The Ambrosiana: Europe’s Second Public Library - With the Only Contemporary Printed Plan of the Original Library and Gallery

Bosca, Pietro Paolo (1632-1699)

De origine, et statu Bibliothecae Ambrosianae Hemidecas. Ad eminentissimum principem s.r.e. cardinalem Federicum Borromaeum.

Milan: Ludovico Monza, 1672


Quarto: 23.5 x 18 cm. (24), 183, (13) pp. π4, †4, ††4, A-Z4, Aa6, with a folding engraved portrait of cardinal Federico Borromeo the younger, and a folding plan of the library and gallery.


Bound in later marbled wrappers over stiff boards. In addition to the fine portrait and the invaluable plate showing the layout of the complex, there are numerous ornamental woodcut head-pieces, initials and tail-pieces. This is an excellent, very clean copy printed on thick paper. Effaced early ownership inscription on half-title. Small, light stain to upper, inner corner of first four leaves.

Written by the director of the Ambrosiana, Pietro Paolo Bosca, “De origine, et statu Bibliothecae Ambrosianae Hemidecas” is an indispensible record of the planning, construction, and layout of one of the world’s most celebrated libraries and its equally famous art collections. When it opened its doors in 1609, the Ambrosiana Library became (after the Bodleian at Oxford) only the second public library in Europe. Together with the documents published by Vittorio Ingegnoli and Costantino Baroni, Bosca’s history of the Ambrosiana comprises most of what we know of the earliest incarnation of the complex.

In writing his book, Bosca drew on his own first-hand knowledge of the Ambrosiana, archival documents, and the correspondence of the Ambrosiana’s founder, Federico Borromeo the Elder. Bosca’s meticulous account includes detailed information on the purchase of books, manuscripts, and paintings. He describes what he considers the most important codices, such as the manuscript of Luca Pacioli’s “De Divina Proportione” and Petrarch’s manuscript of Virgil, commissioned by Petrarch’s father and illustrated (around 1344) with paintings by Simone Martini. Among the paintings Bosca mentions works by Titian, Giorgione, and Jan Bruegel, who were among Cardinal Borromeo’s favorites, and Caravaggio’s celebrated still life of a basket of fruit, acquired by Borromeo while in Rome ca. 1602. Bosca gives ample attention to Leonardo and his works.

The first configuration of the complex, described and depicted by Bosca in the book, comprised the three main institutions: the library, the galleries, and the collegium. The long folding plate in Bosca’s book identifies each part of the complex after the expansion and reorganization: A. the vestibule, B. the library, C. the peristyle court, D. the hall of the collegium, E. the hall of images, F. the garden, G. the pinacoteca, H. the sculpture collection, I. the portico, and K. the cabinet of drawings and engravings.

“In the oldest plan of the Ambrosiana (as described by Bosca in 1672), the rooms were arranged along a longitudinal axis, imposed by the long, narrow footprint, a constraint of the land available for the construction of the complex. A vestibule opened into the reading room, followed by a small cortile with porticoes on three sides. A stairway at the rear of the reading room led to a subterranean room where prohibited books were kept. The room was the brainchild of Borromeo, who wanted to keep the offending books from the public, but did not want them destroyed. The stairway also ascended to an upper repository for the Borromeo family archives. The room directly behind the cortile was reserved for meetings of the administrators. The final room served as the depository for the manuscript collection. When the rest of the complex was (drastically) remodeled only the vestibule and the reading room were preserved.

With the acquisition of more land adjacent to the original site, Borromeo was able to expand the accademia and the museum, and to unite the three main components of the complex. The architect Fabio Mangone was commissioned to build four new halls (Figures G,H,I,K in Bosca’s engraved plan) and a courtyard. In the new design, the accademia, the museum, and the library all communicated with each other through an open garden (the viridarium, Bosca’s Fig. F ), also created by Mangone. Bosca tells us that Borromeo juxtaposed the entrances of the accademia and the garden in order to illustrate the concept that art imitates nature.

Bosca was born in Milan in 1632. After graduating in theology at the seminary in Milan, he entered the Congregation of the Oblates. After teaching rhetoric for ten years at the seminary in Monza, in 1657 he moved to Milan. In 1667 the Borromeo family named him prefect of the Bibliotheca Ambrosiana, a position he held until 1680. Bosca had the merit, among other things, to restore in 1669 the Academy of art, founded by Federico Borromeo in 1625, and to reorganize the Museum of natural sciences founded by Manfredo Settala (which ultimately merged with the Ambrosiana in 1751.)

Italian Union Catalogue, IT\ICCU\BVEE\036312; Libreria Vinciana, no. 3773; Literature: See A. Petrucci, Bosca, Pietro Paolo, in: “Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani”, XIII, Rome, 1971, p. 165