The Marciana Library


Jacopo Sansovino, Marciana Library, 1537-53, Venice (Photograph by Marjorie Och)

Jacopo Sansovino, Marciana Library, 1537-53, Venice (Photograph by Marjorie Och)


        Further articulation of the myth of Venice came in Sansovino’s later projects in the Piazzetta. The most remarked upon is Sansovino’s Library of Saint Mark or Biblioteca Marciana.  With a cryptic beginning, an original plan for new housing for the Procurators of San Marco beginning at the southern end of the piazza transformed into a plan for the Marciana Library begun at the campanile.[1]  Although the reasoning for the sudden shift in plans is unknown, the date of the ground breaking is well recorded as March 6, 1537.  With the library’s completion Venice argued for its scholastic strength through prominent architecture much as it asserted the stability of its economy in the Zecca.

        Scholarship, particularly of ancient texts in Latin and Greek, was essential to the reemergence of Classical philosophy and literature during the Renaissance.  With a limited supply of texts, several libraries were the centers for Renaissance scholarship.  Venice was fortunate enough to have a significant collection bequeathed to it by Cardinal Basilios Bessarion in 1468.  The donor was a leading humanist and translated many seminal works from Greek.[2]  Consequently, owning his large manuscript collection was in itself a mark of distinction.

        Therefore it was quite scandalous that the donated tomes were never given a home as Bessarion stipulated.[3]  Already embarrassed for the lapse of time since 1468, the shame was compacted by Venice’s role as the leading center of Greek studies.  By building the ornate library in a notable place Venice portrayed itself as a center of learning and Classical knowledge and ended their embarrassment.

        In this instance both the Senate and Bessarion are recorded sharing their hopes for the library to rekindle a spirit of antiquity.  Bessarion hoped to create a public library like that of Trajan.  In turn the Venetian Senate decreed that the complex was to, “emulate the Ancients,” in 1515.   With stocked and accessible reading rooms the library was successful.  This great interior function was expressed on the exterior by Sansovino’s astute design.

        The fully realized structure that remains is viewed as Sansovino’s masterpiece.  Despite its beauty, the fact that it was the most beloved of his projects by the Venetians points to their pro Roman bias.  This favorable bias for all things Classical is evidenced by a comparison of the library to other contemporaneous buildings in Venice.  Through comparison we can see that the library is very similar to other Venetian buildings such as the Scuole Grande di San Rocco.  The large piano nobile, arcade, and windows were ubiquitous in the city.  Removing those common elements as potential sources of its adoration, one is left with the Roman symbols that adorn it and its close adherence to Vitruvian proportion.[4]

Roofline of the Marciana Library, (Photograph by Marjorie Och)

Roofline of the Marciana Library, (Photograph by Marjorie Och)

        The complete correct use of the Doric and Ionic orders would have satisfied the educated Venetians and their recent eager consumption of architectural texts.  Taught to look for certain proportions by Fra Giocondo and Serlio, the audience had developed more codified taste.  More importantly to the general populace, the Vitruvian components drip with Roman iconography.  At the corners of the balustrade large obelisks stand capped with spheres reminiscent of the embellished obelisks of Roman piazzas.  Running between the obelisks on the roof were naturalistic statues reminiscent of antiquity.  As antique sculptures were enthusiastically collected by the Venetian patriciate at the time they were especially potent symbols in the city.  Other symbols on the facade include keystone heads, spandrel figures, and the frieze of putti and garlands.  Further recognition of a Roman identity can be traced to joining of engaged columns to the arcade along both stories as seen in the Colosseum or Theater of Marcellus.[5]  Although it not a perfect recreation of Roman buildings, the library displays enough iconography to clearly promote its message.

        By again adding all’antica style to the heart of the city Sansovino dressed Venice for the role the humanists were prescribing in their histories.  Writing from the time shows that Sansovino’s evocation of the Classical past was a success.  Vasari describes world travelers judging it to be without parallel.  The ensuing great architect Palladio described it as the, “richest and most ornate [building] since Antiquity.”[6] As this quotation shows, Sansovino made Venice an extension of Rome and even more beguiling.


[1]   Deborah Howard, Jacopo Sansovino: Architecture and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975), 15. 

[2]   D.S. Chambers, The Imperial Age of Venice: 1380-1580, (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1970), 149.

[3]   The books were moved several times as plans for their storage continually fell through.  In 1531 they were moved in their original boxes to the Ducal Palace.  From there they were looted extensively by the city’s patricians.  Significant threats and cajoling were necessary to reconstitute the collection. Deborah Howard, The Architectural History of Venice, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 18.

[4]   Howard, The Architectural History, 175. 

[5]   Howard, The Architectural History, 176.

[6]   Howard, Jacopo Sansovino, 26.


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