Monday, December 9, 2019
The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries by Massimo Listri
Cathedrals to knowledge and the treasures they contain
If you are a lover of historic libraries, it would be hard to find a more satisfying tribute to these venerable institutions than The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries, published by Taschen in 2018. This mammoth tome measures in at a whopping 11.5” x 15.5” page size (the dimensions listed on Amazon do not appear to be quite right, unless there’s an even bigger edition than the one I read), and weighs in at more than fifteen pounds. The book is packed with huge full-page photos by Massimo Listri, an accomplished architectural photographer, whose images are beautifully reproduced on top quality paper. The lavish production is impressive, but of course you pay for it with the steep cover price.
Before praising this volume, one must first point out its limitations. As is typical of books with similar titles, the “World” means mostly Europe. The contents include photos and text on 50 libraries in Europe, two in North America (The Morgan Library in New York and the Biblioteca Palafoxiana in Mexico), and three in South America (one in Brazil and two in Peru). Even the European selections only extend as far east as Sweden, Austria, and the Czech Republic. Also typical of the “beautiful library” genre of coffee table books, this volume does not include any modern architecture. It is heavy on the Renaissance and Baroque styles, with only a few libraries built in the late nineteenth century and one (The Morgan) in the early twentieth. Amidst all the ornate museum-quality Baroque and Rococo decoration, a few interesting buildings feature more austere monastic architecture and have clearly suffered from the clutter and weathering of age.
The photography in this book is equally focused on the architecture of these libraries and the treasures they hold. Some of the libraries are only represented by two of Listri’s photographs, while others merit as many as ten. The profile for each library features pages from their most prized volumes (not taken by Listri but provided by the institutions themselves) such as centuries-old illustrations from illuminated manuscripts, engraved frontispieces, and rare maps. One great thing about this large-format volume is that Listri’s photos are so large and of such high resolution that you can actually read the spines of the books on the shelves, which really heightens the feeling of being there. (One of the photos is unfortunately printed in reverse, right to left.) One library in Germany no longer contains any books at all, just painted faux spines where the books used to be. The text by art historian Elisabeth Sladek provides an informative and concise summation of each library’s history, architectural significance, and most important holdings. The book also features an introductory essay on the general history of libraries by Georg Ruppelt, a former director of two of the libraries featured. The book is trilingual, with text printed in English, French, and German.
This volume is worth its cover price for enthusiasts who can afford to pay it, but for the rest of us, another beautiful thing about libraries is that you can read books for free, including this one. Knowing Taschen, they will probably eventually come out with a smaller, cheaper edition at a later date, but it won’t compare to the luxurious experience of this large-format edition. In the meantime, a reasonably priced substitute is The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World by Jacques Bosser and Guillaume de Laubier, but this Taschen volume surpasses it in every way.
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