Intricate brightness

After ten years of construction, the Bibliotheca Hertziana has opened its new premises. More than 300 guests from the German-Italian cultural life, politics and Curia attended the ceremony in Rome.

January 15, 2013

The library is open to the gardens of the Palazzo Zuccari and the Lucullian Villa, near the Spanish Steps in Rome. "It reflects the human interaction with nature, and is a special interplay of shadow and light, which stands for enlightenment and knowledge," says the Spanish architect Juan Navarro Baldeweg. A particular challenge for him was to preserve the remains of antiquity for the public and open a window to history.

In Rome, the mood is one of relief: “In January we finally celebrateed the inauguration of the long-awaited new library building and thereby were able to officially open the library to the international research community,” says Managing Director Elisabeth Kieven, who is looking forward to the opportunity to once again host seminars and conferences with Italian and international scientists in the very near future. For visitors and art historians, the library will be open again from 1 February 2013.

Although the new library tract was already moved into last summer, authorisation from the Roman city administration was still outstanding. The official opening in January, which was attended by German Federal Minister of Education and Research Annette Schavan and MPG President Peter Gruss, marked the end of a more than ten year construction phase, which brought with it significant restraints for the Institute’s scientific work. Since the start of the construction work in 2002, the Max Planck Institute for Art History in Rome has been open only on a limited basis and a substantial proportion of its library stored elsewhere, although at the same time, research efforts were continued and even expanded under the aegis of its two Directors Sybille Ebert-Schifferer and Elisabeth Kieven.

An additional space, full of light

With great sensitivity and a strong feel for the particular tradition of the location, the new library, designed by the Spanish architect Juan Navarro Baldeweg, stands out impressively and forms the centrepiece of the Hertziana with approximately 290,000 volumes and a comprehensive photographic collection containing over 800,000 images. “By again opening up the former garden of the Palazzo Zuccari in the form of an interior courtyard and incorporating the famous maw of hell as the entryway, the architect’s concept takes into account the special history of the location,” explains Elisabeth Kieven.

In this vein, the reading rooms, work areas and book stacks are nimbly grouped around the small trapezoidal interior courtyard on three sides as tiered galleries. A three-sided circumferential glass facade spanning the full height, which surrounds the open interior courtyard, provides plenty of Roman daylight. “Baldeweg has succeeded brilliantly in turning the library into a transparent, light-flooded, and expansive space, and, on the other hand, has increased the general capacity by around seventy percent,” says Elisabeth Kieven. In addition, the famous 16th century portal, or mascherone, sculpted from Roman tuff, was able to be gradually and carefully refurbished during the long construction period and now glows in bright white instead of in darker shades. It will serve as the entrance to the new library.

MPS President Peter Gruss thanked Annette Schavan and the German Federal Ministry of Finance, which had campaigned for the building over the years, and the two directors. He particularly emphasized the generous donors, thanks to who the building could be completed. The financing of the total construction costs amounting to some 23 million euros was provided to two-thirds through public funding from the German federal states and federal government, and one-third from private donors.

The construction work was a matter of some urgency as the first library tract between the Palazzo Zuccari and the Palazzo Stroganoff, built in the 1960s, was bursting at the seams, and, for reasons relating to fire safety and structural considerations, was threatened with closure. Only a new building could guarantee the required safety and ongoing growth of the library. Under the auspices of former MPG President Hans Zacher, an international architectural competition was held in 1995 with the Madrid-based office of Baldeweg submitting the most persuasive design. In the heritage-protected centre of Rome, the project was tantamount to a Herculean task, as it was forbidden to alter anything on the historic façade, and a cast foundation was not possible owing to the valuable underground archaeological remains. 

Awe-inspiring subterranean procedures

Under these conditions, only a solution that was as bold as it was masterful would do the trick. A three-metre high box-shaped corpus of reinforced concrete - mounted onto 178 micropiles which, along the exterior facade, had to be embedded up to 50 metres into the ground - carries the enormous weight of the new building similar to a massive subterranean bridge with pre-stressed cables. Mud and gravel repeatedly interrupted the anchoring of the steel piles until the Rome-based engineering office Teknoln found a way to raise up the new building while, at the same time, archaeologists down below removed the earth. The breathtaking structure turned the construction site into a very popular destination for engineers and architects from all over the world.

Then, as might be expected in ancient Rome, in 2007 an ancient fountain and magnificent mosaics were unearthed at the subterranean site. Already in 1910, during underground work at the Palazzo Zuccari, archaeologists came across the remains of a villa belonging to the epicure Lucius Licinius Lucullus who, around 60 B.C., had landscape gardens planted on the southern slope of Monte Picino. Thanks to the special construction of the new building, visitors to the library can admire the archaeological zone through a glassed-in underground gallery. In March, the Bibliotheca Hertziana will celebrate its 100th anniversary. "The opening of the world's best library of art history is a grand overture for this celebration," said Annette Schavan.


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