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It’s easy to miss the Archiginnasio, lost as it is amidst the earthen red labyrinth of porticoes, churches, and Renaissance palazzi that make up Bologna’s sprawling centro storico. But follow the arcaded street left of the Basilica of San Petronio until you reach a gap in the porticoes where a passage leads inwards to a wide courtyard. This is the unassuming entrance to one of Italy’s greatest libraries, and the latest selection for Beast Travel's once a month series on the World's Most Beautiful Libraries.

Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images © Provided by The Daily Beast Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images

The Archiginnasio is the largest library in the region of Emilia-Romagna, boasting some 850,000 volumes, 2,500 incunabula, 15,000 16th century tomes, 8,500 manuscripts, 7,500 magazines and a vast archive of letters, prints and drawings, much of it handwritten or from the early days of print.

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The origins of the Archiginnasio are tied to those of Bologna’s university, the oldest in the world, founded when fraternal student organizations began hiring teachers from the local ecclesiastical schools to teach them subjects outside the church canon. These informal schools gradually united to form the University of Bologna in 1088. In the mid-16th century, it was decided to consolidate them into one building, called the Archiginnasio. The job of designing this new university hub was given to local architect Antonio Morandi, better known by his nickname Il Terribilia, allegedly bestowed upon him because Giorgio Vasari found his vivid zoomorphic motifs “terrifying.” Work began in early 1562 and the building was inaugurated on 21 October 1563.

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Like much of the architecture in Bologna, the Archiginnasio is distinguished by its red color, its porticoes, its inner courtyard, and its intricately decorated loggias. Two stairways lead to the upper floor, which hosts the library, reading rooms and anatomical theater.

Anatomical theater? Yes. Built in the mid-16th century, it’s a sublime fusion of Renaissance aesthetics and medical functionalism, with a series of wooden pews rising amphitheatrically around a central white slab, from where professors would dissect cadavers in front of inquisitive students. The wall is decorated with wooden sculptures of famous physicians, both ancient (Hippocrates, Galen) and modern (Gaspare Tagliacozzi, a pioneer of rhinoplasty, who is depicted holding a nose in his hand) while two beautifully grotesque statues of skinned humans hold up the canopy above the professor’s chair. The whole thing is utterly spectacular and unforgettable.

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A three-euro ticket gains you access not just to the anatomical theater but to the Stabat Mater room, formerly the Humanities school. It’s a bibliophile’s dream, full of centuries old books arranged in rustic cabinets with such nostalgic genres as mineralogy and “military art.” A locked gate allows you to peer through towards the library’s archival room, with its intimate, colorful frescoes and seemingly endless corridor of leather bound books.

Hall V in Archiginnasio municipal library, walls decorated with coats of arms that celebrate the history of the Learning, Bologna, Emilia-Romagna, Italy. DeAgostini/Getty Images © Provided by The Daily Beast Hall V in Archiginnasio municipal library, walls decorated with coats of arms that celebrate the history of the Learning, Bologna, Emilia-Romagna, Italy. DeAgostini/Getty Images

The rest of the building is free to wander around. Take some time to appreciate the coats of arms that flood all the available wall space. There are some 6,000 of them, making it the largest wall heraldic complex in the world. Each one contains the name of a student, where he came from, and his family crest. In some sections, they are clustered together like mushrooms, in others they seem to blossom and flow in a never-ending tapestry. Amidst this colorful sprawl are substantial artworks by Lionello Spada and Giovanni Valesio honoring local professors and clergy, and several overtly religious sculptures (Bologna was the second most important city in the Papal States, and the church made damn sure you knew it). The whole interior ensemble is littered with Renaissance detail, Baroque expression, and trompe-l'œil playfulness. Oh, and see if you can spot the bell, inscribed 1604, that was rung to signal the beginning and end of lessons. It’s on the southwest corner of the inner courtyard.

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In 1803, the University was moved to a new building and in 1838 the Archiginnasio assumed its principal function as the city’s library, absorbing thousands of tomes that became available to them due to Napoleon’s closure of the city’s religious orders. The collection was then expanded through acquisitions and donations from eminent Bolognese personalities, such as the Prime Minister Marco Minghetti, the Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, and Laura Bassi, the first woman to become a salaried university professor.

Though much of the building is open for wandering, accessing the library itself is a slightly enigmatic affair. The transparent door teases a long corridor leading to a grand reading room, but a sign firmly states “No sightseeing allowed in the library.” This is meant to be a place for serious study only, not a place to live out your dark academia fantasy for the day.

Should you manage to convince the ladies at the front desk of your studious intentions, you will be asked to hand over a piece of ID for a key and then directed to the locker room to deposit everything except your most necessary items. No bags are allowed inside, no food and no drink. I was even sent back for trying to take my laptop case in. You could hide a rare book in there, I was told.

The main reading room is a vast chamber of banquet tables, above which sit even more heralds with an eclectic mix of human and animal iconography. Several of the tables are dotted with esoteric signs, such as one informing you that it is “reserved for consulting books before 1831”. Tough luck, if the book you wish to consult is from 1832.

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Further on, the rooms billow one after the other like turning pages, each room redolent with the pleasures of human knowledge and the miasma of history. There’s the scroll room with its musky black cabinets, then the arts room, where the bookcases pile twenty meters into the air, arranged in a circular formation, with rickety ladders stoically offering their services, and finally the foreign literature room, which also contains several more desks for studying. The sensation of studying here at the Archiginnasio—at the intersection of history, high art and culture—is a strange mixture of cozy and thrilling.

At 7pm, the library closes and it’s time to step out into Bologna again. If you don’t fancy wandering home, students like to congregate in the nearby quadrilatero—a grid of claustrophobic streets home to bars, food markets and shops selling tigelle, the local flatbread sandwich usually filled with mortadella and squacquerone cheese and washed down with a glass of lambrusco. A nice nightcap then, to complement the experience of Bologna’s mysterious, seductive, one-of-a-kind library.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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