Italian Libraries

Extract from

Music Research in Italian Libraries: An Anecdotal Account of Obstacles and Discoveries

by Walter H. Rubsamen

from Notes, Second Series, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Mar., 1949), pp. 220-233

[T]he contents of many Italian libraries have neither been analyzed in print nor properly cataloged. Printed books, both rare and modern, are usually lumped together in a manuscript card catalog arranged by author, never by subject. Since a large proportion of early prints contain music by a variety of authors, and the Italian card files are rarely analytical, it is a dismal task to find a book not specifically assigned to one man. For that matter, some rare music prints have never been cataloged at all, as Edward Lowinsky (who was also in Italy on a Guggenheim Fellowship) and I discovered when we were occasionally allowed to search through the stacks. To identify the music manuscripts in a general library, I inevitably had to consult huge manuscript tomes, written perhaps in the 18th century, and arranged like the card indices by author. Since manuscripts are always grouped according to their provenience or the donor's name, there may be five or six distinct lists arranged in this manner, each identified as Fondo X or Raccolta Y, but never a common catalog for them all, as that would make research too easy! I learned to search for the occasional subject heading tucked away in a great mass of author's names, and sometimes found what I was looking for under such vague and innocuous entries as Libro di Musica, Canti Musicali, Raccolta di Musica, or lnni. lnni may cover a multitude of sins, from polyphonic motets to monophonic lauds or plain chant, so I always felt a delicious tingle of suspense until the surprise package was delivered and opened. Only when the manuscripts were• all stored in one place, and I could persuade the authorities to allow me to examine the shelves, might I be fairly sure that I had exhausted all of a library's possibilities. Otherwise, the most serious handicap to research lay in the fact that most Italian libraries are open only a few hours each day, usually in the morning. In any given city the important biblioteche were sure to have the same schedule, making it impossible to utilize a brief visit to the fullest extent.

My tour of Italian musical archives began at the Conservatory of Santa Cecilia in Rome, which houses a famous library that is in part. the property of the Conservatory and in part that of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, located in the same building. Entrance to the library is from a tiny street that has maintained its Renaissance character, the Via dei GrecL The reading room betrays the fact that the building was once a convent; windows are small and high up near the ceiling, so that artificial lighting is required even on the sunniest days. Unfortunately, during most of my stay in Rome, the suspended lights were not only dim, but so high that one read with difficulty even at the best-located tables in the room. Late arrivals always had to take tables that were in semi-darkness, yet there was never a word of complaint. I often wondered why the Italians tolerated such conditions, since it was apparent that regular work at the library might lead to blindness. During the fall I had not as yet won the confidence of the librarians nor been able to penetrate the formal reserve that envelopes positions of authority in Italy, so I peered through the gloom at my books in silence. Only toward the end of my stay in Rome, after Professor Mantica had retired as librarian, and my good friend Signorina Maddalena Pacifico had been appointed regent of the library, did a change come about. Signorina Pacifico asked me whether I could suggest anything that would improve the library, so I immediately urged that the lamps be brought down closer and that stronger bulbs be used. After this revolution had occurred, the Italian readers were all pleasantly surprised, and spoke admiringly of the improved facilities.

Rome can be one of the coldest places on earth, partly because the Romans continue to believe the myth that it doesn't get cold in south central Italy, and therefore make few if any provisions for heating. The carpetless floors in buildings like the Conservatory are generally made of stone that is cold as a tomb. In November, the temperature in Santa Cecilia's reading-room dropped lower and lower, so I hopefully inquired when we might expect some heating. I could see radiators along the wall, but they were like ice to the touch. The library employees, who were bundled up in great-coats while at work, informed me that it wasn't necessary to heat the rooms as yet, but that I shouldn’t worry, since the Conservatory-or shall I call it the convent-had already received its ration of coal. Some weeks later, after I had donned my long woolen underwear and wore an overcoat with a blanket around my knees while reading, the employees observed that I was stamping my feet to keep them warm, so they brought out a thin mat made of hemp, which helped a bit. Finally, when my breathing resembled the puffing of a steam engine, Santa Cecilia turned on the heat for an hour every morning… . In retrospect, it is all very amusing. Santa Cecilia will always remain in my memory as a symbol of Italya combination of incredible working conditions and the most charming people and atmosphere on earth.