Pilgrimage to the Ariostea

Written by  Gaetano Tumiati
Homage paid by a student who had not entered its doors for half a century.
I had not been into Palazzo Paradiso for more than half a century. Every time I was over that way during my occasional returns to Ferrara, for one reason or another I had to pass it by, but each time I saw its austere 16th century façade I never failed to cast a glance of nostalgia or recognition for the happy moments of my youth passed between its walls in the late 1930s when, as well as the Biblioteca Ariostea, it also housed our ancient university.

Now, many years on, thinking of our almost total ignorance of the history of the university and the library raises a smile: all we knew about our school was that it was one of the oldest in Europe and that its students had included Nicolaus Copernicus.
About the Biblioteca Ariostea, then occupying only the first floor of the palazzo, we were less confident, because it made us feel uneasy. And as for its history, complete ignorance. It was enough for us to know that the tomb of Ludovico Ariosto was there as was - a disconcerting detail - the heart, duly preserved, of the poet Vincenzo Monti.

Unlike my fellow students I, however, had a link, albeit indirect, with the Ariostea. Its legendary director, he who had guided its destiny for forty-two years, making a rarely matched contribution to the library's stock, came to dine at my house from time to time. Short, with an expression midway between the naïve and the malicious which twinkled into a network of wrinkles, Giuseppe Agnelli was then already more than eighty.
Our father admired and loved him for his broad culture, for the extraordinary commitment that he brought to all the problems of Ferrara and also for the per the style with which, now and then, he would slip sparkling lines in French into his polished Italian.

The familiar face of this extraordinary person comes back to mind every so often on certain particular occasions. At it came back to me a little time ago, just when (after half a century) I was heading for Palazzo Paradiso, to pay my compliments on the occasion of the library's 250th anniversary.

But it was short-lived. As soon as I stepped through the monumental entrance, the image of Giuseppe Agnelli disappeared. In front of me, the bare sixteenth century courtyard had been transformed into a study space fully equipped with sun umbrellas, seats and tables, with several dozen young people reading books and taking notes. A lot of jeans, plenty of training shoes, almost like an American college. Should this be the symbol for the modernised library?
Almost to underline this suggestion, a little later a polite young staff member ran through the changes to the Ariostea since the reconstruction in the 1990s: new offices, new reading rooms, new self-propelled stacks, new computerised catalogues, internet stations, microfilm, installations to control temperature and humidity for the conservation of the most precious volumes and manuscripts, restoration of the frescoes and of the incunabula. After all this work, the Ariostea, with its 360 thousand volumes and 3000 ancient manuscripts can be considered as one of Europe's great libraries.

The great waiting hall now called the Sala dell'Astrologo has been dedicated to children's literature: it holds thousands of books for children from infancy to the age of 14: the expertly restored frescoes are clear and bright. The chain of small rooms in the left wing of the building contain publicly accessible shelving holding a good fifty thousand volumes. Here again the eye is struck by the complex of fully restored green monochrome frescoes.

Coming to the eighteenth century Foschini staircase leading up to the first floor, I paused beneath the stone inscription: "Nicolaus Copernicus, astronomer, mathematician, philosopher, doctor OF medicine AND law graduated IN canon law AT Ferrara ON 31 May 1503."
Here I reached the most exclusive and renowned section of the library, with more sober rooms, regulated for temperature and humidity, where manuscripts and incunabula are kept. One room gave me pause: that dedicated to Lanfranco Caretti, a dear friend of my university years, who passed on a few years ago. It is used for the consultation of rare manuscripts, which I think is why they have dedicated it to him, a master of historical and literary analysis, particularly of the works of Torquato Tasso. And here I am at the finish line: the Sala Ariosto. It is dominated by the tomb of Ariosto, with the marble bust of the poet at the centre.

Nothing could be more fitting than that he should be the symbol of the library; but when, after the emotion had passed, I was about to leave the room, I noticed that in a corner on the opposite side there was a computer supervised by a young member of staff. Now, at the start of my visit, downstairs in the offices, I had seen plenty of computers without paying them any heed; but this glowing screen, placed amidst marbles, frescoes and showcases, stood out with particular force, demanding attention, almost shouting out its demand to be included among the symbols of the modern Ariostea.

And perhaps the girl, too, silently expressed the same aspiration.