11 September 2013: Am just back from the baroque library in St Gallen in Switzerland, to which we made a detour (two changes of train and much dragging of luggage up and down stairs) because I am romantic about the history of books – which is probably because I read Umberto Ecco’s ‘The Name of the Rose’ at an impressionable age.
So here I stand in this 18th century library – which is a sweet-toothed, sugar-confection of a place. The ceiling is full of painted clouds. The bookshelves that line the walls are made from rosy-tinted, walnut wood, and are all Rococco swirls and curls. There is a globe that somehow depicts both the earth and heavens, with the result that there are gold stars sprinkled across the continents and oceans. The windows are wide open and look down onto monastic courtyards.
And I am thinking, ‘Well, this is all very beautiful but what am I to make of it?’ when my eyes go down to the guidebook and I read that the Italian humanist Poggio Bracciolini came here in the 15th century and discovered some long-lost books from the ancient world. And now I am delighted, because this is a story I know.
The life and adventures of Poggio Bracciolini go like this. Poggio and his friends were humanists, backward-looking and romantic revolutionaries who were in love with the classical world and who were looking to change the future by what they could discover about the past. Poggio was a book hunter who spent his life searching remote Swiss and German monasteries for classical treasures.
Very little Greek and Roman literature survived the long journey from the ancient world to the 15th century, and much of it that that did was preserved by monks who copied and recopied the texts because monastic life required that every monk could read. Greek and Roman literature made useful tools for teaching monks their letters.
Poggio was urbane, well-read and sophisticated, a writer of beautiful Latin, a secretary to the pope, and a passionate book hunter. He came to St Gallen in 1417, and then went on to the monastery of Fulda in southern Germany where he made his greatest discovery – Lucretius’ beautiful Latin poem, ‘On the Nature of Things’ which had been lost for a thousand years.
So to imagine St Gallen in the 15th century, when Poggio came here, you have to strip away in your mind the modern town and see only a steep, wooded valley filled with brambles and wild animals, a waterfall, the monastery with its high walls and a gatehouse that was reached by a bridge across a gorge, the little medieval houses squeezed between the cliff edge and the monastery’s high walls. And you also have to forget the baroque library (which dates to the 18th century) and imagine instead a high tower (the Hartmut tower) where the books were kept closely guarded by suspicious monks. Hidden away in this monastery and protected against fire, theft, flood and war were more than 400 books that dated back to before 1000 AD and a few that went back to classical Rome.
As for Poggio, who was in his thirties when he came here, I picture him with close-cropped hair, an intent gaze and a smile to die for – because it would have taken all his charm to persuade the monks to allow him to take away the manuscripts or at least to have them copied.
I only know the story because I read it last winter (on a cold, dark weekend) in Stephen Greenblatt’s book, ‘The Swerve’. But now I am standing in the autumn sunshine where the story took place and thinking, ‘Ah, so now I know why I’m here, because this was one of the last places where a road was still open – a very narrow road but a road nonetheless – between the ancient world and the world we live in.’
Stephen Greenblatt’s book, ‘The Swerve’ is published by Bodley Head in 2011 and describes how the world swerved in a new direction in the 15th century. It’s worth reading. By Rachel Morris