Universal relations, selected libraries. Catalogues and the topography of knowledge in the early modern world (1550-1650)


This project sets out to highlight the contribution of library catalogues to the general process of information management at the courts of Munich, Vienna, Madrid and Papal Rome in the early modern time. Particular attention will be devoted to the interactions between the re-organization of early modern confessional States and Empires, and the reorganization of book collections within these territories. By using catalogues as main source of investigation this will be an attempt to draw a topography of knowledge in the early modern catholic world, and explore the tensions between universalization and selection of knowledge and information in these contexts.
In order to pursue such a research, catalogues are by no means regarded from merely a technical viewpoint but rather as the result of a political, scholarly and spatial negotiation. The time period considered corresponds to a crucial moment in the history of libraries and classification. In the second half of the 16th century most of court libraries were re-founded according to political and scholarly universal plans, along with the publishing of the first universal bibliography in 1545 (Gessner, 1545-1548). The first half of the 17th century was on the contrary a time of classification and translation of these universal plans in more coherent library projects. During this period, bibliography emerges as the discipline of “the order and the disposition of books” (Naudé 1633), in the framework of a more general process of science re-definition. At the same time, “forced” circulation of books and libraries – for instance during and after the Thirty Years war- marks the end of a period of “territorial” accumulation and classification of books, and the beginning of a new era of systematization in completely new political and spatial contexts. Finally, between 1550 and 1650, libraries opened their doors to books in new languages, coming from outside the European borders and new materials. All this challenged the traditional categories of European sciences. At the same time rulers also started to conceive a more coherent division of space and function between their “repositories of papers”, namely the court library and the court archive.
The four chosen courts - Vienna, Munich, Rome and L’Escorial-Madrid- perfectly embody this period of changes, although they all also have very different topographies and geographies of knowledge. Libraries at the four courts were first re-organized between 1560 and 1590 according to both a new centralized political agenda, and scholarly late humanistic projects endorsing another form of universalism, that involved the sphere of classification (universal libraries and museums) and that of access and “publicity” of the library; in the first half of the 17th century, these initial projects were adjusted to new confessional claims, different geographies of power, new materials resulting from incorporation of other libraries, and new paradigms of classification; all these changes triggered a new conception of the space of the library within the court setting, mirroring both its (more or less strong) local and global ambitions, and also the desire to make the books (more or less) available for a certain public. These features are visible in the sources from this time, not only the catalogues but also the librarians’ exchange of letters, their notes on the organization of the disciplines, and archival plans of the library.
The first goal of the project is not to reconsider the history of the four libraries, but rather to look at their organization systems, and in particular at their catalogues, as historical objects, deeply rooted in political and material spaces, but also providing new forms of standardization. By reconnecting a first stage of universalism and encylopedism with a later stage of selection and classification, to broader political agendas, the project will first attempt to catch the long-lasting impact of late Renaissance humanism in the creation and organization of books collections within Catholic territories. This will re-insert the history of knowledge in Spain, Italy, Austria and Bavaria to the broader European context: only within this context, it will make sense to readdress the crucial question of whether there was a catholic, European or even global canon of knowledge systematization in the pre-modern world, beyond the narrative of catholic Europe as uniform space of repression, adaptation, and selection in the field of knowledge acquisition and organization.

The project ended in

Scientific coordinator
Paola Molino