Literature has an inestimable value, and no matter how much the Internet struggles to replace paper, nothing beats the distinctive smell and rustling of book pages being turned. It has the immeasurable power to unleash your dreams, to take you far away to the five corners of the world, without even leaving the comfort of your sofa. More than 3,000 years ago, the first historically documented library was born under the orders of pharaoh Ramses II. Passionate about his numerous papyri, he called his lecture sessions “a remedy for the soul.” Let’s face it, a good book feels so much different when read on the benches of an old and enchanting library, whose stunning interiors seem to complement the very plot inside.
In the age of smartphones and eBooks, do libraries still hold any value? The answer is: more than you can imagine. The care-keepers of vast cultural thesauruses, some libraries are works of art in themselves. You don’t have to be a bookworm to appreciate the architectural mastery and the great value of the rare manuscripts and documents they shelter, absolutely overwhelming in their stature and significance. The following libraries’ cultural richness cannot be measured, therefore the race was held between their fabulous architecture, remarkable interiors abounding in luxury, grandeur, and opulence, from the thousands of valuable first editions, manuscripts, and scrolls, mankind’s first works of literature, to well-kept secrets that could very well rewrite history as we know it if revealed to the public.
10. Library of El Escorial in Madrid, Spain
One of Spain’s major tourist attractions, the Royal Seat of San Lorenzo de El Escorial is a large complex that includes the royal palace, a church, monastery, college, and library, all founded by King Phillip II of Spain. The king is also the benefactor behind the library, as he donated his personal collection of volumes and manuscripts to form the nucleus of a public library. Dating from 1584, it is opulent to say the least, luxury at its finest, with marble floors, vaulted ceilings decorated in frescoes painted by famous Spanish painter Pellegrino Tibaldi, and handcrafted wood shelves, home to more than 40,000 extremely rare volumes dating from the 14th to 16th centuries. An architectural masterpiece of the Spanish Renaissance period, its centerpieces are the 4,700 illuminated manuscripts, unique in the world.
9. Libreria di San Marco in Venice
Named after Apostle Marcus, Marciana National Library, or Libreria di San Marco has its origins in 1362, when Petrarch expressed his wish to create a public library in Venice. When he died, he left his entire library to the city, but it wasn’t until 1468 that the current library was born from a donation from Greek Cardinal Bessarion. The room dedicated to books is decorated in the canvases of the greatest Italian painters, Titian, Paolo Veronese, Jacobo Tintoretto, and other Renaissance artists. The chamber called Antisala (the vestibule), adorned with a large Titian painting, served as the Venice State Museum until the 16th century. Nowadays, Marciana Library is home to 13,057 manuscripts, 2,884 incunabulae, 24,054 cinquecentines (books printed in the 16th century), and 3,850 periodicals.
8. Mafra Library in Portugal
The Mafra Library, the Royal Place, and the Franciscan Monastery are all part of the same edifice, the result of a promise King Joao V of Portugal made to Mary of Austria if she were to deliver a son, an heir to the throne. The Mafra Library is the world’s largest monastic library, reuniting 36,000 volumes, whose centerpiece is the first edition of Os Lusiadas, a masterpiece of Portuguese literature. There are religious manuscripts and scrolls, and an impressive collection of volumes printed between the 14th and 19th centuries, all well kept in a controlled humidity climate. The shelves are a major attraction in themselves, as each of them is uniquely handcarved. The library also boasts an ecological curiosity because librarian bats roaming free throughout the library, devouring insects and larvae specific to old libraries, that would otherwise consume the valuable books.
7. Wiblingen Monastery Library in Ulm, Germany
One of the richest and loveliest libraries in the world, spectacularly decorated by Europe’s finest artists in 1750, the Wiblingen Monastery Library is a major tourist attraction in Ulm. With generous space and facilities, it is home to over 15,000 valuable manuscripts. However, in this case, books are not its only charm. Boasting an amazing 18th century architecture, it is a great example of Rococo style. While the original abbey dates from 1093, the Wiblingen Monastery took shape in the 16th century when the old edifice underwent renovations. It immediately became a Baroque masterpiece, with winding galleries lined with statues, golden motifs, and remarkable ceiling frescoes.
6. The National Library of France in Paris
Francois Mitterand Library, or the National Library of France is a giant architectural masterpiece. Its origins can be traced to 1368, when the Royal Library was founded at the Louvre Palace. By the 19th century, it became the largest book repository in the world, thanks to various donations, including a significant one made by Victor Hugo. In 1988, president Francois Mitterand announced the expansion of one of the biggest and most luxurious libraries on Earth. When it finally opened its doors in 1998, it was called a wonder of the modern world. There are over 13 million documents, 315 million books, over 1 million multimedia files, and over 3,000 newspapers and magazines, both French and international. The library also shelters the entire editorial production of France, all the way from its origins in the 16th century.
5. Admont Abbey Library in Austria
The world’s second largest monastic library, after Mafra in Portugal, the Admont Abbey Library is an architectural jewel of the Baroque. While the Benedictine abbey was completed in 1074, it wasn’t until 1776 that the library was inaugurated. Nevertheless, it houses extremely rare and old manuscripts that the Abbey’s very first monks brought here. There are a total of 200,000 books, most of them single copies, or extremely rare. There are also 70,000 restored books, 1,400 rare manuscripts, and 900 incunabulae. There are seven main domes, each covered in extremely expensive fine frescoes by Bartolomeo Altomonte, depicting various scenes of human knowledge up to the Divine Revelation.
4. Abbey Library of Saint Gallen in Switzerland
The oldest library in Switzerland, and one of the biggest in the world, the Abbey Library of Saint Gallen is part of a large monastic complex that has been included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It is the largest Medieval library in the world, housing 2,100 volumes dating from between the 8th and 15th centuries. The Saint Gallen Abbey, including the library, dates from 719, and each year more than 100,000 visitors step through its doors to see its exhibitions and valuable Medieval books collections.
3. Trinity College Library in Dublin, Ireland
Mainly known for its Long Room, the Trinity College Library is the biggest in Ireland, one of the largest and most valuable in Europe, and one of the most impressive in the world. The library is home to over 4.5 million books, including historical manuscripts, incunabulae, and rare first editions. The centerpiece is the Long Room, 213 feet long, the biggest room in the world, lined with marble busts, home to 200,000 of the library’s oldest manuscripts. Founded in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth I, the Trinity College Library houses the famous Book of Kells, the 9th century gospel manuscript, and Oscar Wilde himself used its reading rooms in his days as student at the university.
2. US Library of Congress in Washington D.C.
The US Library of Congress, or simply the National Library, is the largest in the world, considering the impressive length of shelves housing books and manuscripts that would take several lifetimes just to go over each and every one. A few centuries ago, a devastating fire consumed the library, but it soon reborn from its own ashes after Thomas Jefferson sold his collection of 6,000 valuable books to raise money to rebuild it. The current library was built in 1800 and is home to over 150 million works of literature, including 54 million manuscripts, 18 million books, and 4.5 million maps, all of which can be studied freely by anyone with an insatiable thirst for knowledge. The imposing building boasts 530 miles of shelves sheltering the rarest collections in North America, including a draft copy of the Declaration of Independence, and one of only four existing complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible.
1. The Vatican Apostolic Library
Inaugurated in 1457 at the initiative of Pope Nicholas V, the Apostolic Library is Vatican’s best kept secret. One of the oldest libraries in the world counts over 70,000 books and is home to the world’s oldest Bible, dating from 325, which, according to historians, belonged to Constantine the Great, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. Each year, around 5,000 scholars are granted access to the library’s valuable works of literature and historical documents, but the Pope is the only person who can take a book out of the Vatican Apostolic Library. Closely supervised by a cardinal, the world’s most valuable library counts 31 miles of shelves that are home to more than 40 million extremely rare pages, secret manuscripts and documents attesting Vatican’s cunning games of power over the centuries, all kept well hidden from the public eye.
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