Magliabechi: A most estimable, exemplary individual

We all have different heroes in various stages of life, and somehow we never grow out of the habit.

For me, my latest hero was this individual I came across in a book I had presented myself on Bde Day this year. Let me cite the relevant passage…

“The most eminent type of this class of men was Magliabecchi, librarian of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who could direct you to any book in any part of the world, with the precision of which the metropolitan policeman directs you to St Paul’s or Piccadilly. It is of him that the stories are told of answers to inquiries after books, in these terms: ‘There is but one copy of that book in the world. It is in the Grand Seignior’s library at Constantinople, and is the seventh book in the second shelf on the right as you go in.'”

John Hill Burton, “The Book Hunter” (1863).

Sounds quite fantastic, doesn’t it? My curiousity now fully aroused, I did some research on Signor Magliabecchi, and found it was all true. This is what several accounst had to say of him.

Antonio Magliabecchi’s official position as librarian to Cosmo III, Grand Duke of Tuscany, gave him considerable prominence, but he is remembered more especially for his personal characteristics and his vast store of self-acquired learning. He has been described as a literary glutton, and the most rational of bibliomaniacs, inasmuch as he read everything he bought. His own library consisted of 40,000 books and 10,000 MSS. His house literally overflowed with books; the stairways were lined with them, and they even filled the front porch.
Many stories are told of his marvelous memory that was “like wax to
receive and marble to retain.”

In worldly matters Magliabecchi was extremely negligent. He even forgot to
draw his salary for over a year. He wore his clothes until they fell from
him, and thought it a great waste of time to undress at night, “life being
so short and books so plentiful.”  (My sentiments exactly…..)

And this is what that esteemed man of letters, Isaac D’Israeli (Benjamin’s father), had to say about out good librarian….

ANTHONY MAGLIABECHI, who died at the age of eighty, was celebrated for his great knowledge of books. He has been called the Helluo, or the Glutton of Literature, as Peter Comestor received his nickname from his amazing voracity for food….

~~~Magliabechi’s character is singular; for though his life was wholly passed in libraries, being librarian to the Duke of Tuscany, he never wrote himself. There is a medal which represents him sitting, with a book in one hand, and with a great number of books scattered on the ground. The candid inscription signifies, that “it is not sufficient to become learned to have read much, if we read without reflection.” This is the only remains we have of his own composition that can be of service to posterity. A simple truth, which may however be inscribed in the study of every man of letters.

His habits of life were uniform. Ever among his books, he troubled himself with no other concern whatever…  Although he lost no time in writing himself, he gave considerable assistance to authors who consulted him. He was himself an universal index to all authors. He had one book, among many others, dedicated to him, and this dedication consisted of a collection of titles of works which he had had at different times dedicated to him, with all the eulogiums addressed to him in prose and verse. When he died, he left his large collection of books for the public use; they now compose the public library of Florence.

Heyman, a celebrated Dutch professor, visited this erudite librarian, who was considered as the ornament of Florence. He found him amongst his books, of which the number was prodigious. Two or three rooms in the first story were crowded with them, not only along their sides, but piled in heaps on the floor, so that it was difficult to sit, and more so to walk. A narrow space was contrived, indeed, so that by walking sideways you might extricate yourself from one room to another. This was not all; the passage below stairs was full of books, and the staircase from the top to the bottom was lined with them. When you reached the second story, you saw with astonishment three rooms, similar to those below, equally full, so crowded, that two good beds in these chambers were also crammed with books.

This apparent confusion did not, however, hinder Magliabechi from immediately finding the books he wanted. He knew them all so well, that even to the least of them it was suffiicient to see its outside, to say what it was; and indeed he read them day and night, and never lost sight of any. He ate on his books, he slept on his books, and quitted them as rarely as possible. During his whole life he only went twice from Florence; once to see Fiesoli, which is not above two leagues distant, and once ten miles farther by order of the Grand Duke.

(Well the description of Magliabechi’s lodging can be taken as a good description, albeit in a much reduced scale, of my own habitation…..)


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