A book-lover’s pilgrimage: the Biblioteca Malatestiana in Cesena
Never let it be said that I avoid going the extra mile for my graduate students. Indeed, in the past day, I have been an extra fifty-five miles – and back again. Ahead of the Translating the Past course visiting the library of Florence’s Convent of San Marco tomorrow, I went to make the acquaintance of its little sister, the Biblioteca Malatestiana at Cesena.
I must admit that I had an ulterior motive for going there: to consult a manuscript partially in the hand of the Scottish humanist scribe who I have been studying recently, George of Kynninmond. I could not have hoped for a more welcoming and helpful visit, for which I have to thank the kind and learned D.ssa Paola Errani, in particular. What is more, George obligingly revealed yet more about himself and his career – but, on that, I will write another time.
For anyone with a love of books and their history, to go to Cesena is a pilgrimage, though one deprived of the hardships and travails usually associated with such voyages, for Cesena is an elegant and relaxed città. It is a pilgrimage, all the same, with the object of veneration being the Malatesta Library, opened in 1454 and often called a model of a Renaissance library. It is younger by about a decade than Michelozzo’s Florentine masterpiece but whereas in San Marco one stands and evokes in one’s mind the shadows of former book-stalls and imagines the clatter of the chains that kept the manuscripts in place, in Cesena all is still in situ– stalls, chains, books. The original wooden doors, locked with two keys, are opened for you so that the vista of the library, accentuated by the slender columns that divide each side from the central aisle, stretches ahead of you. If you are truly a book-lover, I defy you not to be dumbstruck by its beauty and its resonance.
The precise association between the two libraries – how far Matteo Nuti, the architect in Cesena, was inspired by or independent of Michelozzo’s example – is a matter of debate. There is a similarity of setting: both libraries are located in convents, that of San Marco being Dominican (and including in its inmates Fra Angelico, who came in useful when the friars wanted some appropriate decoration in their cells), that in Cesena being dedicated to San Francesco. There is also the obvious parallel in layout, with both being rectangular, divided by their columns, with the benches or stalls arranged to jut out from the two long sides of the room. The stalls themselves were also, we can surmise, of a similar design, with slanted lecterns beneath which the books sat with the bottom edge outermost, attached to the stall by a chain.
In Cesena, the library was part of a longer structure with the dormitory stretching directly in front of the library door. One enters the library from the north, facing the rose-window which is the sole adornment of the south wall. To the left were placed secular books, to the right religious and theological. Walking down the central aisle, one sees on both sides the ends of the stalls, adorned with appropriate heraldic symbols.
Each sentence of that previous paragraph identifies differences between the Malatestiana and San Marco. A prize to the person who lists all five of them.