The looting of a 16th Century library
2013-12-19 0:00

By Alan Johnston | BBC

Book-lovers around the world have been helping investigators trace thousands of rare volumes looted from one of Italy’s oldest libraries by a gang of thieves including the librarian himself. While most have been recovered, a number of invaluable 15th and 16th Century books are still missing.

Inside a 16th Century church complex in the heart of Naples, the Biblioteca Girolamini’s wooden shelves rise up and up towards richly decorated walls and vaulted ceilings.

They once held works of extraordinary value. There was a 1518 edition of Thomas More’s brilliant and mysterious Utopia. Galileo’s 1610 treatise Sidereus Nuncius, containing more than 70 drawings of the moon and the stars. And Johannes Kepler’s study of the motions of Mars, Astronomia Nova, described as one of greatest books in the history of astronomy.

But this magnificent piece of Italy’s cultural heritage was methodically plundered. Thousands of antique texts disappeared.

"Our investigations found that there was a true criminal system in action," says Major Antonio Coppola, a police chief who is leading the operation to recover the stolen texts. "A group of people... carried out a devastating, systematic looting of the library."

t was an art historian and academic, Professor Tomaso Montanari, who first alerted the police to what was happening. The library had been closed to the public for years, but Montanari heard reports that it was in trouble, and managed to make a visit with a student he was supervising in the spring of 2012.

He was shocked by what he found.

"There was a dog roaming around the library with a bone in its mouth!

"There were books spread around everywhere - on the floor, on the stairs, on tables. There was garbage - soda cans and papers - on the floor. It was total confusion, a situation of major decay. One of the library’s members of staff took me aside, away from the CCTV cameras, and said: ’Professor, the director has been looting the library!’"


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