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C - 10 : Making Knowledge a Public Good

One of the two buildings on the photo below (Piazza San Marco) had an ever lasting impact on mankind. Can you guess which one?

A) Is it the Doge Palace on the left?

B) Or the Marciana Building on the right?

View from the Basilica San Marco to San Giorgio Maggiore

Most people believe it is the Doge palace - of course! It represents 1’000 years of the Venetian Republic - the one and only republic in the entire world at that time, the seapower that England copied to build the British Empire.

But why would Venice build a library in such a prominent spot? Just opposite its political and religious center? Was there something special about it? Indeed there was.

Cardinal Bessarion from Constantinople (1403 - 1472)

It all started with Cardinal Bessarion, a scholar from Constantinople. Without him, there probably would not be such a library. Bessarion was the abbot of a monastery in Constantinople and a key member of the Byzantine delegation to Rome. Under the threat of the Ottoman Turks, his delegation tried to reconcile the two churches who had split in 1054 in order to forge a military alliance with Rome and the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations. But the negotiations failed. Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453.

One of Bessarion’s manuscripts - a text from Plato

Bessarion was successful in a different way. When travelling to Rome in 1439, he brought his large library of 700 manuscripts with him. Waiting in Rome for the Pope’s decision, he started teaching Greek philosophy and science thus transferring lost knowhow from antiquity back to Europe. He was one of the scholars who triggered the Renaissance in Italy. Upon his death be bequated his library to the Serene Republic because he felt his books were not safe in the hands of the Vatican where several conservative cardinals despised him.

Biblioteca Marciana built by Jacopo Sansovino & Vicenzo Scamozzi (1537 - 1588)

For a while Venice did not know what to do with this gift and stored the books in an empty room in the Doge Palace. It was the time of the Italian wars and the defence of Venice had priority. By 1530 however, and after several defeats on the battle field, the Republic recognised that knowledge was the base of power and decided to build a public library. Up to this point book collections were private and controlled by church or nobility. Now every-body would get access. Bessarion’s 700 manuscripts formed the core of the public library.

Biblioteca Marciana - Public Reading Room

The construction took 41 years (1537 - 1588). It is a colorful story by itself that you will hear in Venice but too long to tell here. Due to its tolerant regime and the limited reach of the catholic inquisition, Venice became by the end of the 15th century a center for publishing and produced an extraordinary variety of books. Many revolutionary books on science and medicin were first published here - and a copy was made available to the Marciana Library. Not only ancient knowledge was now publicly available but also revolutionary science papers from Copernicus or Galileo Galilei. The library became the place were modern thinking was disseminated and the scientifique revolution started. The age of unrestricted access to knowledge began and knowhow became a public good - a development the internet accelerated but not invented. We would live in a different world today without the scientific revolution.

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