Legacy of Letters 2023—The Ambrosiana Library in Milano

Frontispiece from De bello Gallico by Julius Caesar (Biblioteca Ambrosiana MS A 243 inf).

On orientation day of Legacy of Letters 2023 there will be an option to visit the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milano. Lettering and type historian James Clough will join us. I asked James what is special about the Ambrosiana for type and lettering enthusiasts. He sent me these comments:

The Ambrosian Library
The Ambrosian Library (Biblioteca Ambrosiana) was founded by Cardinal Federico Borromeo in 1607. It is located in the center of Milan and within the building there is also an Art Gallery including works by Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Caravaggio. Above the original entrance to the library there is a Latin inscription (Bibliotheca Ambrosiana) in metal letters in a style that can safely be attributed to Giovanfrancesco Cresci who was a protégé of Cardinal Borromeo. The library has a great collection of Byzantine manuscripts—the earliest is a sixth-century illustrated Iliad in Greek uncials—as well as works in Hebrew, Arabic and Persian. The collection of Renaissance manuscripts includes Bartolomeo Sanvito’s decorated initials and his humanistic script in Caesar’s De bello Gallico. There are autograph letters written by Boccaccio, Galileo, Michelangelo and, last but certainly not least, Aldus Manutius. Works printed by Aldus include De Aetna (1496), the octavo Virgil of 1501 (the first book set in italic type), and the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499).

Frontispiece of De rebus praeclaris a Pio IV by Pier Donato Cesi (Biblioteca Ambrosiana MS A 111 inf).

An example of the Ambrosiana’s excellent holdings in Renaissance manuscripts is De rebus praeclaris a Pio IV by Pier Donato Cesi, written between 1551 and 1600 by an unidentified scribe in a beautiful, nearly upright, cancellaresca corsiva (see above).

I did research at the Ambrosiana in 1994 and 2002. My focus was the work of Bartolomeo Sanvito. The Ambrosiana owns three manuscripts wholly written out by him, not just the beautiful Caesar (A.243 inf.) that James has noted. See Bartolomeo Sanvito—An Inventory (Part I) for nos. 7, 31, and 32.

It should also be noted that the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana (art gallery) is in the same building as the Biblioteca Ambrosiana and that there will be time for those who wish to visit it to do so.