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The Collegio Romano by M. H.


The Collegio Romano was always worth a visit, because it contained the celebrated Kircherian Museum and the admirable observatory presided over by Father Secchi, the world-celebrated astronomer. But these are matters sufficiently treated of by the guide-books, and may be left to them. Of the story of the enormous building they have less to tell, though there is much of curious interest to be told. But neither is that my object on the present occasion. My purpose is to speak of the strangely-changed fortunes and destinies of the old historic pile, and of what it now is and is to be. But little in Rome, as we all know, has remained unchanged in these strange latter days. But few things—at least few material things—have experienced such a change as the Collegio Romano. The "Collegio Romano" was in fact nothing more than the principal convent of the Jesuits. The establishment was founded immediately after the institution of the order, and mainly by the care and energy of Saint Francisco Borgia, the third general of the order. The present building, however, was raised in the pontificate of Gregory XIII. by the Florentine architect Ammanati, the first stone having been laid in 1582. It is an enormous mass of building—enormous even among the huge structures for which Rome above all other cities is remarkable—situated near the church of the Gesù and not far from the Piazza di Venezia. There is nothing remarkable in its outward appearance save the vast size, the object of the builders having evidently been only to adapt it in a business-like way to the purposes to which it was destined. These included not only the provision of a residence for the fathers of the order resident in Rome, and for the all-but all-powerful general of the terrible order—the "Black Pope," as the Romans were wont to call him—but also all the locale necessary for a very large educational establishment, whence the building took its name.

The Jesuits, like all other members of the almost innumerable monastic establishments in Rome, have, as we all know, been turned out of their homes, their property has been—or rather is being—sold, and the convents have become national property. Many of these are vast buildings, but no one of them is to be compared with the great Jesuit convent, which was the central home and head-quarters of the "Company of Jesus." And a memorable day it was in Rome, and a very singular sight, when, the dreaded fathers of the terrible "Company" having taken their departure, the few remaining goods and chattels in the convent were sold by public auction. Few and not of much value were the articles to be sold; for the fathers are not men to take no heed of those shadows which coming events cast before them, and they had long foreseen that their day in Rome was at an end, and had contrived to leave as little as might be to the spoiler. None the less was it a strange sight, as I say, to see the profanum vulgus of the buyers of old furniture, and the still more numerous herd  of the curious, looking on with very diversified feelings—some with bitterness enough in their hearts—pushing and tramping through those noble corridors and vast halls and secret cells, on which no profane gaze had rested for more than three hundred years.

There has been abundance of doubt, but no difficulty, in disposing of the great number of buildings which have thus come into the possession of the nation. Many of the smaller convents have been sold in the same manner as the other property of the ousted communities. But this has not been done—and indeed could hardly have been done—in the case of the larger buildings; and there has been a competition very much in the nature of a scramble for the appropriation of them by the heads of the several governmental departments. That of Public Instruction, now worthily represented by Signor Bonghi, has succeeded in laying hands on perhaps the grandest prize of all, the great Jesuit establishment of the Collegio Romano; and, looking to the uses to which it is being put by Signor Bonghi, it may, I think, be said that it could not have been better bestowed. Under his auspices it is intended to assume, and is indeed rapidly assuming, the functions of the still vaster pile of building in Great Russell street, London, known to all the world as the British Museum, as will be seen from the following statement of the purposes it is intended to serve and of the various matters to be housed in it.

On the ground-floor there is already established a "Museo Scolastico-Pedagogico"—a museum of all the means and appurtenances that are used, or have been used, in different countries for the ends and purposes of instruction. This is the idea and the creation of Signor Bonghi; and it will, I think, be admitted that it is a very happy one and likely to be fruitful in good results. A visit to it is more interesting than might perhaps at first sight be imagined. I may mention that on asking the very competent and enlightened director of the establishment what people he considered to have done most and as foremost in the work of educating the masses, he said that the Germans had done most theoretically and in the way of thinking on the philosophy of the matter, but that the Americans had done most practically in the way of improving the material means for popular education.

On the first and second floors the great national library, the "Biblioteca Vittorio Emmanuele," is—or, it would perhaps be more accurate to say, will be—placed and made accessible to the public. At Florence there exists the celebrated Magliabecchian Library, which when Florence became the capital of Italy was called the National Library—somewhat ungratefully, it will probably be thought, to the learned and indefatigable collector who gave his life and his means to the formation of it, and then bequeathed it to his native city. And I am inclined to believe that this library is still, for all the general working purposes of a nineteenth-century student, the best in Italy. In Rome, when the Eternal City in its turn became the capital of a New Italy, there existed nothing that deserved to be called a national library, and the present minister of Public Instruction set about doing what was possible to supply the want. The Company of Jesus possessed a fine and valuable library, containing about one hundred and seventy thousand volumes. This, when the Jesuits were turned out, was declared national property, and it forms the nucleus of the new Victor Emmanuel Library. While the Jesuits inhabited their old home it was arranged in one very fine hall built in the form of a cross, which will continue to be one of the principal receptacles, in the new establishment. It was in the middle of 1874 that the Italian government took possession of this collection. To this have been added forty-eight other libraries, the former property of the suppressed convents of the city and provinces of Rome. They were placed for the nonce in the cells which had been inhabited by the Jesuit fathers. The mass of books thus collected amounts to about four hundred thousand volumes. It will be seen at once that the labor of reducing to order, classifying and arranging such a confused mass must be truly herculean. But the first librarian of the Victor Emmanuel Library, Signor Carlo Castellani, well known in the literary world as a palaeographer of great eminence, is laboring at the colossal task with an energy and a zeal that have already accomplished much, and is daily making sensible advances in the work. It is, however, also evident that four hundred thousand volumes thus collected must include an immense number of duplicates; and, worse still, that (as may be readily supposed from the sources whence the books have come) one special branch of general literature will be represented in very undue proportion. Of course, the greater portion of the conventual libraries was theological. It may be presumed that classical and (old) historical literature will be found to exist, the former in tolerable completeness (so far as regards old and in many cases now obsolete editions), and the latter in considerable abundance. But of modern literature little or nothing can be expected, even of Italian, and still less of any other language. Among the number of volumes which has been mentioned there are some seven or eight thousand manuscripts, and perhaps an equal number of the editions of the fifteenth century, which go far to make the library an interesting one to the learned and to the student and lover of bibliography, but are of very little avail toward rendering the collection worth much as a national working library. The question then arises, What means has Italy of procuring such a library for her capital? Something may be probably expected from the liberality of her Parliament in furtherance of this great national object. But for the present, in the depressed (though improving) state of the Italian finances, this cannot be much. There exists in Italy a law similar to that on the same subject in England, by which every publisher is obliged to deposit one copy of every book published in the national library. But this copy at present is sent to the Magliabecchian Library at Florence. Signor Castellani hopes that the privilege may be transferred, as seems but reasonable, to Rome. But I do not see why it should be necessary thus to impoverish Florence to enrich the capital. In England the law requires eleven copies which are distributed to the great libraries of the three kingdoms. It is true that this exaction has sometimes been complained of, and it is said that in the case of very costly illustrated works the tax is a very heavy one, and that in some instances it has operated to make the production of certain books impossible. And perhaps it may be reasonable to make some regulation by which such works should be exempted from the obligation. But in ordinary cases the tax is an almost inappreciable one, and, such as it is, must of course fall ultimately on the writers and readers of books—mainly on the latter—for the benefit of which classes libraries exist. It seems to me, therefore, that a somewhat larger number of copies than one or two might reasonably and advantageously be exacted from publishers. And if three or four copies were delivered to the great Roman library, there would be the means of effecting very advantageous exchanges with other countries. I asked Signor Castellani what increase in the number of volumes the locale now at the disposal of the library would be capable of accommodating. He said that there would be room for about seven hundred thousand volumes, evidently a quite inadequate provision for the future. Many years will not elapse before the measure which is now demanded at the British Museum—viz., the removal of all the various collections housed there to other localities, and the dedication of the entire building to the library—will become necessary at the old Collegio Romano. Vast as the building is, the entirety of it is not at all too large for the Roman library of the future. Or—since we are allowing our thoughts to consider events which cast their shadows before as if they were accomplished facts—may it not perhaps be found better some of these days to move the whole of the present collection to the Vatican, to be united with the colossal and almost unknown hoards there buried in one collection? As it is, a new reading-room, after the model of that existing at the National Library in Paris, is about to be built in the courtyard of the Collegio Romano. The classification, arrangement and methods of working the library will be copied in great measure from those introduced by Mr. Panizzi at the British Museum. Unlike the liberal practice of the great German libraries, no volume will be on any account permitted to leave the library. I was sorry to find that in one all-important respect the Roman practice as regards the national library will differ from that of London. The collection is being catalogued in slips, to be kept, after the fashion of booksellers, in boxes made for the purpose, and there is no present intention of making any catalogue in volumes accessible to the public. Of course it is impossible to allow the public to have access to the slips; and all who have ever really used a great library know but too well that a library the catalogue of which is not accessible to the student is at least half useless. Even putting aside the numerous cases in which an inquirer knows of the existence of such or such a work, but is not aware of the author's name, and cannot therefore ask for or obtain the book in question, it happens more often than not that a person inquiring on any given subject finds his best guide to the available sources of information in the catalogue.

I have not left myself room, I fear, to say anything on the present occasion of the other highly interesting collections which are at present lodged, or in the course of being placed, under the all-sheltering roof of the Collegio Romano. I must content myself with simply enumerating them, with the hope of giving some account of them at some future time. I may briefly state, then, that the celebrated Kircherian Museum, formed toward the close of the sixteenth century by the learned Jesuit father Kircher, still occupies the rooms on the ground-floor, with a somewhat improved arrangement, which it occupied when the fathers of the Company inhabited the building. The collection of ancient Roman marbles discovered in the excavations of the buried city of Ostia have been brought thence, and arranged in rooms also on the third floor—a fact which strikes one as not a little to the credit of the handiwork of Ammanati, the Florentine architect. Also on the third floor there is an exceedingly interesting collection, of which I hope to speak somewhat more at length another time. It is called a palaeo-ethnographical museum, and consists of a large collection of the implements of all sorts of the people belonging to the pre-historic period, together with a similar gathering of articles used by the uncivilized races of the present day. The interest of such a comparative study as is here suggested is, as may be readily understood, very great. On the fourth floor there is a very considerable collection of objects illustrating Italian art of the ante-Roman period, and also a Museum of Industrial Art, conceived on the plan of the English School of Art at South Kensington.