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One of the most famous libraries in Italian literature was magisterially described by Umberto Eco in his masterpiece The Name of the Rose. That description was transformed into pictures first in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film and late, a TV series, although the library can never be visited because it was built on a soundstage. Although Italian cinema does not appear to favour libraries particularly, it has sometimes peeked into these shrines to knowledge. Below is a story inspired by these rather mysterious places whose charm has only been enhanced by the arrival of the Internet.

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Biblioteca Angelica – Rome

Adventures amidst the books

Given all the shapes and forms of connection available all the time today, using heavy books for research purposes might appear a little antiquated. However, libraries have kept an aura of knowledge, blended with respect in our collective imagination that the web has trouble providing us: it is as if we balance order with chaos, silence with noise, knowledge that endures through time with that used and consumed immediately.

So when Robert Langdon (the fictional hero whose encyclopaedic knowledge we have come to know from Dan Brown’s books and the films where he is portrayed by actor Tom Hanks) searches the Vatican Libraries (a venue open to the privileged few) for the solution to a mystery in Angels and Demons (2009) and we watch powerlessly as the yellowed pages of ancient texts are shredded and entire rooms filled with books of inestimable value are destroyed, those who love these magical place are always relieved by the thought that “it’s just a film”. And while the Vatican Libraries are as inaccessible for location use as they are to us common mortals, the immense treasure conserved in Rome’s Biblioteca Angelica, setting for several scenes of the film, is intact and can be admired both on and off the screen.

When it comes to adventure, we can’t fail to mention the king of archaeologists, Indiana Jones (aka Harrison Ford), who, in one of his many exploits, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, travels to Venice to find clues about the Holy Grail. The mystery is revealed in the form of an inscription carved into a sarcophagus in the catacombs of a deconsecrated church, converted into a library. Called Biblioteca Marciana in the film, the external shots actually show the Church of Santa Barnaba. A panoramic shot shows us the library from above. However, it is impossible to see the places where the sequence was shot as they were built on a soundstage. The library, though, does exist, it is located in Piazzetta San Marco and houses, among other things, 620,000 printed books and 13,000 manuscripts: its monumental rooms are well worth a visit.

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Biblioteca del Seminario Maggiore – Bressanon

A place to study

The childhood of Giacomo Leopardi unfolds slowly at Recanati (MC), with his siblings Carlo and Paolina, focused on a matto e disperatissimo (crazy and most despairing) study of the family library. His only distraction: staring out of the window to watch the unlucky Teresa Fattorini, daughter of the family’s coachman, to whom the poet would later dedicate the unforgettable A Silvia. While he was reading everything, Leopardi began to realise that the world was outside, beyond the walls of his library-home and far from the dear “solitary hill” that inspired L’infinito (The Infinite). That house, a 18th century villa, still stands, owned by descendants of the Leopardi family, and conserves a sumptuous library with a good 20,000 books, which care nothing for the passing of time, as unforgettable as the verses of its most famous tenant.

The Biblioteca storica del Seminario Maggiore in Bressanone (BZ) is a place of study and refuge for Amy Ryan, student and stuntwoman, lover of the fascinating Professor Ed Phoerum (Jeremy Irons) in Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Correspondence. A film with a melancholy story and a gloomy atmosphere, where an extramarital affair, which develops for the most part through emails, messages and videomessages, continues even after a decisive event for the man. The ancient library of the Seminary is a small Baroque jewel, decorated with stucco work and frescoes by Franz Anton Zeiller. The library which contains 20,000 books and spreads over two storeys linked by a spiral staircase, can be visited by special request.

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Biblioteca di Palazzo Primoli – Rome

Escape from reality

In Vittorio De Sica’s film The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970), based on the novel of the same name by Giorgio Bassani, the library becomes both the last stronghold of a freedom which is under attack and a refuge from the horrors outside. The Racial Laws are taking effect in 1938 Ferrara. Giorgio, a Jewish student, is ask to leave the place where he studies: once again we see the austere rooms of the Biblioteca Angelica in Rome. He is offered the use of the library in the Finzi-Contini villa, shot in Palazzo Primoli in Rome. In their villa, surrounded by an immense garden, the Finzi- Continis lead a quiet, private life in their villa, spending time with a handful of friends while the outside world hurtles towards the destruction of WWII.

The Biblioteca Nazionale in Naples, seen in Mario Martone’s Rehearsals for War (1998), is a place of silence. Silence from the chaos outside caused by the gangs fighting in the city’s historical centre, from the story of fratricide – Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes – that a new theatrical company intends to stage despite myriad obstacles, from the distant war which is, in reality, not so far away. However, all that remains of the library in the besieged Sarajevo, where the theatrical company wants to stage their tragedy, is simply a fragment of stone to send to a friend.

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