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Rome was a haven of scholarly libraries in the fin-de-siècle Europe. There was, of course, the magnificent Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. And then there were the Casanatense, Vallicelliana, Angelica, and Corsini libraries. Not to mention the recently founded Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emmanuele which was praised for its modern heating system. And lastly, there were the libraries of the national research institutes that had been established since the Vatican Archive had opened its doors in 1880. Historians had an access to hundreds of years of scholarly tradition in textual format in one city. However, the libraries were not just repositories of textual heritage storing, cataloguing, and organizing knowledge from all over the world. No, indeed, the books that were stored in these libraries carried different value as well. When they were catalogued and displayed in a specific way under a specific label in these libraries, they began to speak a loud language of nineteenth-century nationalism.

In 1903, Ursmer Berlière, the director of the Belgian institute in Rome, praised in the Revue Bénédictine the collections of the Vatican Library. He Vatican_Library_at_Rome_(2422195108)explained also how the library had organized some of its books according to their national origin. A large share of these books were received via the established networks of book exchange with learned institutes abroad. Berlière was thrilled about this system that seemed to serve so many purposes. The library gained books and scholars gained access to the latest research from all over the world. Moreover, as Berlière explained, the exchange satisfied patriotic needs: the national displays of books bestowed visibility, prestige, and recognition in a highly international and academic setting. Since everyone seemed to benefit from the system, there was nothing to complain about it, Berlière concluded.

Not everyone shared Berlière’s excitement though. Henry Biaudet, the director of the Finnish expedition, certainly agreed with the political usefulness of nationally constructed book collections. He had been instrumental in 1902 in establishing the exchange of publications between the Vatican library and Finnish learned societies, but by 1913 he had begun to doubt the system. He was disappointed in the Vatican library. While Finns sent to Rome their most important publications, the Vatican seemed to return the favor by dispatching to Helsinki books that were antiquated remainders of a stock that had lost their marketvalue.  This was an insult that hurt Biaudet’s national pride. Biaudet also assumed that Finnish scholarship would gain more visibility if the books that were shipped to Rome were used for forming a library for the Finnish historical expedition. He knew that the libraries of the national research institutes were influential national showcases, and it would have been a shame if Finland missed this wonderful opportunity for promoting its cause. Therefore he instructed his correspondents in Finland to send their books to him rather than to the Vatican library.

The network of institutes was not immune to the current political tensions and the libraries, indeed, were turned into important spaces for nationalistic propaganda. Initially most of the institutes had planned the libraries to serve only their own members, but soon the tide turned and the libraries were opened to benefit the entire academic community in Rome. Historians welcomed the news with enthusiasm, and Theodor von Sickel from the Austrian institute was pleased to report in 1891 to the Ministry of Culture and Education in Vienna how the library of the institute was occupied in the evenings both by their own members and visitors from outside the institute. The libraries became busy arenas for cultivating research, but they also became measurements for judging an institute’s academic significance, prestige, and position in the hierarchical and competitive local scholarly community.

When the libraries had been consulted by members only, they had contained nothing else but the most essential reference works. But now that more and more outsiders were consulting their books, it was pressing to expand the collections. The rareness, quality, and comprehensiveness of their collections were indicators of the institutes’ standing.It was necessary to improve other facilites as well, since historians were eager to comment on and compare the decor, furnishings, and comforts of the reading rooms. The Hungarian historian Vilmos Fraknói was certainly not an exception when he reported to Sickel in 1905 how the German institute kept on expanding, how they had their library in new and spacious premises, and how their collection was almost as valuable as the one that the French institute owned. Together with the Austrian institute, the German and French institutes were indeed the strongest contestants for the nomination of a leading institutional library in Rome.

Maintaining and expanding a scholarly library required resources which most of the institutes did not have. The majority of the institutes were modest at best and many of the directors were embarrassed of their humble quarters. The small budgets, however, were not their only concerns. The institutes seemed to agree that those who decided on their funding back at home were clueless about the situation in Rome and seemed to believe that a mere presence there was sufficient. Arnaud Puig Grau and Javier Arce have described the difficulties the Spanish institute had to face because everyone in Madrid was ignorant about what truly was needed in Rome. The Spaniards were housed in an old, worn-out, and gloomy apartment with a large space that was supposed to be a library. Except that there were no books, no furniture, no nothing besides the director Josep Pijoan’s bicycle leaning against a wall. The reply from Madrid for an appeal to fund a library was astounding: since Rome was filled with books, there was no need to have them in the institute. Instead, the letter encouraged the director to purchase a pianoforte for the students to relax with, a gas cooker for preparing meals, and a good camera for recording and distributing images of all the joyful moments in the institute.

Having their libraries constantly scrutinized was distressing for the directors, but since the national reputation was at stake, the competition provided also an excuse for requesting a budget increase.Ludwig_von_Pastor Ludwig von Pastor, the director of the Austrian institute, wrote in his diary 28 January 1906 that it was necessary to address the library’s funding during his upcoming trip to Vienna. The situation was unbearable, since the Austrian institute was dramatically lagging behind its biggest competitors: “The Prussians had 25 000 RM, the French 20 000 Fr. ascribed for their libraries and we c. 400 K.!”, Pastor deplored and showed how well he was aware of the finances of his competitors. This was not only a serious scholarly impediment to the members of the Austrian institute, but as Pastor observed, also a matter of national pride. A well-stocked library at the institute conferred prestige which, then, “our Monarchy may claim abroad in scientific matters.” This was pretty clear language about the political meanings a sheer existence of books could acquire in a library.

The competition between the institutes was largely prompted by the growing political tensions and nationalistic ambitions before the outbreak of the World War One. Yet, as Pastor implied, the investment in an institute’s library certainly benefitted research as well. Particularly the “three big”, Austria, France, and Germany, were able to build impressive collections comprising manuscripts, rare books, and a broad selection of contemporary research literature. The fruits of this rapid and ambitious expansion can still be enjoyed today in these libraries which hold invaluable collections and foster a truly international and inspiring scholarly environment.


This post was inspired by the theme of the upcoming 2016 SHARP conference in Paris, “Languages of the Book / Les langues du livre”. Come and hear on Thursday 21 July a wonderful session “The Language of History in the 19th Century” with a great lineup: papers by Fiona McIntosh-Varjabédian, Ian Hesketh, Andrew Hobbs, and yours truly. The papers will be commented and a discussion led by professor Leslie Howsam. If you won’t make it, don’t forget to tune in Twitter using #sharp16!


The Papers of Henry Biaudet, National Archive of Finland


Berlière Ursmer, “Aux Archives Vaticanes”, Revue Bénédictine (1903): 132-173.

“Briefe von Wilhelm Fraknói an Theodor von Sickel aus den Jahren 1877 bis 1906”, ed. Leo Santifaller. Römische Historische Mitteilungen 6 & 7 (1962-1964): 191-351.

Pastor Ludwig von, Tagebücher – Briefe – Erinnerungen, ed. Wilhelm Wühr (Heidelberg: F. H. Kerle Verlag, 1950).

Sickel Theodor von, Römische Erinnerung. Nebst ergänzenden Briefen und Aktenstücken, ed. Leo Santifaller (Vienna: Universum Verlagsges, 1967).


Goldbrunner Hermann, “Von der Casa Tarpea zur Via Aurelia Antica: Zur Geschichte der Bibliothek des Deutschen Historischen Instituts in Rom”, Das Deutsche Historische Institut in Rom 1888–1988, eds. R. Elze and A. Esch (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1990): 34-36

Puig Grau Arnaud & Arce Javier, “La Scuola Spagnola di Storia e Archeologia”, Speculum mundi. Roma centro internazionale di ricerche umanistiche. Unione Internazionale degli Istituti di Archeologia, Storia e Storia dell’arte in Roma, ed. Paolo Vian (Rome: Unione Internazionale degli Istituti di Archeologia, Storia e Storia dell’arte in Roma, 1991): 239-256.