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Cesena’s Malatestian Library. Stepping back into the Middle Ages

By Thursday, 30 May 2024 14:13

Visiting the Malatestian Library in Cesena is like stepping back into the Middle Ages. 

A library donated for public use in the 15th century

Dating back to immediately before the invention of printing, the Malatestian was the first civic library in Europe, and is the only 15th-century library that is still perfectly intact. Cesena is in the Emilia-Romagna region, between Ravenna, the Adriatic Sea and the Apennine mountains, a handsome art city where cultural traditions go hand in hand with hospitality, good food and good living. The library is in a wing of the monastery of the former Franciscan Convent, and started life when Malatesta Novello, Cesena’s noble ruler, agreed to finance the project, donating it to the Municipality for public use.  

cesena keys

Two keys open the massive wooden door

With both the municipality of Cesena and the friars of the monastery responsible for overseeing its use, and controlling who could enter, a dual key security system was devised, with one key given to the town officials and one to the monks. Today only a small number of visitors are allowed in at any one time, and the custodians who accompany them use copies of the original old keys to unlock the massive wooden door over which there is a marble engraving of the Malatesta elephant emblem.  In 2005 the library was recognized a UNESCO Memory of the World for the value of its architecture, and the rows of priceless codices on its shelves.  Divided into three naves, the wide center aisle is flanked by 20 pale floor-to-ceiling columns, each carrying the Malatesta coat of arms. 

malatestian library

Arched windows supply the only light 

There are 29 rows of dark wooden multitask pew-like desks with seats, inclined lecterns and bookshelves under the desktop. The hall is filled with light that pours in from the arched windows on both sides and from the circular front window, and the library has only ever been used in daylight hours.  The Malatestian Library houses a total of 343 manuscripts of legal, medical, scientific, literary, theological, and philosophical works as well as Greek and Hebrew codices. Chained to each of the desks these precious, large and often unwieldy leather-bound books are all the more extraordinary because they were hand-written before the invention of the printing press. For information: www.comune.cesena.fc.it.

malatestian library

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