The Ambrosian Library, founded by Cardinal Federico Borromeo on 7th September 1607 and inaugurated on 8th December 1609, was one of the first libraries to be opened to the public, thanks to the gesture of an eminent philanthropist.  It was conceived by its founder as a centre for study and culture:  in fact, through his intervention other institutions came to flourish alongside, such as the Board of Fellows (Collegio dei Dottori, 1607), the Art Gallery (Pinacoteca, 1618), the Drawing Academy for teaching painting, sculpture and architecture  (Accademia del Disegno, 1620), the Trilingual Board (Collegio trilingue) and the Board of Alumni (Collegio degli Alunni, 1625).

Cardinal Borromeo collected for his Library, which took its name Ambrosiana from the patron saint and protector of Milan, a vast number of codices in Greek, Latin, Italian and various oriental languages.  These include the precious acquisitions of complete library collections originating from religious institutions such as the Benedictine Monastery of Bobbio, the Augustine Convent of  Santa Maria Incoronata and the Library of the Metropolitan Chapter (Capitolo Metropolitano) in Milan, as well as those originating from important private collections such as those of Gian Vincenzo Pinelli, Francesco Ciceri and Cesare Rovida, all renowned scholars and bibliophiles of the XVI century.  Among the innumerable donors who subsequently contributed to enriching the Ambrosiana, those who in the XIX century left their extraordinary collections of books as legacies to the Library are to be particularly remembered.  

The Ambrosian Library is undoubtedly one of the most important libraries in Italy and indeed in the world, owing to the vastness of its collections and the number and pricelessness of its codices.  It has had illustrious Fellows and Prefects, such as the Milanese historian Giuseppe Ripamonti, the great philologist and historian Ludovico Antonio Muratori, Giuseppe Antonio Sassi, great paleographers such as Angelo Mai, Antonio Maria Ceriani, Giovanni Mercati and Achille Ratti, who subsequently became Pope with the name of Pius XI.

The Library specializes in classical, historical, literary and religious volumes, particularly in a retrospective sense, that is to say, directed at the study of the past:  it is run by a Board of Fellows – presided over by the Prefect – which oversees its cultural activity, and by the Board of Trustees – presided over by a Chairman – which is dedicated to its administration.

Among the very rich collections of the Ambrosian Library special attention is to be drawn to the arab and oriental library collection, which is exceptionally important:  the glottological-dialect library of Carlo Salvioni and the heraldry collection of Enrico Casanova.  There are numerous palimpsests, with extremely precious and rare items such as the unique surviving fragments of the Vidularia by Plautus, dating back to the Vth century, and part of the gothic version of the biblical texts executed by the arian bishop Ulfila, as well as many beautifully illuminated manuscripts such as the Libro d’ore Borromeo  (Borromeo Prayer Book) by Cristoforo De Predis, or the Aulo Gellio text decorated and signed by Guglielmo Giraldi.  However, the most important items are the Ilias Picta from the Vth century, the famous Virgiliowith notes in the margin by Francesco Petrarca and illuminated by Simone Martini, Giuseppe Flavio in Latin on papyrus, the Bangor Antiphonaryand the Syro-Hexaplaric version of the Bible.  There are moreover various codices such as the original manuscripts of De prospectiva pingendi by Piero della Francesca, of the Marziale completely transcribed by Boccaccio, the  Life of Guidobaldo di Montefeltro  (Vita di Guidobaldo di Montefeltro ) written by Pietro Bembo and the original manuscripts by St. Thomas Aquinas, Ariosto,  Machiavelli, Tasso, Galileo, as well as the entire library collections of Giuseppe Parini and Cesare Beccaria.

Many of the incunabula are extremely precious, such as for example the rare edition of the Decameron by Christopher Valdarfer (Venice 1471) and the numerous first editions.  The Library owns many priceless bindings of manuscripts and printed documents:  among the special collections, to be noted are the statutes, in the Aldine, Cominian and Bodonian editions, as well as the extremely rich collection of drawings, etchings and prints, encompassing approximately forty thousand items.  Last but not least, the Medal Collection is made up of more than twenty thousand coins and medals, including some items of exceptionally great value.






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The Ambrosiana Library is organising a training course on codicology, entitled “Arabic Codicology: The Manuscript Heritage in the Ambrosiana Library”. The course will take place from the 19th to the 23rd of September 2016, at the Ambrosiana in Milan (Italy) >>>

Art from the renaissance to the baroque
in Europe and the Americas
2nd International Conference
Milan, 9-10 june 2016
Ambrosiana - Trivulzio --->>>


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During his stay in Rome, Federico Borromeo was the Patron of St. Luke’s Academy (Accademia di San Luca) which, having been planned by Pope Gregory XIII in 1577,  was inaugurated in 1593.  After his arrival in Milan as an Archbishop, it was his plan to establish an artistic Academy there, similar to those in Florence and Rome.  Thus, by means of a notarial deed on 28th April 1618, the Cardinal donated to the Ambrosian Library, which had already been open to the public since 1609, his collection of paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures.   This was the original nucleus of the Ambrosian Art Gallery (Pinacoteca), which was destined, in the four centuries that followed, to become even more important by the addition of numerous masterpieces of Italian and European Art.  However, he did not conceive his Gallery to be just an exhibition of art works, but also as a didactic tool:  in fact, in 1620 he founded a Drawing Academy within the Ambrosian Art Gallery, for teaching painting, sculpture and architecture.

In 1751 the Settala Museum, an extremely rich collection of naturalistic and ethnographic findings, together with unusual scientific instruments collected by the Milanese canon Manfredo Settala (1600-1680), also became an integral part of the Ambrosian Art Gallery.

The Ambrosian Art Gallery was the first art gallery in the world to be opened to the public; and it is the only one which, since its foundation, is connected organically to a Board of Fellows, to an Academy and to a Library, with the aim of cultivating, in a unified manner, literary, scientific and artistic studies.  At the current time, the exhibition itinerary of the Ambrosian Art Gallery is presented not only as a museum itinerary (referring to the rooms of the actual Art Gallery) but also provides an opportunity to visit the entire monumental building:  from the church of Santa Maria Maddalena in San Sepolcro (St. Mary Magdalen in St. Sepulchre), the origins of which date back to the first millennium, to the seventeenth century part, with the original library room, known as the Sala Federiciana, the ancient chapter house  of the Santa Corona confraternity, with a magnificent fresco by Bernardino Luini, to the neoclassical eighteenth century  part, and the areas refurbished between 1929 and 1931 by the Prefect Giovanni Galbiati with a particular ornamental taste that was typical of that era.  From the Loggia of the Art Gallery it is possible to look down on the courtyard called the “Courtyard of the Great Spirits” (Cortile degli Spiriti Magni) with its precious archeological collection.   In the rooms facing the ancient neoclassical courtyard, now the Reading Room of the Library, almost the entire collection of Cardinal Federico Borromeo – the original nucleus of the entire Art Gallery – is exhibited.  In the other rooms, the artworks that became part of the Ambrosiana subsequently to the donation by its Founder and which cover the whole span of art history, especially Italian, from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century, are to be seen.  From this entire collection the following masterpieces of great importance are to be noted:

  • The original Preparatory Cartoon of the Athens School, by Raffaello Sanzio;
  • The Portrait of a Musician by Leonardo da Vinci;
  • The Portrait of a Woman or “Lady with a Pearl Hairnet” which Federico Borromeo purchased and attributed explicitly to the hand of Leonardo da Vinci
  • The Basket of Fruit by Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio;
  • The Madonna of the Pavilion by Sandro Botticelli
  • The Adoration of the Magi by Tiziano Vecellio
  • The works of Jan Brueghel, commissioned directly by Cardinal Federico to the Flemish painter (two Vases of Flowers, Twelve villages, The Elements of Water and Fire).

 Among the objects exhibited in the showcases and glass cabinets scattered throughout the various rooms it is possible to view a case containing a lock of blonde hair which belonged to Lucrezia Borgia.  Finally, a precious archeological collection, with ancient Greek and Roman altar stones and tombstones, is preserved in the courtyard known as the Courtyard of the Great Spirits (visible from the Loggia); and in the Peristyle of the Sala Federiciana a mosaic pavement from the IV century and originating from the ancient Roman baths of Mediolanum can be seen.  In the Library, next to innumerable illuminated manuscripts dating back to medieval and renaissance times, the graphic collection is to be found, extremely important for its quality and quantity, with approximately forty thousand drawings, etchings and prints (among the most important artists to be noted are Pisanello and Albrecht Dürer).

               But the greatest artistic and scientific treasure of all in the Library is the famous Atlantic Code by Leonardo da Vinci, donated to the Ambrosiana by the Marquis Galeazzo Arconati in 1637:  it includes 1119 original pages, with approximately 2000 drawings, notes, autobiographical notes  and studies on various disciplines:  engineering, hydraulics, optics, anatomy, architecture, geometry and astronomy.





 The Ambrosian Academy was founded by the Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Federico Borromeo, on 25th June 1620, under the name of The Drawing Academy (Accademia del Disegno), for teaching painting, sculpture and architecture; after a period of decline in the eighteenth century its activity came to a close in the 19th century.  It returned to activity in 1963 and was housed in the Ambrosiana Library thanks to the initiative of the Archbishop, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, as the Academy of St. Charles Borromeo (Accademia di S. Carlo Borromeo) with the aim of furthering historical and religious studies and in 2003 it was flanked by the Academy of St. Ambrose (Accademia di Sant’Ambrogio), dedicated to patristic studies.

On 20th March 2008 the Academy was re-established with its own statute by the Archbishop, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi; more recently, on 4th November 2013, Cardinal Angelo Scola, Archbishop of Milan, published the new Regulations of the Venerable Ambrosian Library (Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana) which came into being on 7th January 2014, confirmed by the subsequent archiepiscopal decree on 21st July 2014 and at the same time he approved the new Statute of the Academy.

The Regulations of the Venerable Ambrosian Library, published in 2013, established that the Academy should return to being, as it was originally, an integral part of the Ambrosiana, at a par with the Library and the Art Gallery: “The principal activity of the Venerable Ambrosian Library consists in the running of the Library, of the Art Gallery and the Ambrosian Academy” (Art. 3); the institutional structure of the Academy corresponds identically to that of the Ambrosiana:   “The Ambrosian Academy, whose Grand Chancellor is the Archbishop of Milan, is established within the Venerable Ambrosian Library, and its Chairman is the Prefect of the same Venerable Library.  The Academy has its own Statute approved by the Archbishop of Milan” (Art. 32). The aim of the Ambrosian Academy is to promote research and publications in various fields of culture, encouraging  exchanges and cooperation with similar institutions in Italy and abroad, following the spirit of the founder who envisioned the Ambrosian Academy to be “for universal service”.

The Statute of the Ambrosian Academy, approved in 2014, determines the number and characteristics of the Research Sectors of the Academy: “The Ambrosian Academy is divided into Classes, that is to say into research sectors, which in turn may be divided into Sections”, now including eight Classes for Borromaic, Ambrosian, Far Eastern, Italian, Slavic, Near Eastern, Greek and Latin, African studies” (cf. Statute, art. 6).  The three Classes for African, Near Eastern and Oriental Studies are subdivided into ten study sections: Arab, Armenian, Berber, Chinese, Coptic, Ethiopian, Hebrew, Indian, Japanese, Syriac.  The Statute establish that each Class must be directed by a Fellow of the Ambrosian Academy.

The Academics of the Ambrosian Academy currently number approximately three hundred, including professors and scholars from universities in every continent; they carry out studies and research according to triennial plans drawn up by the Assembly of each Class and superintended by the Steering Committee. Every year, each Class holds an International Lecture or Dies Academicus, and publishes its results in the eight miscellaneous Collections published jointly by the Ambrosian Academy in Milan together with the Bulzoni publishing house in Rome:  “Africana Ambrosiana”, “Ambrosiana Graecolatina”, “Asiatica Ambrosiana”, “Orientalia Ambrosiana”, “Slavica Ambrosiana”, “Ambrosiana Italian Studies”, “Studia Ambrosiana” and “Studia Borromaica”; a ninth Collection of  Fonti e Studi (“Sources and Studies”) gathers together the monographs.

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