Guilty pleasures

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The Ashburnham Pentateuch, stolen by Guglielmo Libri from Tours in 1842 and sold to the Earl of Ashburnham in England, was returned to France in 1888. 
Since the 14th century, many book lovers have been born in Florence or its vicinity. The Renaissance was, since its early days, a book rush, especially one for rare, lost, unread, unknown, neglected volumes. The humanists of the Renaissance were avid book finder and collectors.

The Florentine scholar Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) made some incredible finds during the first decades of the 15th century. His love for old texts in old manuscripts was undeniable. His pleasure for collecting volumes forgotten on centuries-old shelves and boxes acquired approval from everyone. It was not a guilty pleasure. Poggio loved putting his arms (his name Bracciolini ultimately comes from the Italian word braccio for arm) around the books he loved. There was nothing wrong with that.

Some 420 years later, Florence popped out another book lover. This time it was someone whose affection for books preceded his birth. His name was Guglielmo Libri, his last name Libri meaning ‘books’ in Italian. You can’t get more predestined than that. But sometimes life takes its cues from novelists, and Libri’s life was going to be an essay in cosmic irony. There is no question that when he was appointed Chief Inspector of French Libraries in 1841, he considered himself the luckiest bibliophile on earth. Unlike Poggio the Book-Hugger before him, Libri used his position and a general state of national gullibility to remove rare manuscripts from French libraries. Unlike most heist fictions, his didn’t go wrong and he was never caught. Although condemned in France, he lived as a free man in England and Italy, where he died in 1868.

Libri’s guilty pleasure left traces all around Europe. Many of the stolen manuscripts were sold in London, and from there they were resold elsewhere. Volumes were still being returned to their rightful repositories as late as 2010.

To simply dismiss Libri as a book thief is to miss an important slice of the picture. Libri was in love, and as every lover knows, he was in search of possession and intimacy with the object of his love, the manuscripts of his affection. And as any lover would do, he took them home.

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