Sunday, December 6, 2015

Bibliophile's nightmare, and a lesson in estate planning

Gian Vincenzo Pinelli, of Padua, in northern Italy, was one of the great book collectors of the sixteenth century. As he approached the end of his life in 1601 he made plans for his magnificent library to become a permanent monument to his taste and erudition. The ten thousand volumes he had accumulated were to be transported to his family home near Naples, where a library was to be constructed on the family estate for the public to share, and admire, his majestic books. Such aspirations were not unusual in the sixteenth-century scholarly world. But the actual fate of his collection provides a cautionary tale of the dangers facing any scholar seeking to build a legacy. First of all the Venetian government intervened to remove certain manuscripts they regarded as politically sensitive. A servant stole some of the books. The collection was eventually loaded onto three ships for transportation through the Adriatic, but one was intercepted by pirates. When they discovered the cases of freight contained nothing but books they threw several overboard. The abandoned ship was washed ashore and plundered by local fishermen. Of the thirty-three cases of books left on board the authorities could recover only twenty-two. The valuable volumes taken by the locals were dismembered and used to mend boats or provide primitive window coverings. The stiff parchment pages of the most valuable manuscripts, which included a phenomenal and world famous collection of Greek texts, proved to be excellent draught excluders. 

Barely had the remains of the collection made its way to Naples when Pinelli's nephew died. The idea of a permanent collection died with him. After prolonged litigation the collection was purchased at auction by Cardinal Borromeo for his new library in Milan (the Biblioteca Ambrosiana). Borromeo's agents now made a careful selection for the long journey back to northern Italy, discarding those damaged by water or rodents, and books of less interest to their new owner.
Andrew Pettegree, "The Renaissance Library and the Challenge of Print," in Alice Crawford, ed., The Meaning of the Library (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 2015), p. 72

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