Isabella Cortese’s Book of Secrets and the Biblioteca Marciana

While conducting research in Venice on the Italian Books of Secrets by the alchemist Isabella Cortese I had occasion to visit the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (National Library of St Mark’s) in Venice. It is in a beautiful building that was designed by Jacopo Sansovino in 1536. The biblioteca itself was constructed from 1537 to 1553, with frescoes and ancillary decorations being completed in 1560. In 1588 Vincenzo Scamozzi undertook the construction of five additional arcaded bays of Sansovino’s design, which brought the building down to the molo (embankment) next to Sansovino’s building for the Zecca (Venetian Mint). One of the early librarians (in 1530) was master Pietro Bembo. The bulk of the collections in the original library was a gift to the “La Serenissima” by Cardinal Bessarion. He donated his collection of some 750 codices in Latin and Greek in May of 1468. Soon thereafter he added another 250 manuscripts and incunabula (printed books). The Biblioteca Marciana constituted the first “public” library open to scholars in Venice. Here is a photo of the library from Piazza San Marco:


Off to a great start with such a handsome collection, the Biblioteca Marciana then profited from an ingenious law of 1603 that required a copy of all books printed in Venice to be given to the Marciana.

Thinking about the library gives rise to a treasured memory that I would like to share.

I was able to hold the 500-year-old book, entitled “I Secreti de la Isabella Cortese”, while visiting the Biblioteca. It was the most surreal moment of my life. The librarian at the research desk actually brought the wrong book down to me and a super nice gentlemen took pity on the fact that I had come all the way from New Orleans for a peek and was about to be turned away due to closing time. He led me by the hand into the back rooms and upstairs…into the archives. Rows of dusty old books on dusty old bookshelves, on the left and right of narrow staircases and crotchety ancient doorways. When we got to the shelf that the Secreti book calls home he lifted it off the shelf and placed it in my hands. Then, we went back down all the creaky staircases, low doorways, and narrow aisles of shelves to the main floor and modern fluorescent lights. I sat down among the modern trappings of the library, relishing the experience and the dichotomy of the two sides of this ‘biblioteca’. Side by side they have modern computers and old-fashioned card catalogs (!!), and side by side they have books printed last year on shiny new shelves and books printed hundreds of years ago on the first presses ever invented. The book felt electric in my hands, like it was buzzing with the energy of everyone who has held it from 1588 to now. I turned the pages like they were made of the most delicate lace and breathed as slow as possible, as if that would make the seconds last longer before I had to give it back. Below, you’ll find a facsimile of the title page.

secreti cover

Thank you for letting me relive that experience just now. You have brought the biggest smile to my face. I hope the image below of the entrance to the library gives you cause to smile, too.

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