The Creation of the First Renaissance Library in Europe

Medici patronage not only transformed Florence and allowed it to flourish—it also led to the creation of the first public library in Renaissance Europe.

By David Fideler

The most famous bookseller of Renaissance Florence, Vespasiano da Bisticci, knew Cosimo de‘ Medici quite well.

Based on his personal friendship with Cosimo, Vespasiano tells a delightful and somewhat amusing story about how Cosimo began his program of public patronage in Florence.

This began with the reconstruction of the San Marco Monastery, which also included the first public library in all of Renaissance Europe.

The library itself was based on the huge manuscript collection of the late Niccolò de’ Niccoli, the greatest book collector in Florence, who Vespasiano also writes about in his memoirs.

It is important to keep in mind that a typical monastery library in Europe only contained around sixty books on average. So when the San Marco Library opened with four hundred books, it was a remarkable milestone. It was also just the beginning of a great project because, by the end of the 1500s, Renaissance scholars in Florence had collected all the surviving works in Latin and Greek from the ancient world.

For the story of Cosimo de’ Medici and the creation of the library, and a short tour of San Marco, watch the video below.


Living Ideas Video: “The Story Behind the Creation of the First Public Library in Renaissance Europe”

About the Author

David Fideler is a philosopher who writes about how classical and Renaissance ideas can contribute to the world. Editor of the Living Ideas Journal, his book on  the Roman philosopher Seneca has been published in fifteen languages. Founder of the Renaissance Program, David is writing a book on how Renaissance ideas can enhance today’s world.

Further Resources

  • Vespasiano da Bisticci. The Vespasiano Memoirs: Lives of the Illustrious Men of the Fifteenth Century. Translated by William George and and Emily Waters. Reprint. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

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