Books & Manuscripts

Celebrating the World’s Most Beautiful Libraries

By Christian House

In an epic quest, photographer Massimo Listri has captured a world of wisdom. By photographing the oldest, grandest, most illustrious and intriguing libraries from around the globe, he has produced a celebration of understanding and knowledge in this era of fake news. Visiting Gottingen University Library, Goethe once remarked: “One feels as in the presence of a great capital, noiselessly yielding its incalculable interest.” Compiled in the stately volume The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries, Listri’s photographs prove that libraries delight the eye as well as fuel the mind. Sotheby's next Books & Manuscripts auction is an enormous personal library, the Erwin Tomash Library on the History of Computing, and takes place from 18-19th September.

The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries
Biblioteca do Convento de Mafra, Mafra, Portugal. Copyright: Massimo Listri / TASCHEN

These bookrooms have enjoyed – or endured – dramatic histories. In his introduction, antiquarian Georg Ruppelt notes: “Libraries have always faced dangers for as long as they have existed, whether from war, theft, rodents, micro-organisms, water or fire.”

The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries
Klosterbibliothek Ottobeuren, Ottobeuren, Germany (detail). Copyright: Massimo Listri / TASCHEN

Some are private, others public, some intended to educate, others to keep the faith. Listri’s tour takes in medieval, classical, baroque and Victorian examples. Owners include royal families, churches and states; readers range from nobles and academics to monks and lawyers. Their collections include iconic works from the Book of Kells to original manuscripts by George Washington, Jane Austen and Mark Twain.

Over the decades, Sotheby’s has seen other artists’ representations of these buildings pass through its salerooms. These include Richard Stark’s drawings of the Morgan Library in New York and Candida Höfer’s large-format photographs of the Austrian national library in Vienna and the Rijksmuseum library in Amsterdam.

The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries
Rijksmuseum, Research Library, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Copyright: Massimo Listri / TASCHEN

As a subject for a photographer, libraries offer grandeur, evidence of obsessions and odd architectural flourishes. As well as producing incredible panoramas – the interior of the Biblioteca do Convento de Mafra in Portugal is a symphony in white – Listri finds charming details in these eminent institutions: the sign-writers' artistry on woodwork at Trinity College Library; a gargoyle in a Peruvian monastery.

The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries
Trinity College Library, Dublin, Ireland. Copyright: Massimo Listri / TASCHEN

Libraries, of course, are repositories of more than just books. They contain sculpture, furniture, vitrines, maps, tapestries, globes, printing presses and portraits of patrons. A naval cannon rolls along a corridor in Seville’s Archivo Gernal de Indias, while Egyptian sarcophagi stand guard in a corner of the Stiftsbibliothek Sankt Gallen in Switzerland.

The fabric of these buildings offer other gems. The spiral staircases, cast-iron mezzanines, gold leaf and intricate plaster often equal the illuminated marvels found on the shelves. And the scale of these libraries is stunning: in Rio de Janeiro, the Real Gabinete Português de Leitura holds some 350,000 volumes on Portuguese culture and history.

The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries
Real Gabinete Português de Leitura, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Copyright: Massimo Listri / TASCHEN

National differences can be discerned from their various styles (marble and frescoes are prominent in the Vatican library; there is a hushed Hogwarts atmosphere at the Codrington Library, Oxford). While most of the libraries are barometers of wealth, perhaps Listri’s most romantic shots are of a set of dark rooms on the top floor in a musty convent in Lima. The Biblioteca del Conventode San Francisco de Asís is a cocoon of old tiles, flaking paint, dusty skylights and jumbled stacks of volumes. Its perfection lies in its imperfections.

Massimo Listri. The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries , Elisabeth Sladek, Georg Ruppelt. Hardcover, 11.4 x 15.6 in., 560 pages. US$ 200 | £ 150 | € 150

The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries by Massimo Listri is available from Taschen.

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