Libraries are magical -- their scent alone is of a higher order -- and certainly can’t be replicated in the digital age, despite the wonders of the iBooks app for the iPad. The Morgan Library & Museum on Madison Avenue, as if celebrating the recent restoration of its Charles Follen McKim-designed High Renaissance-style library building, is now presenting a small exhibition entitled "Great European Libraries: Photographs by Massimo Listri," Dec. 10, 2010-Jan. 9, 2011. These 23 large-format color Lambda prints, all made between 1989 and 2009 by the accomplished Florence-based architectural photographer, take you right inside each of these galleries, momentarily at least, and it is hard to resist taking a deep breath in hopes of being able to smell the spaces as well.
The Morgan Library itself is not among these photographs, of course, which include 12 in Listri’s native Italy. Books are kept below pew-like desks flanking a central nave in the Malatestiana Library in Cesena, Sicily, a space completed in 1454, with white-washed walls, a web-vaulted ceiling and a cool, terracotta-titled floor. Though the library has scant decoration, each row of desks bears the Malatesta coat of arms.
In contrast, in the lavish Rococo library at the Monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland, completed in 1767 and designed by Peter Thumb, decor and books are equally on display. This bi-level space boasts a gilded and painted ceiling depicting, among other ecclesiastical conclaves, the council of Nicea. As one of the world’s foremost monastic libraries, St. Gall holds upwards of 2,000 manuscripts from the 8th through 15th centuries, including no fewer than 1,500 books printed before the year 1500.
Other legendary subjects include the home of the Book of Kells, the revered Trinity College Library in Dublin, with its barrel-vaulted ceiling and busts of famous literary figures at the entrance to each alcove, and the Library of the Hospital of the Innocents in Florence, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi in 1419.
Strangely, while Listri’s photographs celebrate the great libraries of Europe, they also hold hidden signs of their obsolescence -- or, at least their transition into monuments of history. Now, if only Listri had been around to take a picture of the Library of Alexandria before that fatal fire.
BEATRICE THORNTON is a contributor to the Magazine Antiques and Modern Magazine.