THE LIBRARY OF
By Niko Borkovic
The Biblioteca Marciana, or Library of Saint Mark is a public library located in the Piazza San Marco of Venice, Italy. It was designed by Jacopo Sansovino and constructed between 1537 and 1588. The current library is not the original however, the first building was established in 1468 to house a collection of Greek and Latin manuscripts that was donated to the Republic of Venice by Cardinal Bessarione. As a humanist scholar, it was his intention to make this knowledge accessible to the public.1 This library can be seen as a manifestation of what Venetian architecture meant during the late Renaissance. Andrea Palladio described it as one of the most ornate buildings in Italy.2 Analyzing the process of construction, function of a library, and formal analysis of the Marciana Library will reveal what humanist and classical values Sansovino had in mind when designing it. The idea for a new library was conceived from the desire to renovate Venice and transform it from a Medieval city into a Renaissance city. As a library, it is a representation of the humanist movement towards integrating different fields of study with one another. Also, by adopting classical design elements Sansovino alludes to the values of order and proportion from antiquity to convey this transition into an ideal Venice.
When looking at the plans of many European cities today, there is typically a clear distinction between the medieval plan and the renaissance plan. Because of the feudal system of the middle ages, it was beneficial to have a fortified city that was condensed within a fortress wall. This caused the city plans to grow more organically; streets and squares were formed with whatever space was available. Prior to the medieval period, the Greeks would plan cities in a grid pattern, but that technique didn’t get resurfaced until the renaissance. The renaissance adopted many ideas from antiquity, one in particular being the ideal city. Architects in the renaissance began experimenting more with urban planning and viewing the urban setting as something that can be designed. They wanted their overall environment to reflect antiquity, rather than just the buildings, so many cities underwent major renovation projects.
In the case of Venice, this happened once Doge Andrea Gritti came to office in 1523 and enacted the Renovatio Urbis. This was an architectural program meant to reestablish Venetian pride and identity. A significant part of this program was the redesign of Piazza San Marco. Before the project was proposed, Piazza San Marco was an eclectic accumulation of different architectural styles and functions, from the gothic façade of the S. Geminiano parish church to the taverns and butcher’s shops. It was originally planned that Sansovino would redesign three sides of the piazza to allude to the ancient forums and elevate Venice to the status of Rome.3
Part of the reason this building is important to the urban landscape of Venice is because of the symbolism of its function. This building is a library, a source of knowledge and learning which was highly valued to the people of the renaissance especially because of the movement of humanism that became popular at this time. Humanism was the main ideology of the renaissance because it was a revival of classical schooling. This later inspired the term “humanities” that is used today. Humanism is about understanding what it means to be human outside a religious context. This is done through studies such as history, philosophy, Latin, art, and sociology. The term studia humanitatis was fabricated around the first century BCE by the Roman statesman, Cicero. This was later adopted by the renaissance scholar, Coluccio Salutati in the 14th century.4
It’s important to understand the significance of this building as a library, in such a core plaza of Venice. Libraries embody the values of Renaissance humanism because they are a source of learning. Although the printing press was recently invented, books were not mass-produced products like they are today because they were still expensive to make. A majority of citizens at this time were not literate, those of the higher classes were educated and had full access to these texts. The fact that this library was built in Piazza San Marco shows that it was as important to society as the Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Basilica. This was and remains a public library so anyone who has the means, is able to study its humanist texts. There was even a school located within the library. For a time, the vestibule was originally used as a lecture hall for the School of Saint Mark, which was founded in 1446. It was here where nobles and civil servants were taught topics such as history, poetry, and grammar.5
The architectural style of the high renaissance implements classical elements in a new context to emulate the philosophy, democracy, and art that is associated with antiquity. By introducing this style to Venice, Sansovino’s intention was to elevate Venice as a hub for culture and knowledge. The influence that classicism has on this library is evident when analyzing its taxis, genera, and symmetry.
Taxis refers to the framework of the building. An example of this would be the portico that continues along the entire ground floor of the library. A portico is common among many Roman temples such as the pantheon, but considering how the library’s wraps around multiple sides, Sansovino intended to recreate the presence of a Roman forum. This is emphasized by including a row of vacancies meant for shops and hostelries. Another example would be the way Sansovino uses proportion in St. Mark’s. Classical architecture prioritizes the use of orthogonal lines, and designs spaces that connect with one another. To reference this, Sansovino has organized all the rooms inside the library to line up with the repetition of the piers along the portico.6
Genera is about the stylistic elements used on the exterior and interior of the building and what they signify. On the façade of the library, Sansovino followed the Vitruvian model of using Doric columns on the ground floor and ionic for the second. He distinguished each level further by giving them their own orders entirely, rather than simply changing the columns. On the ground floor, he included a frieze with metopes and triglyphs as seen on many Greek temples. The second story is more “renaissance” because it includes more ornamentation and what would later be called a Palladian window which has a high arch supported by columns and lintels. Sansovino then decorated the interior with artwork by famous artists of the time such as Titian. The reading room’s ceiling has twenty-one roundels, each with a different scene from antiquity.7
Symmetry is more than simply matching one half of the façade to the other, it has to do with the relationship and rhythm between elements of the building. An example of this can be seen with the intercolumniation of the façade. In the Marciana library, the columns for both levels share the same pattern of repetition where each column or pier is equally spaced from the one to either side of it, except for the corners.
Biblioteca Marciana is an essential part of the venetian cityscape because of how it embodies Renaissance values in all aspects of its being. Its construction took place during a time of renovation for Venice. The library was a product of the transformation of Venice from a medieval city to a more structured renaissance one. The fact that it is a library shows the increased interest in the spread of knowledge and humanist values. Also, the aesthetics that Sansovino used for its façade and interior spaces reference the architectural techniques used in ancient Rome and Greece. The Saint Mark’s library revived many aspects of antiquity and brought them into the early modern period.
1.- Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, 2020. Storia. [online] Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana. Available at: <https://marciana.venezia.sbn.it/la-biblioteca/storia> [Accessed 2 November 2020].
2.- Huse, Norbert, and Wolfgang Wolters. The Art of Renaissance Venice : Architecture, Sculpture, and Painting, 1460-1590. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
4.- Cartwright, Mark. “Renaissance Humanism.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, December 11, 2020. https://www.ancient.eu/Renaissance_Humanism/.
5.- Grendler, Paul F. Schooling in Renaissance Italy : Literacy and Learning, 1300-1600. The Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, 107th Series, 1. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.
6.- Howard, Deborah, and Sarah Quill. The Architectural History of Venice. Rev. and enl. ed. with new photographs / by Sarah Quill and Deborah Howard ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.