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The library was established in 1701 by the Dominicans of the Convent of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. This convent was at that time the home of the College of St. Thomas, which in the 20th century would be relocated at the convent attached to the Church of Saints Dominic and Sixtus and grow into the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum. It was opened to the general public, according to the will of Cardinal Girolamo Casanata (1620–1700). The library contained about 25 000 volumes. Since 1872 the library has been managed by the Italian government. In the present day the library is under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture.
His chief service to learning, especially the theological sciences, was the Casanatense Library (Biblioteca Casanatense) founded and endowed by him. While living he had collected a library of about 25,000 volumes; this he left to the above-mentioned Dominican convent of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, together with an endowment fund of 80,000 scudi (almost as many dollars), to provide for the administration of the trust and for the acquisition of new books. In 1655 the same convent had inherited the library of Giambattista Castellani, chief physician of Gregory XV, with 12,000 scudi for the erection of a suitable edifice. Cardinal Casanata, moreover, ordered that the new library should be accessible to the public six hours daily, excepting feast-days. In addition to the library staff he provided for a college (theologi casanatenses) of six Dominicans of different nationalities (Italian, French, Spanish, German, English, Polish). Each of them must previously have received the degree of Doctor from one of the most famous universities of Europe. Aided by the resources of the library, they were to devote themselves to the defence and propagation of Catholic doctrine.
Moreover, two professors were to expound regularly the text of St Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica and other writings). In other words, by means of the new library, he had created at Rome another centre of intellectual activity. After the 1870 loss by the Papacy of the temporal power over Rome, the library was nationalized, but the Dominicans were left in charge until 1884. Amongst the library's possessions are 64 Greek codices (15 of them the gift of Casanata), and 230 Hebrew texts (rolls and books), among which are 5 Samaritan codices. The incunabula (books printed before 1500) number 2036; there is also a large collection of Roman governmental proclamations (bandi, editti) from 1500 to 1870, and comedies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Father Cloché, the General of the Dominicans, placed in the library a statue of Cardinal Casanata, the work of the sculptor Le Gros. An inscription records the formal permission of Clement XI to preserve there the books of what were considered heretical authors.
The Casanatense Library still preserves 1125 manuscript volumes of opinions, reports, and statements (voti, relazioni, posizioni) concerning matters treated in the various Congregations to which Casanata belonged. His curial duties did not prevent him from taking an interest in letters and the sciences. He was on friendly terms and corresponded with the learned men of his day. Among those whom he encouraged most was Lorenzo Alessandro Zaccagni, whom he induced to publish a collection of materials for the ancient history of the Greek and Latin Churches, Collectanea monumentorum veterum Ecclesiæ græcæ et latinæ
Today the Library's collection contains approximately 400 000 volumes, about 6 000 manuscripts, 2 200 incunabula.
The library holds medieval manuscripts, including biblical manuscripts (e.g. Minuscule 395).
- See Minerva, 1892–93, II, 622.
- Collectanea monumentorum veterum Ecclesiæ græcæ et latinæ, by Lorenzo Alessandro Zaccagni, Rome (1698).
- Cavarra, A. A. ed. Biblioteca Casanatense, Roma. Guida breve, Firenze, Nardini, 2005.
- De Gregorio, V. La Biblioteca Casanatense di Roma, Napoli 1993
- De Gregorio, V. Casanatense e dintorni..., Napoli 1997.
- Moricca Caputo, A. Catalogo dei manoscritti della Biblioteca Casanatense, Roma, 1949
- Panetta, M. La "libraria" di Mattia Casanate, Roma, Bulzoni, 1988