I believe that a library is a sacred space, and a visit to a library is a form of pilgrimage.
I try to visit historic or interesting libraries in different countries whenever the opportunity arises, in the same way that a Christian will visit important churches or cathedrals. I do it to pay my respects to the collective wisdom of our human past, and simply to soak up that wonderful smell of book dust, ink and old memories.
I was in Vienna during the Christmas period this past year, and had a chance to wander through what is one of Europe’s most beautiful rooms: the State Hall of the Austrian National Library.
This bookish space occupies the centre of the vast sprawling Hofburg Palace, right in the middle of the city’s Old Town. The palace was the seat of government of powerful empires and republics from 1279, and putting knowledge and books at its centre seems fitting to me, even if only symbolically.
The library’s collection contains some 7.4 million items, though not all are stored within the Baroque State Hall.
Religious texts form an inevitable chunk of their holdings, given how prevalent such writings were in the European Middle Ages. The oldest book on record in the collection is the 1368 golden Holy Gospels, originally owned by Albert III.
The library’s holdings include a vast collection of antique, medieval and modern manuscripts from almost every literate culture, dating from the 4th century AD to the present. The map and globe collection goes back to the 16th century. And the library also holds a large collection of musical scores by well known composers, and a very important papyrus collection of around 180,000 objects.
The room itself is as magnificent as any cathedral. More so, in my opinion, because of the task it is devoted to. It was the perfect place to lose myself in.
I wandered around the State Hall late one cold December afternoon. A few tourists shuffled in to snap a photo or two before shuffling back out to make their way to more popular sites. And I had a feeling that the State Hall was a sort of dumping ground where tour guides stopped to fill 20 minutes on their way around the old town.
But I stayed for well over an hour, staring at the frescoes high on the walls, and trying to decipher titles on the spines of the books.
The hall is divided into two opposite “war” and “peace” sides, and this is reflected in the wall frescoes and in the Late Baroque sculptures by Lorenzo Mattielli.
Four enormous globes by Vincenzo Coronelli dominate the centre of the hall. High above them, the fresco in the central dome depicts the symbolic deification of the Emperor Charles VI. His image is held by Hercules and Apollo, and surrounded by allegorical figures which were meant to symbolize the great wealth and virtue of the Habsburg monarchs.
But in the end, I don’t care very much about the self glorification of rulers. What held my eye were the vast soaring shelves of books, with their gleaming wood and staircases and ladders. I imagined that this was my private library, and that I had a lifetime of quiet reading ahead of me, filled with worlds to explore and adventures of the mind.
I only left when the winter cold of the unheated room had sunk deep into my bones, and the chattering of my teeth had become a distraction.
And so we wandered back outside, and down the street to Cafe Demel to warm our bones with strong black coffee with whipped cream in true Viennese coffee house style.[You also can read about my visit to the Library of Alexandria HERE and HERE, and a visit to the library in my hometown after many many years HERE]