Monthly Archives: December 2018

Four Weeks of Naples and Six Days in Sicily


Four Weeks of Naples and Six Days in Sicily

 So many people have told us that Naples is their favorite Italian city. When we first came here at the beginning of November I didn’t understand the attraction. During the month of December I was determined to find out why people are so passionate about this place. We started out by watching a film online called Four Days of Naples. It is a 1960s Italian film about the 1943 uprising by the citizens of Naples against the German army during WWII. They heroically and successfully kicked out the Germans before the Allies entered the city. It is hard to find but well worth seeing. It helped us with a little historical background on the people of Naples during the war. Of course, this region is one of the longest continuously-settled urban areas in the world.  Understanding southern Italy is understanding that long history as well.

We started that journey by going way back to the days of Pompeii. As many of you know, the Roman town of Pompeii and the surrounding area was completely covered in volcanic mud and ash in 79 AD. In an instant it was destroyed and preserved until it was rediscovered in the 1600s. One place destroyed was the nearby sea side town of Herculaneum. In one of the wealthy villas was a large private library of papyri scrolls that were carbonized in the destruction, but also preserved. Once the Villa of the Papyri was discovered people realized it was the largest surviving library from the ancient world. The National Library of Naples (our host) is where most of the papyri are housed. Researchers come from all over the world to study these very fragile and priceless objects. We were given complete access to the papyri and the scholars working there.

Papyri Collection, Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli

The New Yorker published an article in 2013 called “A Very Rare Book” by Nicholas Schmidle. To make a very interesting and long story short it is partly about the Director of the Girolamini Library in Naples stealing books from his library over time and selling the books and manuscripts on the rare book market. We visited the Library a few times which is housed in the ancient Church and Convent of the Girolamini. The Library is now moving beyond the tragedy but the staff and new Director have their work cut out for them. We also photographed young scholars helping to catalog their vast collection. Their presence seemed to help move this beautiful place towards the future.



Across the street from the Girolamini was the Church of San Lorenzo with its famous Duomo. It is also the church that has the dried blood of a famous saint that turns to liquid once a year. It’s a big deal but we missed it.

Church and Convent of the Girolamini, Naples

A few blocks away in the gritty neighborhood of Forcella was the Annalisa Durante “Open Door” Library. It was set up by the father of Annalisa Durante who died in 2004 during an armed clash of the mafia gangs in the alleys of Forecella. The father was the only person in the library when we were there. He didn’t speak English but his powerful story moved us to tears. The memory of his daughter is sustained by the outpouring of donated books and events that are designed to stop the violence.

Annalisa Durante "Open Doors" Library, Naples

Annalisa Durante “Open Doors” Library, Naples

On another day we went back to the National Library of Naples and photographed one of their more unique collections. The Library is enormous and is housed in a former Royal Palace. One of the former princesses was a big-game hunter and loved to go on safari in Africa in the early 20th century. I photographed her collection of her trophies that she donated to the library. It was amazing to see what constitutes a “collection” in a library. I also photographed a few Fascist-era items such as a bust of Mussolini himself and a map of Italy’s “colonies” in Africa.

Safari Collection, Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli

Safari Collection, Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli

Conservations Departments in libraries are usually interesting places because they contain so much stuff to photograph. The one at the National Library was smaller than the one in Florence but I happily photographed there for several hours.

On the same day we visited the Born To Read (Nato per Leggere) program which is part of the National Library. Here we saw a program that supports reading early and often to children. We met the remarkable men and women that volunteer to make this happen and later the parents and children that participate. We also saw Hitler’s order to kill blind and disabled people written in braille on one of the windows as an earlier art piece.

Born to Read (Nati per Leggere) program, Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli

Born to Read (Nati per Leggere) program, Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli

As I mentioned before, the National Library of Naples has been our host here in Italy. It is a remarkable institution that, unfortunately, seems under stress and is struggling with constant budget cut-backs. They are tasked with not only preserving the national memory of Italy but also preserving the mind-boggling Royal Palace that they are housed in. I am in awe of what they do, especially with the limited resources available.

The exterior of the school library Andrea Anguilli in the hardscrabble neighborhood of Sanitá hides a darker story. Due to neglect the basement contained thousands of books mouldering away. It was supposed to become a public library that, for some unknown reason, never happened. It is especially tradgic in this neighborhood of Sanitá which needs all the help it can get, including books. Here we saw several monuments to young people slain in the cross fire of mafia violence. This one statue claimed that the young slain boy is now “playing with the angels.”

On the same rainy day, we went to the Biblioteca Andreoli located in the Luzzatti District in the Industrial Zone of Naples. Finding the library was difficult in this bleak neighborhood. This is the home of the now famous writer Elena Ferrante who wrote the book which is now the hit TV series “My Brilliant Friend.” The story is set in this city and especially in this industrial neighborhood. Like most libraries, this one was filled with young people working away on their studies. We struggled for a common language but after they visited my web site they enthusiastically helped us and posed for their group portrait. There is hope in the world. Just look at their faces.

Biblioteca Andreoli

Biblioteca Andreoli

On another day we took a cab to the farthest northern edge of Naples to a violence-prone neighborhood called Scampia. The Biblioteca di Scampia “Gelsomina Verde” is named after another 14 year-old girl killed in Camorra (Naples’ mafia) violence. We attended a news conference at the library and listened to a panel of journalists, writers, politicians and neighborhood activists. It was a remarkable place and I struggled to understand what life must be like for the people living here. The building the library is located used to be a Camorra drug house/torture chamber. It took a long time to clean up and some of the items found were incorporated into a striking mural on the outside which included thousands of bullet shells. On the outside I spoke with an African refugee from one of the nearby housing projects and looked at the murals and security fencing surrounding the library.

Biblioteca di Scampia "Gelsomina Verde", Naples

Biblioteca di Scampia “Gelsomina Verde”, Naples

Biblioteca di Scampia "Gelsomina Verde", Naples

Biblioteca di Scampia “Gelsomina Verde”, Naples

The next morning we took a cheap flight to Palermo, Sicily. Our flight took us right over the Bay of Naples and towering Mt. Vesuvius. This is the semi-active volcano that wiped out Pompeii. I could see inside the crater. Palermo is a beautiful city located on the incredible island of Sicily. We got our rented car and headed straight into central Palermo to the Central Library of the Sicilian Region. It is housed in a remarkable old religious complex. The building was beautiful, the collection was wonderful and our guide was great. The architecture reflected some of the unique “Arab-Norman” mix that came out of this land conquered by many people.

The next day we headed to a place we had long wanted to see. It was a center for refugees run by the wonderful group called Libraries Without Borders (Bibliothèques Sans Frontières). We had visited a similar place in a refugee camp in Athens. We hadn’t seen much work that Italian libraries had done with refugees so this was especially important for us. While we were there a group of African young men were being tutored in Italian. I made many interesting images including a group portrait.

As we were leaving we came upon an a library that was founded by a former Italian Communist. The Gramsci Library contained a remarkable collection of newspapers and other material. It was an unexpected gift to find such a beautiful and significant library unexpectedly. I spent quite a while making several good images there.

After spending too much time at the Gramsci Library we drove for several hours through the incredibly beautiful green interior of rural Sicily to the coastal city of Catania. Towering above the city was Mt. Etna which is one of the most continuously active volcanos in the world. I was thrilled to see a faint wisp of smoke lightly emanating from its peak. Like most cities in Greece and Italy Catania had bad, gridlocked traffic. As we sat in our car inching through the streets someone opened the back door and swiped my camera bag from the back seat with my new Nikon D850 camera and six lenses. After I realized what was happening, I jumped out of the car and ran in the direction where I thought the robber went. A motorcycle zoomed by with a South Asian looking couple giving chase. By the time I caught up with them they indicated the robber had gone down the street and turned right. It was as if the robber had disappeared into thin air along with my equipment. Ellen met me in tears and didn’t know what had happened to me. I later filed a police report but really didn’t expect to get anything back. Ironically, a week later Mt. Etna violently erupted and I suspect that the gods were angry.

I was surprised that I was not as upset by all of this as one would expect. It is important equipment but hopefully, the insurance will cover most of it. It will be a pain to wait but I did have an older, backup D800 body in our apartment in Naples and will buy one lens to hold me over. What was upsetting was losing the images from the Libraries Without Borders and from the Gramsci Library in Palermo. All the rest of the images in this blog were made with our iPhones. At least Ellen and I have our health and we have each other on this long and remarkable Fulbright library road trip.

The next morning we met our friends Julie Blankenship and Dan Geiger from San Francisco at the Catania airport (which was later closed in the eruption). They are with us for the rest of the month in Italy. We take a break from libraries and head to the ancient coastal city of Siracuse. It was originally settled as one of the first ancient Greek colonies overseas. The remarkable cathedral is the home of the famous Santa Lucia. The church is amazing because it shows one civilization would build on top of another. We attended the weirdly moving parade for St. Lucy and see the statue of this early Christian martyr with a knife in her neck being carried down the street.

We spent the night in the wonderful Boroque town of Noto. Destroyed by a massive earthquake the town was rebuilt as a planned Boroque community. It was fascinating to see. The cathedral included an interesting sculpture and cross made from the remnants of the boats that have recently carried refugees to these shores.

Noto also had a small, beautiful library that included a nice Christmas tree made out of books.

After a long and beautiful drive along the coast we came to the industrial town of Gela. We drove down to the beach which may be the spot where my uncle Joe was killed during WWII. He was with the US Army Rangers during the invasion of Sicily and never made it back. I think about the sacrifice of people like him that allows people like me to live a peaceful life. This was my memorial for a man I never knew.

We end the daylight at the Valley of the Temples at the Greek Archeological Site of Agrigento. This is one of the top archeological sites in Sicily and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We arrived just as the sun had set and the lights came on. It is stunningly beautiful and I wished we had a few more minutes of light to look around. We then drive two more hours at night on roads under construction to our destination of Palermo, dinner and sleep.

Our next few days consist of visiting the Liberty House, the Sicilian Modern Art Museum, the Palermo Arab-Norman Cathedral, a Arab-Norman center, a remarkable Library in the Branciforte Palace and a Puppet Museum. Palermo is a remarkable city and I am already making plans to come back.

Our last week in Naples was spent with Dan and Julie exploring the wonders of this great city. Highlights include seeing the Nutcracker at the astonishing Naples Opera House, visitng the Complesso Monumentale di Santa Chiara and its library, going to the Museum at the Capodimonte Palace. One of the great life changing experiences for me was visiting the archeological site of Pompeii and Herculaneum. It was a life-long dream come true.

I will always have a warm place in my heart for Napoli. This month has shown to me why Italians always consider this a great place, even if they don’t want to live here. I am sure we will return to this ancient city by the Bay under a volcano. Happy New Year!



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A Journey Within An Odyssey: Northern Italy, Part 2 – Modena to Cassino


A Journey Within An Odyssey: Northern Italy, Part 2 –

Modena to Cassino 

Because the amount of work produced during this northern Italian trip was vast I decided to split this blog up into two parts. Here is the second part.

Because of time, we reluctantly decided to skip the library in medieval Parma and drove three hours strait east to Modena. There, we headed to the fascinating Bibliotca Estense. It was the family library of the Dukes of Este dating back to the 14th century. It grew during the Renaissance and is now one of the most important libraries in Italy with a collection of over 500,000 printed works and thousands of other items.

Codex De Sphaera-1469 Allegory

Biblioteca Estense, Modena

Biblioteca Estense, Modena

Lightroom (DSC_8470.NEF and 1 other)

The image of my being a kid in a candy store did occur to me. Adding to that was the great tour given us by the library’s warm staff. They made the collection come alive. Some of the highlights included the Codex De Sphaera-a 1469 Allegory of the Este family, a 1,200-page Bible of Borso d’Este with incredible illuminations on almost every page, and a quirky matchbox cover collection. It was endless and I could have spent months there. Perhaps we will again in the future. We spent the night in Modena at a very nice Best Western. After all of our months of travel and staying in Greek or Italian apartments or hotels it felt nice to be in an American style hotel. But only for one night.

The next morning we drove south to the small town of Maranello Modena. This was another starchitect-designed library that I learned about in ArchDaily. There is obviously some good work being done by architects these days in library design and this was certainly one of those examples. This small but active library was filled with light, students and interesting design. The downstairs gallery had an important show about stopping violence against women. The library also did a lot of work to help migrants and refugees.

Continuing south we came to the famous city of Siena.  It is nestled in the hills of this region which looked a lot like the foothills of the Sierra Nevada’s in California. The historic center of Siena has been declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and we can see why. It is one of Italy’s most visited tourist attractions but we lucked out. The cold weather meant that we had much of the old city to ourselves. We had our Thanksgiving dinner (pasta!) in a nice café. I missed the turkey but we had a wonderful walk afterwards in the cold moonlight visiting the sites of this Gothic gem.

The next day we visited the Siena Cathedral. Begun in the 12th century this is considered a masterpiece of Italian Romanesque-Gothic architecture. It even included some wonderful book themed inlays on the floor.

One of the unexpected surprises was finding the Piccolomini Library in the Cathedral. This was when I was happy to have a good quality iPhone with me at all times.

The next night we continued south to the city of Spoleto. It is a strategically placed ancient city in the foothills of the Apennines. Our hotel room had a view of the famous Ponte delle Torri, a 14th century bridge over a steep ravine.

The main reason we came here was to visit our friend photographer JoAnn Verburg and her husband poet Jim Moore. They have lived in Spoleto part of the year for many years. They were unbelievably generous hosts and we got an inside view of Spoleto from these two talented Americans. I took a photo of them standing over some ancient Roman ruins inside the Spoleto Public Library.

All roads lead to Rome and eventually ours did too. From our earlier experiences on this trip we decided not to drive our little Fiat Panda into the urban core of Rome but, instead, find a cheaper place at the end of a good subway line on the outskirts. Thus, we arrived at the Urban Garden Hotel & Bar in the working-class neighborhood of Rebibbia, known as the home to one of Rome’s prisons. After spending so much time on this trip in very beautiful historic places it felt somehow refreshing to spend a little time living in another side of Italy. Fortunately, the subways in Rome are really good but, during rush hour, can be really crowded. It was usually an easy commute into the heart of the Eternal City and its libraries.


Roman libraries are an embarrassment of riches. The Biblioteca Casanatense was one of the great ones.  It was founded in 1701 by the Dominicans and became a State library in 1873 after the suppression of the religious orders. Our librarian/guide was delightful and patiently waited while I photographed during our long tour. I was especially impressed by the sign above the door by a Pope threatening excommunication from the church to anyone if one dared to steal a book from this library. Serious stuff!

Biblioteca Casanatense, Rome

Biblioteca Casanatense, Rome

Speaking of serious stuff, our next stop was the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. It is a landmark papal basilica founded in the 5th century and known for its Roman mosaics and gilded ceiling. Above one of the entrance doors was a bas-relief of “The Burning of the Heretical Books” which depicts book burning as a triumph of righteousness. Weird and serious stuff.


Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

We lucked out getting access to the Biblioteca Vallicelliana. Established in 1565 it contains many documents from the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. This large library was just about to undergo a major restoration and many books had already been packed in boxes. I gingerly stepped around the boxes to photograph this beautiful place. I was especially impressed by their fascinating collection of old globes.

That evening I reconnected with an old acquaintance from high school named Jeffery Blanchard. He now directs Cornell University’s Rome study program and has lived here forty years. We spent a fascinating evening together asking him about all things related to art, history and Rome. At the end of a great dinner we had barely scratched the surface. Not bad for someone I hadn’t seen in 50 years! Here is a photo that Jeffery took or us in his wonderful library.

EM+RD, Rome

Italy has three main National Libraries. One is in Naples, one in Florence and the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Rome. This one was such a contrast to the historic libraries we had recently seen. It was built in the 1970s and was spacious, filled with light and also filled with a wide range of people using the library. The exterior was Brutalist in design but the interior was quite comfortable. It felt very 1970s but seemed very humanistic. It included a wonderful section on writers and artists displaying personal stories, artifacts and even a recreation of one of their living rooms. Again, our librarian/guide made it all come alive.

Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma

Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma

Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma

Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma

Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma

Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma

Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma

Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma

Ellen had done some research on local branch libraries in Rome and we visited one called Biblioteca Villa Mercede. This popular library was housed in a renovated small building on the grounds of an old convent surrounded by a beautiful park. The park even included a small cat sanctuary and we saw some happy kitties lounging around this feline paradise.

Founded in 1875, the Library of Archeology and History of Art was unusual for being the only public state library specializing in archeology and art history at a national level. Over the years it has been enriched with the donation of many collections. The density and height of the book collection was impressive but suggested the ongoing problem of storage for large libraries in densely packed Rome.

Earlier In the morning we saw old photographs of the original location for the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Rome. Our last library of the day turned out to be that original location. The Library of Archeology and History of Art administers this library which is simply referred to as Ciociera or “the Cross” because of the original layout of the building. It was interesting to be standing in the midst of the library we had seen in the historic photographs this morning.

On our last day in Rome we scaled back our ambition and only photographed two libraries. The Library of the National and Language Academy of the Lincei and Corsinian was impressive both for its scale and history. It is part of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei which included Galileo as one of its founding members. Its collection is made up of donated libraries from a number of people including the wealthy Corsini family, the inventor Marconi, Benito Mussolini, etc. We had a wonderful time being escorted throughout the collection by the librarian. We spent much of the time discussing his passion for Jimi Hendrix.

Biblioteca Corsiniana at the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome

Biblioteca Corsiniana at the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome

Biblioteca Corsiniana at the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome

Biblioteca Corsiniana at the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome

Biblioteca Corsiniana at the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome

Biblioteca Corsiniana at the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome

Biblioteca Corsiniana at the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome

Biblioteca Corsiniana at the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome

Biblioteca Corsiniana at the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome

Biblioteca Corsiniana at the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome

Because we had started late, we arrived late at our final destination – the State Archives of Italy. This was another Brutalist building that housed some of the greatest national archives of Italy. I was able to make a few photos just as they were closing but I know we will have to come back.

Rome is unlike any other city I have been to in my life. It contains the sophistication, density and craziness of New York but also contains layers of history stretching back over 28 centuries. It is one of the oldest continuously occupied sites in Europe. Ellen and I had both been here separately decades ago and had seen many of the famous sites then such as the Vatican. This time we concentrated on libraries and the lesser known parts of the city.  Throughout our four days in Rome I was continually fascinated by the place and could see coming back to stay here for a much longer period of time (Do I see a theme developing here?). Jeffery Blanchard said that he couldn’t see living any place else and I now understand the attraction. Of course, as a photographer I was visually overstimulated all the time. Here is a sampling of a few images from our wanderings of the streets of Rome.

I am of the generation whose parents lived and suffered during the Great Depression and WWII. Growing up on stories from that era I have a real interest in what that generation experienced. We ended our journey within an odyssey by visiting the small town of Cassino located between Rome and Naples. This was the site of one of the largest land battles in Italy during WWII when the town of Cassino was completely flattened. High on a hill above the town is the famous Montecassino Abbey. Founded around 529 it was sacked by the invading Lombards in 570. It was rebuilt and destroyed many times after that culminating in its destruction again by American bombers during WWII. Because of its importance it was quickly rebuilt and reopened in 1950s.

Before the destruction of the ancient abbey 1,400 irreplaceable manuscripts and other objects were sent to the abbey archives and eventually to safety in the Vatican in Rome. The rebuilt Abbey was spectacular and the views were unbelievable. Brother Don Giovanni took us through a selection of the vast archives of the library. His enthusiasm for the collection was infectious and we were overwhelmed by what had been saved from the destruction of war.

We spent the night in an Air B&B which was in a family’s home. The owner was very warm and we met his older parents as well. They had both lived through the war as children and the father vividly remembered the bombs landing on Montecassino during the battle. He even gave us a book of photographs from that time and his wife gave us a glass of her homemade lemoncello. The town was quickly rebuilt after the war and lacked the charm and beauty of other Italian hill towns. But meeting these warm and generous people reinforced my respect for some of the people who survive tragedy. Above one of the doors to Montecassino was a giant sign that simply said “PAX.” I think that says it all…

Biblioteca Statale del Monumento Nazionale di Montecassino

Biblioteca Statale del Monumento Nazionale di Montecassino












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A Journey Within An Odyssey: Northern Italy, Part 1 – Bologna to Torino



A Journey Within An Odyssey: Northern Italy, Part 1 –

Bologna to Torino


After our visit to Florence, we undertook an insanely ambitious trip of traveling by car for three weeks through much of northern Italy. We photographed libraries in 15 cities that ranged from new architectural marvels in small towns to famous ancient libraries in big cities. Along the way we learned much about the essential nature of northern Italian libraries and came away understanding a little more about Italy as well. Because this trip produced such a large amount of work, I decided to break up this blog into two parts. Part 1 will cover our journey from Bologna to Torino. Part 2 will cover the work from Modena to Cassino. Both parts include small and large cities, rich and poor areas and some very unique libraries. All of it was fascinating and I wake up every morning thanking Senator William J Fulbright and the Fulbright Foundation for making it all possible.

Our first lesson in the large Italian city of Bologna was that you don’t want a car in the urban core of big, old cities in Italy. As someone that was born and raised in California it is always a shock when I encounter a place with no parking. However, as environmentalists we both appreciated the human-centered nature of an urban historical core like Bologna’s without cars. The lesson was painful but influenced how we dealt with other Italian cities for the rest of the trip.

The Biblioteca Archiginnasio has been located inside a large, former Palace since 1838. It is one of the most important buildings in Bologna and one of the largest libraries in the region. The upper level of the building still houses the Anatomical Theatre which was built in 1636 and was used for anatomy lessons when this building was a school. It was important in the development of Western medicine.  It is shaped like an amphitheater and made of wood. It has several statues including two naked and skinless men. It was destroyed by Allied bombing during WWII and afterwards was completely reconstructed using surviving material from the rubble.

Biblioteca Archiginnasio, BolognaBiblioteca Archiginnasio, Bologna

The Biblioteca Salaborsa is the main public library of Bologna. It is located over ancient ruins that are visible through the floor. The librarian gave us a tour through the ruins beneath the library. The 19th century building used to be the old Bologna stock exchange and feels very open and spacious. They do a lot of work with refugees through native language books, music and film collections.

The librarian also mentioned another library in Bologna called the Italian Women’s Library housed in an old convent. This very well-known library was fascinating and spoke to the progressive political traditions of Bologna. Housed in the same old convent was the beautiful Federico Zeri Art Library which is part of the University of Bologna.

In addition to good politics, Bologna also offers wonderful food. Between photographing these four libraries I indulged in a to-die-for chocolate drink that was so think I had to eat it with a spoon. Oh, my!

Chocolate drink, Bologna

The next day I photographed the Public Library in the small town of Imola. This too was housed in an old convent from the 13th century. The volunteer guide explained that when Napoleon invaded this part of Italy, he de-commissioned all the religious institutions. The books they held were scattered far and wide but many of them came to be housed in public libraries like this one. The library has slowly been uncovering parts of the old convent. It also housed an extraordinary collection of books and manuscripts including these illustrated ones.

Public Library, ImolaPublic Library, Imola

Text in Imola LibraryText 2, Imola

After photographing in Imola we hurried on to photograph what may be one of the most important libraries of this whole project. Housed in the small town of Cesena is the incomparable Malatestiana Library. Opened in 1454 it is the oldest civic library in Europe. It is also on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. It started as a joint-venture between the people of Cesena and the nobility. The librarian showed us that even today you need two keys (one for the people, one for the nobles) to enter the ancient library. Books are still chained to the tables and I felt I was in a trance photographing this wonderful and significant place. We were also given a tour of the modern library which turned out to be fascinating as explained by our two wonderful librarian/guides. It doesn’t get much better than this.


Malatestiana Library, Cesena

The Biblioteca Classense in Ravenna is another grand old library in a beautiful town. In 1803 this former monastery became the place to harbor the books from the Napoleonic suppression of monasteries in the region. Its’ incredibly rich archive was expanded to include several other collections over the years. The library is also famous for having three cats and a turtle. We were happy to be granted an audience with one of the famous kitties. The local writer Dante is also celebrated here and his tomb is not far from the library.

The Biblioteca Civica di Padova is a public library established in 1839 in a beautiful building. We went to see it because it is more of a typical civic library and less of the historical or grand libraries that we have seen so far. It was full of young people studying and had a surprisingly good historical collection.

We took a short break from libraries to visit the Scrovegni Chapel in a small church, adjacent to an Augustinian monastery in Padova. The restored Giotto frescos inside the Capella degli Scrovegni were completed around 1305 and are considered to be an important masterpiece of Western art. This place is an art historian and art conservationist’s dream and I was greatly moved by the place and the art.

We next visited the beautiful library in the Praglia Abby outside of Padova. This Benedictine monastery was established in 1080. The Library contained large paintings and was established in the 16th century. It is now a National Monument Library and contains over 129,000 volumes. The monastery does a great deal of work on book restoration and conservation. Black robed Brother Timothy silently took us through the library and seemed to effortlessly glide up and down the stairs. It felt a world apart and was refreshingly peaceful after the intensity of some of the cities we have recently been in.

Our next stop was, indeed, a world apart. Venice is unique in the world. There is no other place like it. It can drive you crazy but everyone should see it at least once. I was last here in 1980 in the summer when it was beastly hot and swarming with tourists. It was far better to visit it now in the winter even though parts of it are still swarming with tourists.

Our first appointment was at the Marciana Library in the Piazza San Marco at 7:30 AM. We had to leave our hotel at 6:30 for the hour long walk through the dark and deserted streets, canals and bridges to the library. This was one of the great moments of my life. I wished I didn’t have to be so focused on finding our way so that I could really savor the unique experience of that early hour. Arriving at San Marcos at sunrise was a thrill and we didn’t have a minute to spare before going in to the library. I was given a half an hour to photograph before the janitors came in. We went back out to San Marcos to chill for an hour and watch the gathering cruise ship-tourist hoards.

We were then allowed back in to the old part of the library where an exhibition was being set up. Unusually, we weren’t escorted during the time in the library and I was given ample time to work. It was really an extraordinary experience.


After we were done at the library, our walk back to our hotel was very different than our pre-dawn walk. We enjoyed the unique world of Venice but I also spotted a number of anti-cruise ship, anti-consumerism graffiti along the way. I was beginning to see what life must be like for the local people of Venice.

After a very long morning, Ellen and I decided to take a much deserved, brief nap and enjoy our movie-themed hotel NH. It even included a huge photo of a Bolex camera in the shower and movie stars everywhere. If you are ever in Venice I would recommend it.

We then hopped on a boat and headed out to this year’s Venice Biennale on architecture. It was very interesting including pavilions from different countries. The most interesting was from Switzerland which was simply an all-white structure with many rooms of different sizes and no written text. I felt so lucky to be here, to be on this Fulbright Fellowship and to be with the love of my life Ellen Manchester. I am a very lucky guy!

We also enjoyed a Vivaldi concert in an old church and had some fabulous dinners with some interesting characters in Venice. We will have to come back.

The next day we drove from Italy’s eastern shore on the Adriatic almost all the way across the country to Italy’s second largest city of Milano. This is a city of commerce, fashion and design, finance and is the wealthiest among European non-capital cities. We headed straight to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana which was established in 1609 and is the second oldest public library in Europe. One innovation was that the books were housed in cases ranged along the walls, rather than chained to reading tables. The building consists of a library, archive and museum/gallery. Its 16th century maps were destroyed during allied bombing during WWII. As we entered the dark library we came upon a fascinating exhibit of work by Leonardo da Vinci on the Codex Atlanticus.

The library is home to several of his paintings as well as ones by Caravaggio and Raphael. We also saw an interesting exhibit on what was described as “primitive art” which consisted of simple religious paintings.

Lightroom (IMG_4444 copy.jpg and 3 others)

Milan is a lively, fascinating city which unfortunately we only saw a small part of during our one-night stay.

The next morning we drove to the farthest northern part of our trip to the small mountain town of Nembro. It contained a gorgeous new library connected to the renovation of a 19th century building. The outside walls consist of rotating red “books”. During my internet research last summer I found this library on the excellent web site called ArchDaily. It contains stories on new, innovative libraries throughout the world and was a good source of information for this project.

Nembro Public Library, Nembro Bergamo

Our next destination was the beautiful city of Torino. It is located right next to the snow-covered Alps which dominate the horizon. The architecture is beautiful and part of the historical center has been inscribed in the World Heritage List. It is a city of some of Italy’s best universities and great museums. It is home to much of Italy’s automotive industry and also hosted the 2006 Winter Olympics.


We started our day early at the Italo Calvino Civic Library. It is housed in a beautifully renovated building right next to the Dora River. It used to be an old tannery reflecting the industrial, working-class nature of the neighborhood. It did a lot to reach out to refugees and had many foreign-language books and language classes.

Italio Calvino Civic Library, Turino

The real surprise of this day was the National Library of the Italian Alpine Club. It was established in 1863 and specializes in mountaineering. It is located in an old monastery (part of which is still being used by the monks) on a hill with a sweeping view of the nearby Alps. Besides the spectacular setting, what was surprising was the great vision and depth of their collection. It contained many items including old Sierra Club Bulletins, photographs of Lake Tahoe, music, posters, etc. It also had a very helpful staff that made our time there a delight.IMG_4558

Although it was getting late, we reluctantly left the Alpine Club Library and headed off to the Mario Gromo International Library of Cinema and Photography. This is a real international documentation center that is part of the very important National Museum of Cinema. This collection also had a surprising depth that included original film scripts, storyboard drawings, early film publications, notes, etc. We were lucky again to have such an enthusiastic staff showing us around.

The next morning we went to the Mausoleum and Library of the Bela Rosin. It is an exact copy of the Pantheon of Rome and was built as a family tomb. It has had a long, complicated and sometimes weird history (including UFOs!) but now includes a small public library and reading garden. On warm nights it must be delightful here but the freezing morning and the pressure of our schedule kept our visit short.

Mausoleum and Library of the Bela Rosin, Torino

Mausoleum and Library of the Bela Rosin, Torino

The first half of our journey was surprising and often delightful. I tried to select a wide range of libraries that reflected what I considered the essential character of libraries in this part of Italy. I was happy to find things that I didn’t expect or already know. The second half of this journey within an odyssey took us to more small towns and eventually to the Eternal City of Rome. I will post that blog in a few weeks after I carve out some time to write about it.

Until then, enjoy…

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