WKND Travel: Inside The Ambrosiana, Milan's historic library

Mariella Radaelli

Last updated on May 6, 2021 at 3.34 pm

In the age of the Baroque, the Archbishop of Milan Federico Borromeo (1564-1631) would send burly, yet educated men to sea on a hunt for manuscripts.

Cardinal Federico was a younger cousin of the zealous prelate Carlo Borromeo, the eventual guardian saint against the plague, who played an important role in the Counter-Reformation. They both belonged to the Borromeo family, a noble Milanese house that left a strong mark in Northern Italy.

But Federico was a ‘universal’ bibliophile, who sent out solo emissaries to chase manuscripts throughout the known world because of his great obsession: the Ambrosiana. In his mind, it had to become one of the most important cultural institutions in Europe, a public library (the Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana) an art gallery (the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana), an art school, and an ecclesiastic college. Federico planned its foundation and grand opening for 1609.

The Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana is the third-oldest public library in Europe, after the Bodleian Library (1603) at Oxford and the Angelica Library (1604) in Rome.

Within a five-minute-walk from the Milan Cathedral, it remains an important site for scholars and students, providing a model of intercultural dialogue and education.

It sits timelessly in the heart of the city. Its spacious rooms are filled with 35,000 manuscripts of great artistic and codicological value, 2,500 incunabula, and one million books. These precious library materials allow the researchers’ minds to expand infinitely. Here, they can see the whole universe within themselves.

The Ambrosiana holds extraordinary pieces such as the Codex Atlanticus, the largest collection of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings and writings (c. 1478–1518). It also houses The Portrait of a Musician, an unfinished painting by Leonardo, and art masterpieces by Titian, Raphael, Brueghel, amongst many others. The dark genius of the Baroque painting, Caravaggio lives on at the Ambrosiana through a still-life masterpiece — La Canestra di Frutta or Basket of Fruit.

But the Ambrosiana is also a chest of hidden treasures in terms of ancient Arabic manuscripts. Cardinal Borromeo wanted all oriental languages to be represented in the Library’s collections.

“He also established a college of Dottori or savants,” says Monsignor Dr Federico Gallo, director of the Ambrosiana Library. “The Ambrosian College took an active part in the study of oriental languages.”

Here, the teaching of Arabic began in 1609, while classes of Arabic at Cambridge and Oxford started respectively in 1632 and 1634.

The Ambrosiana’s doctors are philologists. They study literary texts and are capable of critically editing a manuscript. They face technical issues, such as bringing out draft sections of a text when the corrected version is present. They interpret the codices and publish essays about them. Each Dottore has his area of expertise.

“The first Orientalist at the Ambrosiana was Antonio Giggi, who composed the first large-scale Arabic-Latin dictionary, published in 1632,” explains Monsignor Dr. Gallo, who holds a PhD in Classics.

For his thesaurus, Giggi used the fine collection of Arabic manuscripts in the Ambrosiana. The Giggi dictionary was the first to be based on the works of Arabic lexicographers, especially on the Qamus of Al-Firuzabadi.

“Borromeo’s intent was universal,” says Gallo. “The Ambrosiana has never been and will never be a theological and confessional library. This is a universal library.”

In the twenty-second chapter of The Betrothed, Italy’s national literary classic published in 1827, historical novelist Alessandro Manzoni describes the personality of Borromeo and the birth of the Ambrosiana preceded by a febrile activity of manuscript hunting. The historical novel, renowned for its vivid descriptions of the plague that gutted Milan in the 1600s, also offers an insight into Federico’s mind.

Manzoni writes that the Ambrosiana Library “will ever be a monument of Federico Borromeo’s liberality and magnificence”.

“To furnish it with books and manuscripts, besides those that he had already collected, he sent eight of the most skillful and learned men to make purchases in France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Flanders, Greece, Lebanon, and Jerusalem,” Manzoni writes.

To buy Arabic, Hebrew, Syrian and Turkish manuscripts, Borromeo also sent emissaries to Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, and Istanbul.

Gallo says, “Borromeo had access to a widespread web of contacts through missionaries and laymen, who were willing to help him build on the Oriental treasures of the Library.”

Michele “the Maronite” was given the responsibility for collecting texts from the Near East and the Middle East. He paid large sums to obtain manuscripts from Cairo. He passed away when he was on a mission in Aleppo in 1613.

Other orientalists of Federico Borromeo, were Scot David Colville and Giacomo Filippo Buzzi. The latter was an Ambrosiana Dottore in the Arabic language.

Federico Borromeo collected everything he could lay his hands on. “He built a universal library for all the people who could read and write, welcoming them in,” says Gallo. He built a library that would circumnavigate the world of knowledge.

Some 2,150 Arabic manuscripts are part of the Ancient Fund that includes Islamic sciences and Christian codices, such as the Pentaglottus, “a magnificent manuscript written in five oriental languages: Arabic, Armenian, the Syriac, the Coptic, and the Ethiopian,” says Director Gallo.

An extremely captivating Arabic manuscript is the Kitb al-ayawn known as The Book of the Animals. It is a pioneering, encyclopedic work on zoology that anticipates aspects of the modern evolutionary theory. It also combines theological reflections, constituting elements of sociology and psychology. The author is Ab Uthman Amr ibn Bar al-Kinn al-Bar, an Arab scholar of African descent, who lived in the eighth and ninth centuries of modern-day Iraq. He was commonly known by his nickname Al-Jahiz, which translates as ‘goggle-eyed’. He was a consultant for the Caliph of Baghdad.

“Our manuscript containing the Al-Jahiz work dates back to the 15th century,” says Monsignor Gallo. “It is a splendidly illuminated manuscript whose illustrations reveal animals plus delicate scenes from a harem.”

Among the scientific manuscripts in Arabic is a Miscellanea Medica by Ibn Butlan, a medical doctor from Baghdad who lived in the 11th century. Islamic medical treatises with some additional practical texts, these illuminated manuscripts are objects of beauty and masterpieces in Islamic book arts.

In 1909, the Ambrosiana acquired another rich Arabic collection, the Caprotti fund, consisting of 2,000 Yemeni manuscripts. They represent the largest collection in this field in Europe. Mr. Caprotti was a Lombard merchant based in Yemen. “The Yemen codices are marvelous,” comments Gallo. “Cardinal Achille Ratti, the future Pope Pius XI, propitiated their acquisition.”

The entire catalogue of the Arabic manuscripts of the Ambrosiana was partly arranged by a Milanese Arabist, Eugenio Griffini Bey, later to be organised by the Swedish orientalist Oscar Loefgren and Renato Traini, a scholar of Arab studies in Rome who completed the cataloging in 2011. The catalogue has been published in four volumes.

For the printed books in Oriental languages, “Cardinal Borromeo had opened his own printing house to publish in Arabic, Hebrew, Chaldee and Armenian,” says Gallo.

Already in Venice, in the 1500s, typographers would print in Arabic.

Goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg may have invented the movable-type printing press around 1450 in Meinz, Germany, to create his monumental Bibles, but Venice is where the printing revolution began by giving the nascent industry a major push, changing men’s lives.

The first book printed from movable Arabic type is the Kitb alt al-sawi also known as Septem Horae Canonicae or Horologion. It is an illuminated Book of Hours, a book of prayers, printed in 1514, by Venetian typographer Gregorio de Gregorii. The text is in black ink but the rubrics and punctuation marks are in red. Its border decorations feature aquatic and aerial birds. “It was commissioned and published at the expenses of Pope Julius II and intended for distribution among Christians of the Middle East,” wrote Mirolav Krek, a late scholar in Arab studies at Brandeis University, Massachusetts. This is an extremely rare book. Only eight copies are known to exist. One is at the Ambrosiana.

The Milanese Cultural Institution has begun the process of digitising its library materials so that they can be available to anyone through the web, while original copies can be preserved and protected.