The lunatic library

Umberto Eco in his library

Last February, the news came that Umberto Eco’s library would pass under the protection of the Italian state. His modern library, including his archives, would be preserved at the University of Bologna, while Eco’s ancient library would be kept by the Braidense National Library in Milan.

Despite becoming one of the world’s leading medievalists and a ground-breaking figure in premodern studies, Eco never lost his sense of wonder at the strangeness of the medieval world. Nothing better reflects this than the title he bestowed on his library, the Biblioteca Semiologica Curiosa, Lunatica, Magica et Pneumatica. Curious, wacky, magical and spiritual, not that there are clear links between the four epithets. The world of medieval books comes across in all its lunacy, its lunaticitas, as if medieval letters were struck by madness with every cycle of the moon, luna. In a way they were, but the moon had nothing to do with it.

Most thinkers and scholars insist that we should approach a lost age on its own terms. But while this may be a healthy scholarly method, our sense of wonder is lost in the process, the lunacy dispelled by the light of day. The library regains its sanity through our simulated immersion in the depths of a shadow. Hindsight may alter the view, but it also underscores the distance involved. And that distance should be a source of curiosity, like the curious letters packed in Eco’s lunatic library.

There were some reports that Eco understood this part of his library to contain only falsities because he once noted that the library preserves the works of Ptolemy but not of Galilei. I’m not sure how accurate this claim is, but given the zeal with which Eco collected his books, I think his sense of wonder and his appetite for lost worlds outran his sensitivity to what is true and what is not. In fondo, è solo un trucco.

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