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The State libraries
which form part of the
‘National Monuments’

The history from the Unification of Italy in the mid-nineteenth century to the present day of how the extraordinary heritage found in the libraries which form part of the eleven sites designated as national monuments were saved and protected for the nation.

Biblioteca della Badia della Santissima Trinità di Cava de' Tirreni

Veneto, Lazio, Campania: the ‘National Monuments’

The current law in Italy pertaining to the public libraries administered by the Italian State was extended in scope to include a special category of cultural institutions: the libraries which form part of “national monuments”, important ecclesiastical complexes such as monasteries and convents which once belonged to religious orders. There are eleven such libraries, located over three Italian regions: in the Veneto, the libraries in the Abbey of Santa Giustina in Padua and the Abbey of Praglia in Teolo in the province of Padua; in Lazio, the libraries of the Abbey of Montecassino (Cassino, Frosinone), the Certosa of Trisulti (Collepardo, Frosinone), the Abbey of Farfa (Fara in Sabina, Rieti), the Abbey of St Nilo (Grottaferrata, Rome), the Monastery of Santa Scolastica (Subiaco, Rome), the Abbey of Casamari (Veroli, Frosinone); in Campania, the libraries of the Badia di Cava dei Tirreni (Salerno), the Abbey of Montevergine (Mercogliano, Avellino), and of the Oratorio dei Girolamini (Naples). The history of the eleven libraries forming part of these national monuments and the protection of the collections they housed begins with the Unification of Italy in the mid-19th century and continues to the present day, with updating and revisions to the laws overseeing the organisation and administration of the libraries.

The liquidation of the ecclesiastical domain and the safeguarding of the country’s national monuments

Almost sixty years after the Napoleonic suppressions of the monasteries and a few years after the unification of the country, in 1866, a law (no. 2987 on the statute book) was published on 28 June “on religious corporations and the ecclesiastical domain” and ratified by Royal decree on 7 July (no. 3036). It marked a watershed: the various religious orders and congregations were no longer recognised by the Italian State and the “houses and other edifices belonging to the aforesaid Orders … are suppressed” (art. 1, regio decreto no. 3036/1866). The new law, however, also acknowledged some exceptions to this decree: this was the case for the Abbeys of Montecassino and Cava dei Tirreni, San Martino della Scala and Monreale and the Certosa in Pavia which were thus exempted by law from having to devolve their buildings and patrimony to the State and its libraries and museums. Article 33 of the decree reads:

Sarà provveduto dal Governo alla conservazione degli edifizi colle loro adiacenze, biblioteche, archivi, oggetti d’arte, strumenti scientifici e simili delle Badie di Montecassino, della Cava dei Tirreni, di San Martino della Scala, di Monreale, della Certosa di Pavia e di altri simili stabilimenti ecclesiastici distinti per la monumentale importanza e pel complesso dei tesori artistici e letterari. La spesa relativa sarà a carico del fondo pel culto.

The Government will provide for the conservation of the buildings, together with the land belonging to them as well as the libraries, archives, works of art, scientific instruments and other such objects of the Abbeys of Montecassino, Cava dei Tirreni, San Martino della Scala, Monreale, and the Certosa of Pavia and other suchlike ecclesiastical establishments, on account of their importance as monuments and of the collections of artistic and literary treasures which they house. All expenditure relating to these responsibilities will be covered by the special fund for the Church.

It was the extraordinary richness and cultural value – historical, artistic, literary – of the patrimony conserved in these five ecclesiastical establishments which made them “outstanding monuments”, inalienable and under the control and protection of the Italian State. When Rome became part of the newly unified country the same approach was extended to include the church and monastery of Santa Maria di Grottaferrata which formerly belonged to the Basilian order and the Abbey of Casamari (Veroli); later still there was a further extension to include the Abbeys of Praglia in Teolo (Padua), Santa Scolastica in Subiaco, Trisulti in Collepardo, Montevergine in Mercogliano and the Oratorio dei Girolamini in Naples.

At the beginning of the 20th century, these ancient monastic complexes were all included in the 1902 list entitled Elenco dei monumenti nazionali in Italia edited by the Fine Arts Committee which had been set up as part of the Executive Educational Council. In the list, which covers historic monuments and public edifices such as churches, monasteries, castles, palaces, fountains, Sardinian ‘nuraghi’, two monasteries with important libraries are also included: the Abbey of Farfa in the province of Rieti and the Abbey of Santa Giustina in Padua. However, the 1866 law was only applied to them much later: in the case of Farfa, in 1928, while Santa Giustina was included in 1946.

The libraries which form part of the ‘National Monuments’

Right from the outset, the legislation on “outstanding national monuments” was intended to protect both the buildings – “houses and other constructions” – and the vast collections of books, documents, works of art and scientific instruments which the monasteries housed, a testimony to their centuries-old history. As article 33 in the decree made clear, “the Government will provide for [the] conservation… […] All expenditure … will be covered by the special fund for the Church”.

Initially responsibility for the buildings was the responsibility of the State, by means of the ‘Soprintendenze’ which oversaw the country’s cultural patrimony, while the custody of the libraries remained in the hands of the religious orders from whose ownership they had been removed. The relevant regulations for the libraries owned by the Italian State, on how they were to function, their requirements and duties, administration and use – the first version of which was published on 24 October 1907 (Regolamento per le biblioteche pubbliche governative annexed to “regio decreto” no.733) – also mentioned the libraries which formed part of the national monuments. Thanks to the regulations, these libraries were able to obtain State funding for maintenance and conservation of the patrimonies they housed, while at the same time they were obliged to provide public access to their collections like the other State-owned libraries in the country.

In the post-war Republic, the Royal decree from October 1907 was annulled and replaced with the Decreto del Presidente della Repubblica (D.P.R.) of 5 September 1967, no. 1501 which set out a new set of regulations for libraries belonging to the State (Regolamento organico delle biblioteche pubbliche statali). For the first time ever, these regulations include a list of the libraries which form part of the ‘National Monuments’ but they do not clarify the relationship between the libraries in this special category and the other State libraries and nor do they resolve the difficult problem of how these libraries, which were still being run by clergy, should be staffed.

The subject was addressed again with greater clarity in the Act published on 2 December 1980 on the “Regulations concerning the functioning of the State libraries forming part of the National Monuments” with reference to article 2 of the 1967 decree and the subsequent Act of 12 August 1993 which foresaw an increase in the annual subvention prescribed in the 1980 law and also stipulated the assignment of staff to run the libraries who would be employed by the Ministry and answerable to it. The relationship between the Ministry and the libraries would be regulated by means of a formal agreement; the roles of the conservator of the library and staff employed by the Ministry but assigned to work within the libraries were also defined.

In the 1990s a further law (D.P.R. 5 luglio 1995, n. 417 (Regolamento recante norme sulle biblioteche pubbliche statali) replaced the 1967 measures, confirming and clarifying on the one hand the inclusion of the 11 libraries forming part of the National Monuments within the overall regulations governing the State libraries and on the other the role of the conservator and his or her responsibilities and duties.

In 2014, following changes in the Ministry which now became MiBACT, the abbeys of Montecassino, Trisulti, Grottaferrata, Subiaco and Casamari as ‘Monumenti Nazionali’ became part of the museum network in the Lazio region. Two years later in 2016 the Oratorio dei Girolamini became part of the museum network in Campania. The other libraries within their respective monumental complexes have remained autonomous. The legislative changes have in part reshaped the position these libraries occupy within the Ministry and raised new questions over the staffing structures in them.
Today the 11 libraries which form part of the National Monuments are curated and managed autonomously, headed by a conservator and run in agreement with the respective monastic community. The State, through the Ministerial department called the Direzione Generale Biblioteche e Istituti Culturali, guarantees the financial resources needed to manage, maintain and staff the libraries.


The Italian legislation

Year Laws
1866 suppression of the religious orders and special protection over those ecclesiastical complexes which constitute “nationally important monuments”. These include the abbeys of Montecassion and Cava dei Tirreni
1874 extension of the special protection to include the “National Monuments” of Grottaferrat (Abbey of San Nilo) andVeroli (Abbey of Casamari)
1882 recognition of the “importance as monuments” of the Abbey of Montevergine, Praglia, Santa Scolastica (Subiaco), the monastery of Trisulti and the Oratorio dei Girolamini
1907 reference to the libraries forming part of the “national monuments” in the regulations for State-owned libraries (and allocation of financial resources for maintenance and restoration)
1928 recognition of the Abbey of Farfa as a “national monument”
1946 recognition of the Abbey of Santa Giustina (Padua) as a “national monument”
1967 listing of the 11 libraries forming part of the “national monuments” in the regulation for State-owned libraries
1970 first conference of librarians from the libraries forming part of the “national momuments” (taking place at the Abbey of Montevergine)
1980 approval of the regulations for the functioning of the State libraries forming part of the national monuments
1993 introduction of new arrangements for the funding and allocation of staff to the libraries forming part of ecclesiastical complexes
1995 extension of the regulations for State-owned to cover the libraries forming part of the national monuments (still current)
2014-2016 redefinition of the position of the libraries forming part of the national monuments in the context of the reorganisation of the Ministry for Culture and Tourism (MiBACT)