Vatican Library, Rome

by Unknown

1851

Vatican Library, Rome.—Among the libraries of Italy, that of the Vatican at Rome stands preëminent, not more for its grandeur and magnificence, than for the inestimable treasures with which it is enriched. It was originated about the year 465 by Pope Hilary, and has been augmented by succeeding pontiffs, and by various princes, until it reached its present extent and value. Our space will not permit us to give any thing like a detailed account of its treasures; but we condense from Sir George Head's admirable work on Rome the following description of the grand saloon of the library:—"The principal chamber of the library appears to be 179 feet long by 51 broad. The ceiling is remarkable for presenting to the eye the appearance of a uniform extensive surface, as if it were a beautifully broad elliptical vault, though in fact it consists of a double range of groined arches that, springing on each side from the walls, and blending together in the middle, are supported on a row of six pillars planted in a line on the ground. These pillars are contrived, accordingly, of an oblong shape, so extremely narrow that, planted as they are longitudinally, and encompassed by large rectangular mahogany bookcases to serve as pedestals, they occupy but an inconsiderable space in the apartment when viewed edgewise by a spectator standing at the entrance, and from their form effectually counteract the appearance of weight, that would certainly otherwise be produced by the double vaulting. Moreover, while the lines of curvature slide as it were thus gently and harmoniously into the outline of the pillars, the transition of surface is the less perceptible, owing to the whole of the vault and pillars being painted in a uniform delicate pattern of arabesque, by Zuccari, as it is affirmed; but at all events, in figures of plants and flowers, almost as light and exquisite as the paintings on a china teacup, and thrown into relief by the prevalence of a clear white ground; so that an appearance is produced of airiness and space to all intents and purposes as effective as if the ceiling were really contained within the span of a single elliptical arch. Along the base of the ceiling is a cornice of stucco, ornamented with a light pattern in white and gold; and underneath, upon the upper portion of the walls, are six windows on each side; and the remainder of the surface is covered with paintings by several different artists, one of which represents Sixtus V. receiving from his architect, Dominico Fontana, the plan of the present library. The lower portion of the walls is entirely occupied by closed bookcases, composed of panels of wood painted in arabesque on a ground of white and slate color, and surrounded by gilded mouldings; which receptacles bear no sort of affinity in appearance to ordinary library furniture, and thoroughly conceal from public view the valuable manuscripts they contain. No books, in fact, are to be seen in the whole chamber, and particularly the rectangular bookcases above referred to, that serve the purpose of pedestals, from the middle of which each pillar supporting the ceiling and resting on the ground below rise, as the pier of a bridge from its ceisson, rather resemble ornamental buffets upon whose tabular surface vases and other splendid objects of art and antiquity are arranged in order.

"With regard to the principal objects worthy of observation there are, in the first place, two very magnificent tables, both alike, placed in the middle of the room in a corresponding position to one another, between the first and second pillar at each extremity. Each is composed of an enormously thick and very highly polished slab of red Oriental granite, supported by six bronze figures of slaves as large as life. Such being the appropriation of two of the intercolumnial spaces, a third is occupied by a low column of Cipollino marble, serving as a pedestal to support a splendid and very large vase of Sevres china, which was presented by the Emperor Napoleon to Pius VII. In a fourth intercolumnial space is to be seen, supported on a pedestal of Cipollino, whose base appears to be a sort of alabaster marked with different shades of olive-green, a square tazza of malachite, presented to Gregory XVI. by the Crown-Prince of Russia, after his visit to Rome in 1838. In the fifth intercolumnial space are a magnificent pair of candelabra of Sevres china, brought by Pius VII. from Paris, and also a splendid vase of the same material presented to his holiness by Charles X. There is also to be observed, placed at the extremity of the room, on the right-hand side near the wall, a spirally fluted column of Oriental alabaster, which was discovered near the church of St. Eusebio, on the Esquiline; and suspended against the wall, not far distant, is a curious old Russian calendar painted on wood.

"The bookcases being continually locked, as above stated, permission is nevertheless granted to those visitors who may be desirous of consulting the books and manuscripts, on making application to the cardinal-librarian or his assistants; but the privilege is merely nominal, in consequence of the extremely imperfect state of the catalogue; and in point of fact the multitudinous volumes on the shelves may be compared to a mine, unexplored and unexplorable; whence only a few particular objects, considered the staple curiosities of the region, and consequently continually had recourse to by the visitors, are extracted. The volumes in question consist principally of a splendidly-illuminated Bible of the sixth century; the most ancient version of the Septuagint; the earliest Greek version of the New Testament; the 'Assertio Septem Sacramentorum,' written by Henry VIII.—a royal literary effort in defence of the seven Roman Catholic sacraments that procured the title of Defender of the Faith for the author, which descended to the Protestant monarchs of England; and a most curious and authentic collection of original correspondence between Henry VIII. and Anne Boleyn. The 'Assertio Septem Sacramentorum' is a good thick octavo volume, written in Latin, and printed in the year 1501, in London, on vellum. The type is clear, with a broad margin, and at the beginning is the original presentation addressed to Leo X., as follows, subscribed by the royal autograph—

'Anglorum Rex Henricus Leo Decime mittit
Hoc opus, et fidei testis et amicitiæ.'

The whole work—in the preface of which the writer descants on his humble talents and his modesty—would seem, as far as I was able to judge by turning over the pages hastily, to be composed in a remarkably clear style, and to abound with naïve phrases and genuine expressions of the king himself, wrought into the mass and substance of a prolix theological dissertation, that no doubt was prepared and digested for the purpose by the divines of the period. With regard to the correspondence with Anne Boleyn, which places the royal author altogether in a different point of view before the public, the latter consists of a considerable number of original letters, of which those written by the king are for the most part in French and the remainder in English, and those of Anne Boleyn written all in French. The documents are all in excellent preservation, and the handwriting perfectly legible; from the difference of the character at the period in question, and owing to the abbreviations, somewhat difficult to decipher; not so much so, however, but that even an unpractised person, with sufficient time and leisure, might make them out without much difficulty. Visitors are relieved from the labor of the experiment; and fair copies, made in a clear round hand, are placed, each copy side by side with the original, and all are stitched together in a portfolio, where they may be perused with the utmost facility. The letters, which to those inclined to ponder on the anatomy of the human heart afford a melancholy moral, are chiefly remarkable for the boisterous eager tone of the king's passion towards his lady-love, which, expressed in terms that would hardly be considered proper now-a-days, verges on the grotesque."