Francesca Gallori

Director of Biblioteca Ricciardiana

A Small Library: The Riccardiana Library in Florence and Its Collections

The Biblioteca Riccardiana may be the smallest of the four state libraries in Florence in terms of the number of its books but certainly not in terms of their quality and importance. Its collection of manuscripts and printed books has the merit and uniqueness of still being housed on the shelves made by the Riccardi, from whom the library takes its name, in the same position in which they were left by their former owners. The library is, therefore, to quote the famous words of one of its illustrious directors, Guido Biagi (1855–1925), ‘the only example of what was a patrician library in a sumptuous palace.’

The palace itself – once the home of the Medici who commissioned Michelozzo to design it in 1444 and bought by the Riccardi at the height of their economic power in 1659 – has the vocation of a treasure trove of books. Filarete, in his Treatise on Architecture, describes Piero dei Medici’s library, which has now disappeared, and how books brought him comfort even during his attacks of gout. The location has sometimes influenced the Riccardi’s collecting choices: for example, in a splendid Virgil (Ricc. 492), illuminated by Apollonio di Giovanni, the events of Aeneas and the fall of Troy are set against the backdrop of the construction phases of the palazzo itself. Moreover, the abacus book by Filippo Calandri (Ricc. 2669), displayed on occasion of this exhibition (doc. 67), is not a casual presence in the Riccardi collections. The richly illuminated book was commissioned by Lorenzo de’ Medici, a former inhabitant of the palazzo, for his son Giuliano, the future Duke of Nemours, and was purchased by Gabriello Riccardi, who in the manuscript catalogue of his library had it described simply as ‘Aritmetica – eleganter picturatus.’ Its decorative apparatus, sumptuous in some parts and unusual for its scenes of daily life in others, is attributed partly to the school of Boccardino the Elder and partly to Gherardo di Giovanni and Pedro Berruguete.

The collections of the Biblioteca Riccardiana are the result of an intense bibliophilia on the part of all the members of the Riccardi family, starting with the fifteenth-century tailor Anichino, founder of the family, with his 15 books, then sixteenth-century Riccardo Romolo and his library in the palazzo in Via Valfonda, which contained 500 books, and finally Gabriello, whose personal library, as we shall see, exceeded the family’s in the eighteenth century.

The first substantial increase in the family library was due to Vincenzo Capponi (1605–88) and his books. Capponi was an important figure in the intellectual life of seventeenth-century Florence: an Academician of the Crusca, he was a writer and poet, and naturally also a senator. Marquis Francesco (1648–1719) married his daughter Cassandra in 1669, who inherited more than 5,000 of her father’s books in 1688. Vincenzo Capponi’s library was vast in terms of its sheer size and also included a great variety of prestigious titles in many different disciplines. Antonio Magliabechi (1633–1714), the eponymous hero of today’s Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence, judged that Capponi’s books were ‘more for pomp than for study.’ The 1706 inventory of the Riccardiana library, compiled by priest Filippo Modesto Landi (now at the Florence State Archive, Riccardi, 271), listed 6,477 books, as well as 142 manuscripts. The incorporation of Capponi’s books – not yet recorded in Landi’s inventory – doubled the size of the Riccardiana collections. It was at this time that Francesco Riccardi had the idea of organising a library that, although still private, would be open to the public. By drafting Alcune regole per fondare una libreria pubblica (Ricc. 2112), Francesco Riccardi established the sums needed to buy books, pay the librarians and custodians, and set up suitable desks and shelves.

The incunabulum displayed here (St.10245, doc. 51) with Luca Pacioli’s Somma di arithmetica, geometria, proporzioni e proporzionalità in its 1494 edition in fact comes from Vincenzo Capponi’s library. It is profusely annotated by a sixteenth-century hand, which would be interesting to identify. Pacioli is also present in the Riccardi collections with two copies of his De divina proportione in the Venetian edition of 1509. One of these two copies (Ed. rare 120) belonged to Bartolomeo Ammannati (1511–92), who bound it with his manuscript notebook of sketches and drawings.

Gabriello Riccardi (1705–98), whose paternal grandfather was Marquis Francesco, continued to acquire books on his own, while at the same time ensuring that the family library did not fall into the hands of creditors, who in the course of the eighteenth century began to make increasing demands on the Riccardi estate. It was thanks to him that the family library, housed in what is now the reading room, was combined with his own – very large, even larger in number – library, and with that of other family members. The result of this union led him to enlarge the spaces allocated to the book collections, setting up shelving in the apartment that had belonged to his mother Giulia Spada, now the Sala Esposizioni, and in the room – the current director’s office – obtained from the purchase of the palazzo adjacent to the original Palazzo Medici Riccardi.

One of the books on display, the Tavole delle Tariffe mercantili del Levante (Ricc. 2523, doc. 19) was purchased by Gabriello Riccardi, who had it recorded in the Bullettone, the catalogue of his personal library, as a Tariffa riguardante le mercanzie di Soria per Venezia. The date on f. 1r is 1534, but the tariff updates on f. 64v and 66r are dated 1551, which is probably the date of the manuscript. We do not know how the Trattatello di Geografìa e Statistica (Ricc. 2386, doc. 20) and the edition of Della mercatura et del mercante perfetto by Cotrugli (St. 16852, doc. 69) came to the library, but it is probable that they were both acquired by Gabriello to slot into the small but significant section with manuscript and printed books on mercantile matters. Among the manuscripts, in particular, we find the trade books of the Peruzzi company (Ricc. 2414–2417), whose bankruptcy dates back to 1343; the Libro delle gabelle (Ricc. 2526), dating from the mid-fourteenth century and decorated with vignettes dedicated to different trades; and La pratica della mercatura by Francesco Balducci Pegolotti (Ricc. 2441), copied by Filippo Frescobaldi in 1471. After all, and in spite of the noble title of marquis bought in 1629, the Riccardi owed their financial fortune to trade and financial investments, and it was precisely their abandonment of these activities, once they had achieved social prestige, that led to their ruin at the end of the eighteenth century.

The documents that survived the family’s fall, most of which are kept in the State Archives in Florence – except for a small section still in the library – make it possible to trace the remote origins of the manuscripts and printed books purchased by Gabriello. Indeed, old lists of books and purchase receipts have survived, which have challenged a number of scholars, but most of all Guglielmo Bartoletti, who devoted a number of writings to the subject, later included in his monographic study on Gabriello Riccardi’s library. Among the most significant provenances are those of Giovan Battista Doni (1594–1647), with 530 manuscripts identified out of the 939 listed in his inventory, and those of illustrious Florentine families such as the Macinghi, Davanzati, Quaratesi and Strozzi. In 1735 Gabriello acquired the library of Anton Maria Salvini (1653–1729), which contained 3,349 both manuscript and printed books; in 1742 it was the turn of the autographs of Giovan Battista Fagiuoli (1660–1742), Florentine author, satirical poet and playwright. In 1748, the Romanesque liturgical codices from the monastery of Santa Marta in Montughi arrived in his library, few in number but of extraordinary importance. In order to understand the nature of this extraordinary collection, one must consider that the Riccardi salvaged as many books as possible from the wrecks of the Florentine families that had fallen before them. They, in turn, had inherited not just books penned by important figures such as Giovanni Boccaccio, Marsilio Ficino, Cristoforo Landino, Poggio Bracciolini and many other giants of Florentine humanism, but also copies that had belonged to some of these same names.

The strength of the Riccardi library collections lies on the more than 4,000 manuscripts, the oldest of which, Pliny Ricc. 488, dates back to the tenth century. Contrary to what usually happens in other libraries, where it is possible to follow the successive acquisitions through the fonds that have been gradually created, in the Biblioteca Riccardiana there is a single fond and the manuscripts, like the printed books, are arranged in a single numerical series. The choice of this arrangement reflects the moment when the library was put up for auction in 1810, following the family’s complete financial ruin. The books were arranged in increasing numerical order and by thematic areas (Greeks, Arabs, Latin classics, Dante and so on). Sporadic traces of the previous arrangements are preserved in old shelf markings, but it is mainly thanks to individual studies on provenance that it has been possible to reconstruct traces of the acquisitions made over time, especially by Gabriello, as mentioned earlier.

The manuscripts are mostly in the vernacular and Latin, but there are also 120 Greek manuscripts and 56 manuscripts in Arabic script (Arabic, Turkish and Persian). Standing out among the vernacular manuscripts is the set of Dante’s manuscripts – counting over 40 – including Ricc. 1005 (Rb in Petrocchi’s edition of the Commedia), otherwise known as the Riccardiano-Braidense, and the Commedia copied by Giovanni Boccaccio (Ricc. 1035). The groups of Greek and Arabic manuscripts are both mainly acquisitions by Gabriello, who reconciled his collecting with his own study needs, at least for the Greek codices: he had in fact begun studying Greek in 1730. Lorenzo Mehus (1717–1802), his procurer of books and perhaps also his librarian, regularly recorded his acquisitions in his Spogli. One of the most famous Greek manuscripts is Ricc. 46, which is one of the two oldest copies of Aristotle’s Poetics. Standing out among the Arabic manuscripts, all of which deal with literary or religious subjects, is the oldest known Latin-Arabic dictionary, Richard 217. The first catalogue describing them is preserved in cc. 157–169 of Ricc. 3822; it was prepared by some Coptic priests who had been hired by house librarian Giovanni Lami, and described 30 of them, all owned by Gabriello. In 1741 another catalogue was compiled by Stefano Evodio Assemani (1711–82), Maronite archbishop of Apamea, although it was never published (now Ricc. 3580). A fresh catalogue of Arabic manuscripts (excluding the Turkish and Persian codices) was recently compiled by Sara Fani in collaboration with the University of Florence.

The Riccardi were also collectors of beautiful art objects and were certainly fascinated by miniatures. Unlike contemporary collectors, however, they preferred to acquire books in their entirety rather than individual miniatures. And alongside a set of books of hours we see various illuminated manuscripts, with a clear preference for fifteenth-century illuminators, such as Mariano del Buono and Apollonio di Giovanni, Francesco di Antonio del Chierico and Cola Rapicano, without forgetting masterpieces such as Frederick II’s psalter (Ricc. 323) or the Parisian psalter (Ricc. 309), both from the end of the thirteenth century.

The golden age of the Riccardi family’s bibliomania ended with the death of Gabriello in 1794 and the subsequent auction of the entire library in 1810. An Inventario e stima della Libreria Riccardi. Manoscritti e edizioni del sec.15 was drawn up for the occasion, which gives us a general snapshot of the state and contents of the library at that date: 3,590 manuscripts, 617 incunabula and 18,257 printed books. The skilful management of librarian Francesco Fontani, who ensured that the library was not dismembered and dispersed, and the movement of opinion that arose in the city against this eventuality, led a group of Florentine booksellers to purchase the library wholesale and then sell it to the City of Florence, which was then under French rule. With the Restoration, the library passed to the state and was opened to the public. Since then, it has continued to gradually increase its collections, which have maintained their ability to tell ever-changing stories.