Acquiring Books for the Greatest Libraries in the World
Adventures in the 18th-Century Book Trade
In 1685, years before his translation of The Thousand and One Nights would win him enduring fame, the French scholar Antoine Galland was living in Istanbul. Trained in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, he was nearing the end of his nearly five-year mission in the city to collect books and ancient coins on behalf of the French crown; he also collected them for himself, and for the French ambassador, the Count of Guilleragues. In his role as interpreter and professional book buyer, as well as in his private capacity as a scholar, he had come to know the city’s book markets intimately. The number of works it was possible to find in the Ottoman capital delighted him: “The ease of buying [books] is greater than in any other place, as there is a considerable number of shops where they are sold and where every day new ones are brought to be sold to the highest bidder.”
Galland was no anomaly in his interest in Islamic books or in his deliberate and royally ordained quest to acquire them. Arabic, Persian, and Turkish manuscripts were collected across Europe in the 17th, and 18th centuries. In the 16th century, great libraries were founded all over Europe—the French Royal Library, initially located in Blois and Fontainebleau, and later in Paris; the Escorial, near Madrid; the Hapsburg Imperial Library, in Vienna; the Leiden University Library; the Bodleian, in Oxford—but it was in the 17th century that they gained Oriental collections. (The Vatican Library was founded in 1475, though the collection was begun earlier in the century.)
At this time, thousands of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish manuscripts were acquired for European collections, transforming them and making possible the in-depth study of Islamic literary and intellectual traditions. Oxford, Leiden, Paris, the Escorial, and Rome had the greatest Islamic manuscript collections in Europe, but they were far from the only ones. The Biblioteca Ambrosiana of Milan, founded in 1609, built an Arabic collection, and in Florence’s Palazzo Pitti, the grand dukes of Tuscany held an Oriental collection brought from Rome by Grand Duke Ferdinando de’ Medici. Moreover, many smaller libraries gathered Islamic manuscripts. In Paris alone, these included, besides the Royal Library, the library of the Sorbonne, the library of the Maurist (Benedictine) abbey of Saint Germain des Prés, and the library of the Jesuit school of Louis le Grand, as well as the private libraries of Cardinal Mazarin, the sometime finance minister Nicolas Fouquet, and the minister Jean Baptiste Colbert. All opened their doors to scholars.
Europeans in search of manuscripts were obsessed with great Islamic libraries: the collection of the sultan of Morocco, the library of the imperial seraglio in Istanbul, and the library of alAzhar mosque in Cairo. In the end, though, European collectors drew from other sources. When they could, they bought directly from monasteries and other such depositories, but marketplaces and their commercial booksellers proved to be their most valuable suppliers—once European envoys learned what books to seek and how to go about obtaining them.
Bookfinding missions were one part of travel in search of knowledge as theorized and practiced from the late Renaissance onward. Already in the 16th century, a series of treatises on the art of travel provided instructions to make such trips useful and educational. A subset of travelers set out in search of new knowledge to bring home, and, increasingly, these men broadened their horizons beyond Europe. For scholars, learning Arabic fluently was a primary motivation for visiting North Africa and the Levant. Others came to make astronomical observations. Antiquarian collectors began prowling the Eastern Mediterranean in the first half of the 15th century, beginning with the Italians Cristoforo Buondelmonti and Ciriaco of Ancona.
By the end of the 17th century, learned travel was increasingly systematic. Europeans wrote specialized guides for travelers interested in focusing on “literary” or antiquarian explorations or on the natural history or botany of an area. Learned travelers served as data collectors, gathering all manner of information on the lands they visited, including drawing maps and collecting botanical specimens, inscriptions, and even manuscripts. For example, Sir Thomas Roe, the English ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1621 to 1628, brought back 29 Greek manuscripts to Oxford. Scientific academies developed questionnaires to help collect, compare, and verify information gathered in countries in Europe and beyond, and they began to dispatch travelers to pursue their aims.
The geographic range of 17th-century collectors went beyond the Levant, moreover. Trade in the Indian Ocean and beyond yielded rich scholarly harvests. The Dutch presence in Southeast Asia led to the accumulation of books in Malay, Javanese, Malabar, and Formosan, some of which helped Dutch scholars reinterpret the Qur’an.
Over the course of the 1600s, book collecting became increasingly organized. In France under Louis XIV (r. 1643–1715), royal patronage of Oriental research was but one aspect of the cultural politics of the Sun King’s absolutist rule. Manuscript collecting abroad was transformed and greatly expanded during his reign under the management of Colbert (d. 1683) and, during the reign of Louis XV, of Jean Paul Bignon (d. 1743). These men acted as cultural entrepreneurs, supervising the acquisition and organization of large amounts of new information. Under Colbert, the Royal Library became a state research institute—something along the lines of Solomon’s House, the research institute for the arts and sciences featured in Francis Bacon’s posthumously published utopian narrative The New Atlantis (1626). Bacon’s belief that scientific inquiry needed to be supervised by a centrally organized administration was a position Colbert and Bignon shared.
In Istanbul, the buying of books by foreigners eventually got so out of hand that in 1715 or 1716 the grand vizir, Şehid Ali Pasha, himself a book collector, “enacted a law . . . banning the sale of books to foreigners.” This protectionist measure was designed to prevent the disappearance of valuable intellectual resources from the capital. Referring to secondhand booksellers, the grand vizir wrote: “Because of their crude greed, they send away countless valuable books to different places, perhaps even outside the Ottoman realm.”
Beyond Istanbul, Europeans collected manuscripts in many locations, including Cairo and Aleppo, where the English ran a factory of the Levant Company. Further afield, manuscripts were to be found in the Indian subcontinent, in Gujarati localities like Ahmedabad, as well as in southern India, where the French Jesuits had a mission, and on the Coromandel Coast.
In the 18th century, book buying continued, especially in the major collections of Catholic Paris and Rome. Under Louis XV, whose personal reign lasted from 1723 to 1774, the French royal collection expanded significantly, thanks in large part to these missions. In Rome, Pope Clement XI sent several expeditions to Egypt to collect Coptic and Syriac manuscripts, laying the foundation for modern Syriac studies.
Even the famous exploratory mission to the Yemen, sponsored by the Danish crown in 1761–1767, was intended to be a book buying opportunity. Despite the death of all but one of the expedition members, as many as 119 Arabic manuscripts, acquired both in Istanbul and in Cairo, made it back to Copenhagen. The philologist in the group, Christian von Haven, who had received instructions about what he was to acquire, recorded the Arabic names of these books in a dedicated section of his diary, noting how much he had spent on buying each one. Literary and historical subjects predominated: of the 119, 26 were history books and 27 were poetry collections. There were 13 books of grammar and rhetoric, 12 anthologies, 2 books of literary history, and an abridged version of Kātib Çelebi’s great bibliography. The expedition also collected botanical samples, spices, and such rare substances as cinnabar and wormwood. In all of these respects, it pursued familiar objectives, if more systematically and on a grander scale.
In France, the Abbé Bignon proved no less talented than his predecessor, Colbert, in his judicious meddling with the research agendas of scholars. His nomination, in 1718, as royal librarian, inaugurated a new course for the French Royal Library. In 1724 he secured the perpetual right to house the library in the Hôtel de Nevers, a building on the rue de Richelieu much larger than the crowded rooms the library had until then occupied. He donated to the library his personal collection of Chinese, Indian, Tartar, and Islamic manuscripts, oversaw the creation of an inventory from 1719 to 1720, and arranged a book-buying mission to Istanbul. In addition, he mobilized the French East India Company to acquire printed books and manuscripts about the Far East and enjoined the Jesuits in Pondicherry, Canton, and Bengal to collect South Asian grammars and religious writings. His goal was to create the best library in Europe.
In Rome, as in Paris, an alliance of a sympathetic ruler with a capable librarian created a worldclass Oriental collection. Pope Clement XI (Albani) (d. 1721) transformed the manuscript holdings, and the library continued to grow under his successors until 1769. This pope is not usually remembered for his contributions to Oriental studies, yet under his papacy Oriental manuscript collections such as those of the Maronite scholar Abraham Ecchellensis and of the Italian traveler Pietro della Valle entered the Vatican Library.
In the long run, a great librarian was, perhaps, even more important than a committed patron. The librarian who can take much credit for the flourishing of the Oriental collection in Rome was the curator Giuseppe Simonio Assemani (1687–1768), a Maronite scholar and priest who began working at the Vatican Library in 1710. He first served Pope Clement XI as a traveling collector, visiting Egypt, Cyprus, and Syria between 1715 and 1717 and returning with several hundred Oriental codices, among which the Syriac ones were a particular prize. He then proceeded to study them, producing the impressive Bibliotheca Orientalis Clementino-Vaticana, whose four large folio volumes, which appeared between 1719 and 1730, were focused on the Syriac manuscripts in the library. (This publication, which presented to readers a huge number of texts for the first time, is considered the inception of Syriac studies in the modern West.)
But its author’s ambition was greater: he aimed to publish a critical bibliography of all of the literatures of the Near East, both Christian and Muslim, that were held in the Vatican Library, of which the Bibliotheca Orientalis was only the beginning. In 1739 Assemani was nominated first curator of the Vatican Library, an honor that had never before been bestowed on a Levantine scholar. Among his many projects, he aimed to complete a full, 20-volume catalog of all manuscripts in the Vatican Library, both Eastern and Western. Together with his nephew Stefano Evodio, he produced the volume on Hebrew and Samaritan books in 1756 and two volumes on Syriac books in 1758 and 1759. He was at work on the Arabic books when he died, in January 1768. A few months later, a fire burned all that had been printed of the Arabic catalog. Even so, by the time of his death Assemani had done more than anyone else to carry on the bibliographic legacy of Pope Clement XI, right through five successive papacies.
Through undertakings such as these, the “Oriental Libraries” of 17th- and 18th-century Europe came into being. What made its way to Europe depended both on what Islamic readers and copyists cultivated, and on what, from among that variety, Europeans decided to acquire. Thus, manuscripts obtained for European collections reflected the priorities of Islamic intellectual life and book culture in the 17th and 18th centuries. The latter, therefore, inevitably shaped what Europeans came to know.
Libraries are fragile entities. Collections must be amassed and then organized and safeguarded. A book unlisted in a catalog or placed on the wrong shelf is as good as lost. And above all, books need readers—an ambitious proposition in the case of ancient or foreign languages. It was not enough to bring Islamic manuscripts from faraway lands; their languages had to be cultivated. The creation of Oriental collections was, therefore, a necessary but not a sufficient step in the understanding of Islamic intellectual traditions. At the same time, it should not be understood simply as means to higher scholarly ends, but instead as a cultural phenomenon in its own right. Possessing foreign books seemed valuable even when there was no one on hand to study them. Patrons, collectors, and scholars believed in the ideal of the Oriental library, and they each contributed to its creation. Like all libraries, the Oriental library was an act of faith in the capabilities and interests of future readers.
From The Republic of Arabic Letters, by Alexander Bevilacqua, courtesy Harvard University Press.