p. 26
  4. Palladio, Andrea, I quattro libri dell'architettura di Andrea Palladio, 1581, Venetia, Bartolomeo Carampello, p. 5.
  5. Hartt, History of Italian Renaissance Art, pp. 632–633, 633 quoted.
  6. Humfrey, Peter, Painting in Renaissance Venice, p. 194.
  7. Raines, Book Museum or Scholarly Library?..., pp. 31–32
  8. Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Libraries" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 16 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 573. Also, Pittoni, La libreria di san Marco, pp. 5–10.
  9. Burckhardt, Jacob (1878). The Civilization Of The Renaissance in Italy. University of Toronto - Robarts Library: Vienna Phaidon Press. p. 99. Retrieved 28 February 2019. Also, Pittoni, La libreria di san Marco, pp. 10–19.
  10. In the preliminary letter of acceptance, the Senate valued the collection at 15,000 ducats. The letter, dated 23 March 1468 is in Labowsky, Bessarion's Library..., p. 125. For Bartolomeo Platina, Bessarion’s precious codices had cost 30,000 golden scudo. See Bessarionem doctiss. partriarcham Constantin..., s.l. officina Eucharij Cervicorni, 1529, p. 9. Regardless of the differing figures, the value was considerable: from several contemporary contracts, a well-paid professor earned 120 ducats a year. See Zorzi, La Libreria di San Marco..., p. 60.
  11. The full inventory is published in Labowsky, Bessarion's Library..., pp. 157–188.
  12. The formal letter of donation, dated 13 May 1468, is preserved in Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana codice Lat. XIV, 14 =4235.
  13. The decree of the Senate appropriated no funding and was without effect. It nevertheless constitutes the first proposal to construct a library rather than to simply find a suitable location for the collection. The decree of the Senate, dated 5 May 1515, is in Labowsky, Bessarion's Library..., p. 131.
  14. The act is published in Labowsky, Bessarion's Library..., p. 132.
  15. See in general Chambers, The Imperial Age of Venice..., pp. 12–31.
  16. The act of the procurators is in the archives (PS, Atti, reg. 125, c. 2) and is published in Howard, Sansovino…, p. 163.
  17. The decision to begin the construction of the library coincides with the laws of 1534 and 1537 which sought to redress an alarming decline in the book trade and the increasing importation of books printed elsewhere by providing further copyright protection to printers and imposing standards of printing quality. For the printing history of the period, see Brown, Horatio, The Venetian Printing Press: an Historical Study, 1891, London, John C. Nimmo, pp. 75–82.
  18. In 1565, the procurators discharged the remaining debt in exchange for sculptural work by Sansovino. The act of the procurators, dated 20 March 1565, is in the archives (PS, Atti, reg. 130, c. 72). See Howard, Sansovino..., p. 21
  19. The Venetian year was calculated beginning with AD 421, the legendary year of the city's foundation on 25 March.
  20. Zorzi, La libreria di san Marco..., p. 135
  21. Scamozzi criticizes the truncating of cornices, bases, and capitals in reference to the junction of the facades of the library and the mint and considers such solutions "indecencies and follies" (indecentie e sciocchezze). See Scamozzi, Vicenzo, L'idea della architettura universale di Vincenzo Scamozzi architetto veneto, Parte seconda, 1615, Venetiis, Giorgio Valentini, p. 171.
  22. Deborah Howard summarizes the issue in Howard, Deborah, The Length of the Library, «Ateneo veneto», Anno CXCVII, terza serie, 9/11, 2010, pp. 23–29.
  23. There are no surviving records regarding the debate, and it is not known what factors were determinative. See, Howard, Sansovino...…, pp. 15–16.
  24. Manuela Morresi suggests that in addition to engineering considerations, the decision to retain the height of the library stemmed from the ascendency of the giovani faction in the aftermath of the constitutional crisis of 1582 and its opposition to the aggressive building program. See Morresi, Jacopo Sansovino, p. 207
  25. Summerson, The Classical Language of Architecture, p. 134
  26. Hartt, History of Italian Renaissance Art, p. 633
  27. Morresi, Jacopo Sansovino, p. 193
  28. Hartt, History of Italian Renaissance Art, p. 633. Palladio would later widen the sidelights in the Basilica Palladiana in Vicenza.
  29. Morresi, Jacopo Sansovino, pp. 193–194
  30. Morresi, Jacopo Sansovino, pp. 193–194. This Ionic base, utilized also by Vignola, consists in the sequence of an upper torus, scotia (concave molding with the lower edge projecting beyond the top), astragal (half-round molding), scotia, and – omitting a lower torus – a plinth.
  31. Morresi, Jacopo Sansovino, p. 194. The fragment showing the rape of Proserpina is in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Venezia, inv. 167. See also Foscari, Antonio, Festoni e putti nella decorazione della Libreria di San Marco, «Arte veneta», XXXVIII, 1984, pp. 23–30.
  32. The motif was earlier proposed by Antonio da Sangallo the younger for Palazzo Farnese and may have been intended for the Church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini in Rome. See, Lotz, The Roman Legacy in Sansovino's Venetian Buildings, pp. 8–9.
  33. Alberti, Leon Battista, De Re Aedificatoria, VII, 15. See also Rudolf Wittkower's discussion in Wittkower, Rudolf, Architectural principles in the age of humanism, pp. 35–36.
  34. See Morresi, Jacopo Sansovino, p. 451–452 and Howard, Sansovino..., pp. 20–21. Lotz suggests that the inspiration may have been the corner pier in Santa Maria presso San Biaggio in Montepulciano which lacks, however, the corner metope. See Lotz, The Roman Legacy in Sansovino's Venetian Buildings, p. 9.
  35. Sansovino, Francesco, Venetia città nobilissima et singolare descritta in 14 libri, Venetia, Iacomo Sansovino, 1581, c. 113r. See also Morresi, Jacopo Sansovino, p. 195 and Howard, Sansovino…, p. 20
  36. Ivanoff, La libreria marciana..., p. 4
  37. Only one statue had been placed during Sansovino's superintendence. See Ivanoff, La libreria marciana…, p. 8.
  38. Ivanoff, Nicola, Il coronamento statuario della Marciana, «Ateneo veneto», n.s.,. 2, 1964, pp. 105–106
  39. Howard, Sansovino…, pp. 26–28, Howard, The Architectural History of Venice, pp. 150–152, and Hartt, History of Italian Renaissance Art, p. 633
  40. Broderick, Custodian of Wisdom..., pp. 28–52
  41. Zorzi, La libreria di san Marco..., p. 140
  42. Broderick, Custodian of Wisdom..., pp. 21–28 and 52–59
  43. Broderick, Custodian of Wisdom..., pp. 84–92.
  44. Grendler, Paul, Schooling in Renaissance Italy: Literacy and Learning 1300–1600, 1989, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 61–63, ISBN 9780801842290
  45. Zorzi, La libreria di san Marco..., 162.
  46. Zorzi, La libreria di san Marco..., pp. 159–161
  47. Zorzi, La libreria di san Marco..., p. 159
  48. Ridolfi, Carlo, Le marauiglie dell'arte, ouero Le vite de gl'illustri pittori veneti, e dello Stato, II, 1648, Venetia, Gio. Battista Sgava, p. 26. In 1967, Nicola Ivanoff identified Aristotle and Plato in the “philosophers” by Veronese and, tentatively, Ptolemy and Democritus in the “philosophers” by Andrea Schiavone (one of which is alternatively attributed to Giuseppe Salviati). However, these identifications are purely speculative and without significant supporting arguments. Ivanoff identifies Aristotle solely on the basis of the oriental headdress, which is said to be a reference to his Arab translators. He also sees a possible correlation in the hand gesture between Veronese's "philosopher" and the figure of Aristotle in Raphael’s School of Athens. For Plato, he references Marsilio Ficino’s imaginary description of the philosopher as being older and bearded with broad shoulders, a high brow, and an inspired look and then writes that most of these features are present in Veronese’s “philosopher”. See Ivanoff, Nicola, La libreria Marciana..., pp. 43.
  49. The contracts stipulated with Giuseppe Salviati, Battista Franco, and Giulio Licinio survive and specify a payment of 20 ducats per painting. Although the canvas would be provided by the Procurators, the artists themselves were to provide their own pigments with the exception of blue ultramarine which would be paid for separately. The contract relative to Salviati is published in Pittoni, La libreria di san Marco, pp. 111–112.
  50. See Humfrey, Peter, Painting in Renaissance Venice, pp. 188–198 and Paolucci, Antonio, La sala della libreria e il ciclo pittorico, pp. 290–291.
  51. For the principal studies and proposed titles, see Sansovino, Francesco, Venetia città nobilissima et singolare descritta in 14 libri, 1581, Venetia, Iacomo Sansovino; Ridolfi, Carlo, Le marauiglie dell'arte, ouero Le vite de gl'illustri pittori veneti, e dello Stato, 1648, Venetia, Gio. Battista Sgava; Boschini, Marco, Le minere della pittura, 1664, Venezia, Francesco Nicolini; Macedo, Francesco, Pictura Venetae vrbis, eiusque partium in tabulis Latinis, coloribus oratorijs expressa, & pigmentis poeticis colorata, 1670, Venetiis, Cieras; Martinelli, Domenico, Il ritratto di Venezia, 1684, Venezia, Gio. Giacomo Hertz; Zanetti, Antonio Maria, Della pittura veneziana e delle opere pubbliche de' veneziani maestri, 1771, Venezia, Giambatista Albrizzi; Lorenzetti, Giulio, Venezia e il suo estuario: guida storico-artistica, 1926, Venezia, Bestetti & Tuminelli; Ivanoff, Nicola, La libreria Marciana: arte e iconologia, «Saggi e Memorie», 6, 1967, pp. 33–78, Firenze, L. S. Olschki; Paolucci, Antonio, La sala della libreria e il ciclo pittorico in Da Tiziano a El Greco: per la storia del Manierismo a Venezia 1540–1590, 1981, Milano, Electa; Hope, Charles, The Ceiling Paintings in the Libreria Marciana in Nuovi Studi su Paolo Veronese, 1990, Venezia, Arsenale Editrice; Broderick, Jarrod, M., Custodian of Wisdom: The Marciana Reading Room and the Transcendent Knowledge of God, «Studi veneziani», LXXIII, 2016, pp. 15–94.
  52. Schultz, Venetian Painted Ceilings..., p. 94–95 and Hope, Charles, The Ceiling Paintings in the Libreria Marciana in Nuovi Studi su Paolo Veronese, 1990, Venezia, Arsenale, p. 290.
  53. Zorzi, La libreria di san Marco..., p. 119. The Riformadori began nominating the Librarian in 1559. But in 1626, the Senate assumed direct responsibility for the nomination of the librarian whose term, in 1775, was limited to three years.
  54. Zorzi, La libreria di san Marco..., pp. 212–214
  55. Zorzi, La libreria di san Marco..., pp. 111–112
  56. Zorzi, La libreria di san Marco..., p. 173.
  57. Zorzi, La libreria di san Marco..., p. 352
  58. Zorzi, La libreria di san Marco..., p. 355. As a consequence of the Austrian defeats in 1866 and 1918, most of the volumes were returned as reparations of war.
  59. Zorzi, La libreria di san Marco..., pp. 182–184
  60. Zorzi, La libreria di san Marco..., pp. 184–187
  61. Zorzi, La libreria di san Marco..., p. 208
  62. Zorzi, La libreria di san Marco..., pp. 250–252
  63. Zorzi, La libreria di san Marco..., pp. 304–305
  64. Zorzi, La libreria di san Marco..., pp. 306–309
  65. Zorzi, La libreria di san Marco..., pp. 309–311
  66. Zorzi, La libreria di san Marco..., pp. 394–396
  67. Zorzi, La libreria di san Marco..., pp. 381, 383, and 391
  68. Zorzi, La libreria di san Marco..., pp. 388–389
  69. Zorzi, La libreria di san Marco..., p. 207. The requirement was part of the law of 21 May 1603 that regulated the printers' guild. See also Brown, Horatio, F. The Venetian Printing Press: an Historical Study, 1891, London, J. C. Nimmo, pp. 218-221.
  70. Zorzi, La libreria di san Marco..., pp. 298–303
  71. Zorzi, La libreria di san Marco..., pp. 361–363


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