The Biblioteca Palatina in Parma is a very special place. This was demonstrated in the episode The Art of the Feast of the BBC series Italy Unpacked. In this episode, presenter and chef Giorgio Locatelli found a book of recipes in the library that was written in 1680 by Carlo Nascia, a cook who was originally from Palermo. For a long time Nascia served as the personal chef of Ranuccio II Farnese (1646-1694), duke of Parma and Piacenza. At the time the episode was filmed, the handwritten book of recipes had just been restored thanks to the efforts of a culinary club founded by enthusiastic women. Locatelli and the women then prepared one of the dishes from Li quattro banchetti destinati per le quattro stagioni dell’anno.
The history of the Biblioteca Palatina goes back to 1761. In that year the library was founded by duke Philip of Bourbon (1748-1765). His brother Charles had first been duke of Parma and Piacenza, but had become king of Naples in 1734. On that occasion he had moved a large part of the artworks in Parma and Piacenza to Naples (see Piacenza: Palazzo Farnese). The collection of books that the Farnese family had compiled went south as well. When Philip became duke many years later, he could start all over again as regarded art and knowledge.
Philip, however, proved to be equal to the challenge. He founded a new ducal art gallery, which later became the Galleria Nazionale, and a new library as well. Two men played an important part in the early success of the library. The first was Guillaume du Tillot (1711-1774), Philip’s liberal prime minister, who drew inspiration from the ideas of Enlightenment. The other was the monk Paolo Maria Paciaudi (1710-1785) from Turin, who became the first librarian. Paciaudi’s professional network was huge, and this enabled him to acquire thousands of books and manuscripts.
The Biblioteca Palatina was officially opened in May of 1769. Duke Philip of Bourbon unfortunately did not live to see its inauguration: he was dead by then and had been succeeded by his son Ferdinand of Bourbon (1765-1802). Ferdinand was married to archduchess Maria Amalia of Austria. Her brother, the emperor Joseph II, was present at the opening ceremony. Since 1769 the collection of the library has grown exponentially. Regretfully, in 1944 about 21,000 works were destroyed in Allied bombardments.
Nowadays the Biblioteca Palatina possesses more than 700,000 books. In the beautiful rooms of the library, which are open to the public, I admired many interesting works. To give a couple of examples: on the shelves I found Naturalis Historia by Plinius the Elder, the Codex Theodosianus and works by historians such as Livius, Polybius, Tacitus, Cassius Dio and Ammianus Marcellinus. Of course I could only inspect the books from a distance, as touching is not allowed. The library also has the complete works of Erasmus in eleven volumes. I highly recommend a visit to the Biblioteca Palatina, especially if it can be combined with a tour of the Galleria Nazionale and the Teatro Farnese.
Further reading: website of the Palazzo della Pilotta.