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History and art

An outline of the history of the library and its collections
The history of the BNN starts around the last two decades of the18th century when the book collection, originally at the Palace of Capodimonte, was moved to Palazzo degli Studi - today the Archaeological Museum. The core of the collection was the famous Farnese book collection, that Charles of Bourbon, son and heir of Elisabetta Farnese, moved to Naples in 1734 when he became King of the newly-born Reign of Naples.
However, it took more than twenty years to order and catalogue the rich collection for the public opening. In the meanwhile the collection grew, thanks to new material arriving from monastic libraries - with the dissolution of religious orders - from donation and acquisition of private collections. The library was officially opened to the public on January 13th 1804 under the reign of Ferdinand IV of Bourbon as Royal Library of Naples. In 1816 the name changed to Royal Bourbon Library. With the unity of Italy, in 1860, it became National Library. After 1860 more religious orders were dissolved; their collections enhanced and enriched the National Library, while a number of legacies and donations, such as the legacy by Antonio Ranieri or the musical collection of Count Lucchesi Palli, arrived at the library in the next few years. In 1910, the "Officina dei Papiri Ercolanesi" joined the National Library. It had been founded by Charles of Bourbon to preserve and unwind the carbonised scrolls discovered during the excavation at Hercolaneum from 1752 to 1754 .
In time, the location in the Palazzo degli Studi became inadequate to the dimensions and needs of the library. A scientific debate took place on the possible choice of a more adequate location. Finally, by 1922, thanks to the determination of Benedetto Croce, the library was moved to one branch of Royal Palace. In those years more important collections joined the library: San Giacomo, Brancacciana, San Martino, Provinciale. Thanks to the Treaty of Saint Germain and the Wien Artistic Convention some very precious manuscripts, carried away by Charles IV of Habsburg in 1718 returned to the library; they are commonly known as "ex-vindobonenses".
World War II put the library building and collection at serious risk, but thanks to the determination of the director Guerriera Guerrieri who moved the most precious material and the catalogues to safer places, the BNN could be open to the public once again in 1945. After the war, the institution has received a number of private collections (such as the Doria Fund and the Pontieri collection) and has acquired items aimed at documenting and promoting the culture of Southern Italy. The library was seriously damaged by the earthquake of November, 23rd 1980, when the branch overlooking the sea-front was seriously damaged and the material located there had to be removed.
Since 1990, the library has joined the SBN - Servizio Bibliotecario Nazionale (National Library Service) a project aimed at building a computerised national network to exchange bibliographic information and circulate items. The library hosts the CED-Centro elaborazione Dati (Centre for data processing) connecting a number of Southern Italian libraries. Cultural activities held at the library, such as meetings, seminars, lectures and exhibitions, promote the richness of its collections and the co-operation with other cultural institutions in town.


The building and its decoration
The National library is located in the East branch of the Royal palace corresponding to the XVIII-century extension, probably by Ferdinando Fuga (circa 1758) of the original square plan facing the west side of Largo di Palazzo, designed by Domenico Fontana (1600). Assigned to the royal princes, the rooms of the "new branch" became the Festival Apartments after 1834, when the whole building was largely redecorated because of a fire, on design by Gaetano Genovese..
The entrance to the library, from the XIX-century garden created by the renown botanist Denhardt on the manège, is decorated by a false rustication of stucco, and introduces the visitor to the late neo-classical style characterising the decoration of the building.
The marble staircase was probably started in XVIII century - since the stairwell appears in plans of the late XVIII century. It is decorated by a balustrade with motifs of crossed spears with a central rosette, by old oil lamps on shelves (circa 1840) and, on the first wing of stairs, by two statues of Dancers in a delicate, eclectic style by Gennaro de Crescenzo. The first anteroom is decorated with monochrome paintings presumably by Salvatore Giusti, a remarkable decorator, who also worked at the decoration of the Ballroom of the Capodimonte Palace and in the Royal Palace.
Today's Distribution Room belongs to a group of four rooms which, together with the large Ballroom - now the Reading Room - were the main festival halls. Here the decoration consists of white-and-gold stucco bas-reliefs, by Neapolitan artists such as Gennaro Aveta, Costantino Beccalli and De Crescenzo: their style is rich, eclectic, full of variations and prevailing over the painted decoration. The Distribution Room is decorated with tempera ovals on plaster by Camillo Guerra representing "Allegories of the Four Ages of Man" as the four ages of love: "Spring: Zephyr and Flora" "Summer: Galathea" "Autumn: Bacchus and Ariadne" "Winter: Orythia and Borea". Documented since 1852, these frescoes represent the narrative developments of the final Neapolitan neo-classicism, introduced in Naples by German artists in the last two decades of the XVIII century. The second anteroom, facing the second courtyard - once the carriage-court - is decorated with a high-relief frieze reproducing the marble frieze of "The triumphal arrival of Alexander the Great at Babylon" made by Thorwaldesen at the palace of the Quirinale in Rome during the Napoleonic period. The central wall shows panoplies in high-relief, similar to the decoration of the main staircase in the Royal Palace leading to the Historical Apartments.
At the springer and at the centre of the vaults, neo-classical stuccoes decorate other rooms, like the Bibliography Reading Room, where decorative rosettes indicate the place where once chandeliers hanged from the ceiling. The doors, decorated with engraved palms facing a golden rosette on a white background, recall the elegant neo-classical design of court architecture.
On the upper floors, lodging the XIX century apartments, the Rooms of Queen Maria Teresa were decorated in Pompeian style by Salvatore Giusti, whereas the study of Ferdinand of Bourbon, now "Africa Room", shows neo-Gothic tempera paintings: "the Story of Charles of Anjou" by Camillo Guerra. The Palatine Library located in the north-eastern branch was once connected to the King's science cabinet. Some relevant furniture still remains in the library: particularly a turning reading-desk made by John Uldrich for Maria Carolina of Austria (1794) (another specimen is exhibited in the Royal Apartment by permission of the library) and a table, whose turning top is inlaid with woods in the form of a wind-rose surrounded by Bourbon fleur-de-lis. It belonged to the Queen and was made in 80's of the XVIII century. The Reading Room on the first floor is furnished with walnut-and-gold shelves, made in the central decades of the XVIII century for the "Sundial room" in the Palazzo degli Studi and moved to the new library location together with the collection at the beginning of last century. The cultural life of the library is therefore beautifully framed by the Neapolitan decorative art of the XVIII and XIX centuries.