Open main menu
The Biblioteca Marciana building, designed by Jacopo Sansovino

The Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (English: National Library of St Mark's) is a library and Renaissance building in Venice, northern Italy; it is one of the earliest surviving public manuscript depositories in the country, holding one of the greatest classical texts collections in the world. The library is named after St. Mark, the patron saint of Venice. It is not to be confused with the State Archive of the Republic of Venice, which is housed in a different part of the city.[1]

Harmony between the Doges' Palace at left and Biblioteca Marciana at right.

The building, begun in 1537, is the "undoubted masterpiece" of Jacopo Sansovino, and a key work in Venetian Renaissance architecture. Andrea Palladio, who saw it being built, called it "probably the richest ever built from the days of ancients up to now", and it has been described by Frederick Hartt as "surely one of the most satisfying structures in Italian architectural history".[2] It has an extremely prominent site, with the long facade facing the Doge's Palace across the Piazzetta di San Marco, and the shorter sides facing the lagoon and the Piazza San Marco.



Detail of the facade

Venice had quickly become the main Italian centre of book printing and publishing, and the library was an opportunity to promote what had become an important industry for the city. It was provided with a building designed by Jacopo Sansovino. On this prime site, owned by the Republic, the library itself was always only on the upper floor (not least to remove the possibility of flooding), with the ground floor let to shops and, today, cafes and restaurants. The first sixteen arcaded bays (of twenty-one) of his design were constructed during 1537 to 1553, with work on frescoes and other decorations continuing until 1560. Sansovino died in 1570, but in 1588, Vincenzo Scamozzi undertook the construction of the additional five bays, still to Sansovino's design, which brought the building down to the molo or embankment, next to Sansovino's building for the Venetian mint, the Zecca.[3]

The upper storey of the building took a device which Andrea Palladio would later adapt to the pre-existing Venetian window to introduce what has become known as the Palladian window, as Palladio later used it so often.[4] The Venetian window has three parts: a central high round-arched opening, with two smaller rectangular openings to the sides, the latter topped by lintels and supported by columns.[5] Sansovino's upper storey in the library has only a single tall opening, and places a larger order in between each window, and doubles the small columns supporting the arch, placing the second column behind rather than beside the first.[6] Palladio would later add the side openings, in his Basilica Palladiana in Vicenza.

The ground floor uses the Doric order, as opposed to the Ionic above, and is based on the Colosseum in Rome. The whole building is richly decorated, with high relief sculptures in the spandrels, and lower reliefs of mythological scenes on the soffits of the arches. No large areas of plain wall are visible at all. At the top of the building there is a rich frieze with putti and large garlands, then a balustrade on the roofline, with standing nude classical deities, so that "the upper contour of the structure ... dissolves against the sky", and "all traditional boundaries of the building block are thus dissolved". The sculpture was by various artists. The building, though fully in a rich Renaissance classicism, has enough elements in common with the Venetian Gothic Doge's Palace across the square to harmonize well with it. These include the round heads to the openings, and echoing the arcades on the first two storeys of the palace.[7]

The entrance from the arcade to the upper floor is not marked or suggested by any special feature on the outside, which one would expect in a grand building of the period. This somewhat gives the impression that this very long facade might be just the side of an enormous building. In fact, with 21 bays at the front and three at the sides, it is essentially very long and thin, although it does extend some way backwards in places. When Scamozzi built the abutting Procuratie Nuove along the Piazza San Marco (begun 1586), he used very similar styles for the lower two floors, but had a third storey above, in the Corinthian order and with rectangular aedicule windows, topped by alternating curved and triangular pediments.


The main interior rooms are equally lavishly decorated, with oil paintings by Titian (one), Tintoretto, Paolo Veronese, Bernardo Strozzi, Andrea Schiavone and others set into the walls and rich ceilings. These mostly show mythological and allegorical figures and groups.

History of the libraryEdit

"February", from the Flemish Grimani Breviary, 1490-1510

One of the early librarians, from 1530, was Pietro Bembo. However, the library stock began to be collected before the construction of the building. For example, the germ of the collections in the library was the gift to the Serenissima of the manuscript collection assembled by Byzantine humanist, scholar, patron and collector, Cardinal Bessarion[8], he made a gift of his collection on 31 May 1468: some 750 codices in Latin and Greek, to which he added another 250 manuscripts and some printed books (incunabula), constituting the first "public" library open to scholars in Venice. (In 1362 Petrarch's library was donated to Venice but this collection of manuscripts, ancient books, and personal letters was lost or dispersed.)[9]

Like the British Library or the Library of Congress at later times, the Biblioteca Marciana profited from a law of 1603 that required that a copy be deposited in the Marciana of all books printed at Venice, the first such law.[citation needed] The Marciana was enriched by the transfer in the late eighteenth century of the collections accumulated in several monasteries, such as SS. Giovanni e Paolo in Venice and S. Giovanni di Verdara in Padua.

Major additions made to the collection include:

  • 1589: Melchiorre Guilandino of Marienburg (2.200 printed books);
  • 1595: Jacopo Contarini da S. Samuele, delayed until the extinction of the Contarini in the male line, in 1713 (175 mss and 1500 printed books);
  • 1619: Girolamo Fabrici d'Acquapendente (13 volumes with hand-colored anatomical illustrations);
  • 1624: Giacomo Gallicio (20 Greek mss);
  • 1734: Gian Battista Recanati (216 mss, among them the codices of the house of Gonzaga) ;
  • 1792: Tommaso Giuseppe Farsetti (350 mss and printed books);
  • 1794: Amedeo Svajer (more than 340 mss among which is the last will of Marco Polo);
  • 1797: Jacopo Nani (over 1000 mss, largely Greek and Eastern)
  • 1798:

With the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, the Marciana was enriched by the transfer of manuscripts and books from religious houses that were suppressed under the Napoleonic regime. In 1811 the library was moved to more spacious quarters in the Doge's Palace, where further collections entered:

1814: Girolamo Ascanio Molin (2209 fine printed books, 3835 prints and 408 drawings, housed in the Museo Correr for the most part;
1843: Girolamo Contarini (906 mss and 4000 printed books);
1852: Giovanni Rossi (470 mss and a collection of Venetian operas)

In 1904 the collection was moved to Sansovino's Zecca (built 1537-47 as a mint). The Library has since expanded back into its adjacent original quarters and even into sections of the Procuratie Nuove facing Piazza San Marco.

Today, besides about a million printed books, the Biblioteca Marciana contains about 13,000 manuscripts and 2883 incunabula and 24,055 works printed between 1500 and 1600. There are many illuminated manuscripts. Among the irreplaceable treasures are unique scores of operas by Francesco Cavalli and sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti.

Some manuscriptsEdit


  1. ^ The State Archives of Venice Archived 2012-03-30 at the Wayback Machine 2007 Archivio di Stato di Venezia.
  2. ^ Hartt, 632-633, 633 quoted.
  3. ^ Hartt, 633-634
  4. ^ Hartt, 633
  5. ^ Summerson, 134
  6. ^ Hartt, 633
  7. ^ Hartt, 633
  8. ^ Burckhardt, Jacob (1878). The Civilization Of The Renaissance in Italy. University of Toronto - Robarts Library: Vienna Phaidon Press. p. 99. Retrieved 28 February 2019.
  9. ^   Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Libraries" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 16 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 573.


External linksEdit