1673: Life Being So Short and Books So Plentiful

Antonio Montauti - Portrait of Antonio Magliabechi (1725) [detail]

In 1673, Antonio Magliabechi became librarian to Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. He was an eruidite scholar, fluent in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and—according to his contemporary and biographer Giacinto Gimma—versed in physics, mathematics, rhetoric, grammar, history, magic, zoology, mineralogy, chemistry, medicine, and many other subjects. His residence was a center of intellectual life in Florence and drew scholarly visitors from across Europe.

He was passionate about books. His own personal library was vast, consisting of 140,000 books and 10,000 manuscripts—far too many to fit in the shelves in his house. Books lined the stairways and were piled on the front porch. He “lived amid books and upon books. They were his bed, board, and washing.” Isaac Disraeli recounted the following:

Heyman, a celebrated Dutch professor, visited this erudite librarian, who was considered as the ornament of Florence. He found him amongst his books, of which the number was prodigious. Two or three rooms in the first story were crowded with them, not only along their sides, but piled in heaps on the floor; so that it was difficult to sit, and more so to walk. A narrow space was contrived, indeed, so that by walking sideways you might extricate yourself from one room to another. This was not all; the passage below stairs was full of books, and the staircase from the top to the bottom was lined with them. When you reached the second story, you saw with astonishment three rooms, similar to those below, equally so crowded, that two good beds in these chambers were also crammed with books.

Indeed, it seems he cared for little else. He ate simply—”eggs, bread, and water, in great moderation”—and would wear the same clothes until they became ragged. He reputedly simply slept in his clothes, thinking it a waste of time to do otherwise, “life being so short and books so plentiful.” Indeed,

he fought against sleep until it conquered him, and even when it did so, he would not lay himself on his bed, but, spreading an old rug over any books that were on the floor, would stretch himself upon them. Only if it were very cold he would throw himself, completely dressed, into his unmade bed, which was filled full of books, taking a basin of coals with him. Several times by these means he caused a fire to break out, which was, however, fortunately quenched by the other inmates of the house.

He was famed for his memory:

It was common for the learned to consult him when they were writing upon any subject, and he could tell them not only what previous authors had directly treated of the same matters, but could also point to such as had briefly and incidentally alluded to them, naming the author, the book, the words, and often the very page at which each passage occurred.

A friend gave him a manuscript composition to read, and after a time received it again. Shortly afterward, the individual came to Magliabechi, lamenting the loss of the manuscript, and entreating him to put down as much of it as he could remember, that it might be rewritten. The other consented, and, sitting down, wrote over the production, word for word, from beginning to end.

In later years he retired to the Dominican convent of Santa Maria Novella, where he died at the age of 81. In his will, he left his books to be used as a public library “to promote studies, virtues, sciences, and with those, piety and the universal good, for the universal benefit of the city and especially for the poor, clerics, priests and seculars who have no way of buying books and being able to study.” He left his fortune to the poor.

Sources here, here, here, here, and here. Bust of Magliabechi by Antonio Montauti (1725).

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