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…

1 Comment

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

  1. Kenneth Helphand

    Hi Bob/Ellen,

    Your Odyssey continues!. The images are wonderful. We have traveled through many of (but not all) of the same places, But I always went from one garden to park to garden to park. That’s what landscape historians do. Obviously we spent much too much time out of doors!.

    Looking forward to reading and seeing the next chapter.,


    \ >

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