Among the most important things that the renaissance humanists did was assembly great libraries. Humanists were united in their love of the ancient Greco-Roman world and eagerly sought out texts from those times. Right from the emergence of the humanist movement with Francesco Petrarch in the fourteenth century, large libraries were essential. Petrarch (1304–1374) rediscovered many of Cicero’s letters and contributed to the development of the inquisitive scholar looking in monasteries for long-forgotten texts which might be found there. Famously, in 1417, Papal secretary Poggio Bracciolini rediscovered the lost epic poem On the Nature of Things by Lucretius. Bracciolini also rediscovered Ten Books on Architecture by Vitruvius — the Italian translation of this would inspired Leonardo da Vinci’s famous ‘Vitruvian Man.’ Rediscovery was not the only goal of these passionate scholars — they sought to reignite the spark of ancient greatness in their own time. They developed their own writing styles and created libraries full of the great Classics. From the poet Petrarch, to the Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus, to the polymath Leonardo da Vinci, all built up libraries of impressive volumes.
Francesco Petrarch was the first humanist, the ‘father of renaissance humanism,’ and the first of us moderns. He was a man of vision, talent, and discernment. He was also a bit of a narcissist, but no one is perfect. Petrarch worked in Latin and Italian, though he did not limit his collecting to these languages. One famous tale tells of Petrarch holding up a Greek edition of Homer to his head saying ‘it must be so beautiful, if only I could read it.’ This rather theatrical lament reveals the level of esteem Petrarch held ancient Greek poetry, even if he could only enjoy it in translation. Among the Three Crowns of Italian Literature (Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio), only Boccaccio knew Greek.
Petrarch collected a relatively large number of codices for the time, a time before Gutenberg’s printing press. He also arranged for his library to be kept intact in the Republic of Venice. This did not happen. As with so many other great libraries of history, that of Petrarch was dispersed in the years after his death in 1374.
The Bibliotheca Corviniana was the humanist library of Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus (r.1452–1490). This collection, far larger than anything Petrarch could assemble, also failed to survive for the most part. Only a fraction of the collection has been identified of this library, dispersed (and partly destroyed) with the Ottoman conquest in the 1520s. This library had about 2,500 codices during the latter part of King Matthias’s reign. Of these, about 216 are known to have survived and can be identified as having been part of the collection.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) was not a scholar in the sense of an academic interested in narrow pedantry. He was a practical, though intensely curious man and a towering intellect. While he called himself a disciple of experience/experiment, he understood the value of wisdom imparted by books. Leonardo had his own library of decent size for the time. With the advent of printing, books became less expensive and even someone like Leonardo da Vinci could build a small personal collection for himself. One can get glimpses into what was in his library through the notebooks he kept throughout his life as well as his network. He collaborated with Luca Pacioli on a geometry book, was influenced by Leon Battista Alberti, and had access to an Italian translation of Vitruvius’s Ten Books on Architecture. He was also acquainted with the works of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio and had a smattering of knowledge of ancient literature. Leonardo da Vinci was not humanist because he had no knowledge of Latin, little access to the writings of the ancients, though he did share an interest in the practical application of the skills that a humanist education could impart.
A great tragedy that one encounters when studying libraries of the renaissance or libraries from long ago is the fact that most no longer exist. Most or all of these collections have not survived. The books from various humanist collections have managed to survive the ravages of time but not in complete collections. One may wonder whether a humanist library was able to survive intact from the renaissance period.
There is, in fact, a library from a renaissance humanist that has survived the centuries intact— the library of German humanist Beatus Rhenanus (1485–1547). This is the Humanist Library of Sélestat in Elsaß (Alsace). The Humanist Library of Sélestat combines the personal library of Rhenanus with that of a humanist school started decades earlier by Ludwig Dringenberg. In 2011, UNESCO added the library to the Memory of the World Register.
“The Beatus Rhenanus Library holds print materials as well as a number of manuscripts. Using a dense and extensive network, Rhenanus amassed the works from across Europe which now constitute this collection. Since 1889, the collection has been housed in the old Wheat Hall, built in 1840 by the architect Gustave Klotz. The collection includes 1,287 printed works in 423 volumes, 264 preserved handwritten letters and some 33 volumes of manuscripts (94 works).” -UNESCO entry
The Humanist Library of Sélestat is the only major renaissance humanist library to remain intact for five centuries, though it is only a fragment of a brilliant intellectual world — the intellectual world which gave birth to modernity itself. The humanist libraries were the repositories of ancient Greco-Roman literature as well as innovative texts of the times in which they were created. They exerted influence on collecting habits of non-professional scholars (these are actually often the more engaging thinkers) like Leonardo da Vinci. UNESCO declares it’s mission (as far as culture goes) as the following: “ Heritage constitutes a source of identity and cohesion for communities disrupted by bewildering change and economic instability. Creativity contributes to building open, inclusive and pluralistic societies. Both heritage and creativity lay the foundations for vibrant, innovative and prosperous knowledge societies.” One can argue that the humanists of the renaissance were of a similar mindset as they sought to preserve the remnants of the ancient world which survived around them — most importantly through texts but this also extended to architecture, sculpture, and even coins.