Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana I

Piazza San Marco in the urban context

Ducale Piazzo San Marco aerial Venice

Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana      Biblioteca front and side

Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana  Venice
photos: Zairon and Wolfgang Modorer

Titian ‘Cardinal Pietro Bembo’

The Zecca and Jacopo’s library were built at almost the same time. Deciding on building a library took almost half a century. Cardinal Bessarion (Pedro Berruguete made after a design by Joost van Gent) had left the city a very valuable collection of five hundred manuscripts, mainly in Greek. The way the city handled the inheritance was considered a big scandal by the then Venetian citizens. Even though Venice was a centre for Greek studies, the will of the cardinal stated clearly that a library was to be built for the collection in or nearby the San Marco. The procurator Vettor Grimani and the new librarian cardinal, Pietro Bembo, fought for a new and good library. Bembo had a lot of influence and used it skilfully to make the construction of a library happen.

The construction of the piazzetta was finished exactly a month before it was decided that a new library was to be built (before the reconstruction). It was impossible to break down all the taverns and inns on the lot all at one time. This slowed the process tremendously. The rental fees brought in a lot of profit for the Procuratie de Supra (especially the inns brought in a lot of money). The Supra could ill afford to miss out on this money.

Tintoretto 'Jacopo Sansovino'

Tintoretto ‘Jacopo Sansovino’

According to the plan of Sansovino the first floor would be comprised of smaller shops. The procurators had no qualms against this idea. The rental income of these shops could replace the income from the inns. According to Vasari, Jacopo also considered commercial needs in his design. He knew this was essential to getting approval for the construction. In Vasari’s words: ‘he earned their [the procurators ed.] approval and affection’.

The corner bay

Metope bended around the corner

The corner bay was designed in 1539 and it is a brilliant solution to Vitruvius’ demands. Sansovino invited all the architects to think of a solution for the corners. Vitruvius demanded that the frieze had to end at the corner with half a metope. He also demanded that the triglyphs should be exactly above the column. When Sansovino invited all the architects, however, he had already thought of a solution, according to his son Francesco. By adding an extra pilaster on the pillar and on top of that the triglyph, the metope has more space. The metope was bended around the corner that put both halves on different sides. With that Sansovino answered to Vitruvius’ demands. The corner solution was admired everywhere.

Metope around corner Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana

The collision of a vault

After this demonstration of virtuosity came disaster. The vault of the first bay seen from the campanile collapsed in the night of the 18th of December in 1545. This is the bay beneath the library. Sansovino was arrested in the same night and thrown into jail. Jacopo had to fix the vault on his own behalf, he wasn’t paid for his services, despite the support of Titian, Aretino and the Spanish ambassador Mendoza. Only Vettor Grimani escaped judgement.

In hindsight, the procurators overreacted. The damage was limited. Sansovino wrote to Bembo regarding the incident: ‘it wasn’t as bad as it first seemed, the window had fallen down, along with the top vault. Jacopo estimated the repair costs at 800 to 1000 ducats. Jacopo thought it happened because of the frost. Moreover, the bricklayers removed the wooden formals too soon.

Nonetheless, Jacopo admitted flat wooden ceilings might have been more convenient. The procurator Antonio Capello had pointed this out. This would have been a better fit for Venetian tradition, which was familiar with the unstable ground that made stone vaults dangerous. Sansovino did not have any experience with this problem. He had worked in Rome, where the ground was stable, so stone vaults were never a problem for him before. Wooden ceiling beams were more elastic and certainly lighter. A report was made a year after the collision that said: ‘Stronger, more safe and more durable than before the collision.’

The completion of the library

Johann Richter ‘View of the Piazzetta in Venice’

Around 1550 the first seven bays were completed, so the library could be taken into use. The next phase was the demolition of the inns that were left. This seemed to go easier. Three tenants could be ridded easily. The last three had to move, that eventually worked out. The last inn ‘The Lion’ moved to the Campo Rusulo near the new Cavaletto. According to Vasari the profits of the new shops increased with 400 ducats per year. The procurators had met the obligation to preserve at least three inns near the San Marco. Only a small block with a meat market remained.

Johann Richter 'View of the Piazzetta in Venice' detail

Canaletto ‘Venice, the Piazzetta, looking west, with the Library’

Canaletto 'Venice, the Piazzetta, looking west, with the Library'
C. F. H. Werner 'Interior of the Marciana Library'
interior of the Sansovino Hall, the Marciana Library

C. F. H. Werner ‘Interior of the Marciana Library’ 1855

The procuration had its sights set on finishing the whole block. The inflation increased in the fifties of the 16th century, but the construction had to be finished quickly. In a long request the procuration spoke about the completion of the project: ‘for honour and dignity of our Republic, and as extra advantage to the church’. The money needed was gathered: properties on the main land were sold, uncollected rent was collected. Thanks to these financial efforts the construction got along quickly. Fourteen bays were completed in 1554 and two years later another two were finished. After these only three remained. After about 1555 the interior of the library was built and the library opened its doors.

The last building that had to be demolished had a meat market on the first floor. The original intent was to include this building into the library. This was waved eventually because the butchers would not have enough room for their daily business. The room on the second floor of these last five bays was meant for apartments for the procurators. The meat market was moved and Scamozzi completed the last five bays.


Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana : Facade  lagoon
photo: Wolfgang Moroder

Zecca left Biblioteca right       Facade Biblioteca     Meat market (Jost Amman)

facades: Zecca Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana
photo: Abxbay

Continuation Venice day 4: Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana II