Another day, another depressing story about the deterioration of cultural patrimony in Italy. The subject this time? The Biblioteca dei Girolamini, a 16th-century library in Naples that was systematically looted by its director.
First opened to the public in 1586 and located on the grounds of a church, the Girolamini is, according to Wikipedia, the oldest library in Naples and the second oldest in Italy. It gorgeous interior — vaulted, painted ceilings and allover wooden shelves — housed incredibly precious volumes, including a 1518 edition of Thomas More’s Utopia and Galileo’s 1610 treatise Sidereus Nuncius. But in the 1980s, it began to fall into disrepair, like so many underfunded and underpreserved cultural institutions, and it was closed to the public. In 2011, a bookseller named Marino Massimo De Caro was appointed director of the library by the Ministry of Culture, presumably in the hopes of turning the place around. A year later, De Caro was arrested for systematically ransacking and looting the Girolamini’s collection.
BBC News has the details (and photos), which are fairly sordid as far as rare-book scandals go. De Caro was part of a ring of criminals who would turn off the library’s surveillance cameras in the evenings and get to work pulling books off shelves, removing identification seals, stripping 17th-century bindings, and crating the items off to be sold. Professor Tomaso Montanari visited the library in 2012 and found “a dog roaming around the library with a bone in its mouth! There were books spread around everywhere – on the floor, on the stairs, on tables. There was garbage – soda cans and papers – on the floor. It was total confusion, a situation of major decay.” He wrote an article that blew the story open; it was called “Girolamini, a library for dogs.”
De Caro and his team went on to sell the stolen volumes on the international market — more than 500 turned up at a German auction house and were intercepted before sale. It’s unclear how many books were looted in total, but some say as many as 4,000, according to La Reppublica.
Since it’s Italy, this story wouldn’t be complete without a political corruption angle, and the New York Times is on it: it turns out De Caro, who does not have a college degree, made his way in Italian politics via the good graces of former senator Marcello Dell’Utri.
“In Italy, where connections often outweigh merit, Mr. Dell’Utri’s backing helped establish Mr. De Caro’s career,” writes Rachel Donadio. And — surprise, surprise — Dell’Utri received as gifts books that De Caro had stolen from the Girolamini, though he claims to not have known where they came from. (“I rule out that I could have known this,” Dell’Utri said.) The lessons here are too obvious to bear explication.
De Caro was sentenced to seven years of house arrest after an embezzlement trial this March and permanent disqualification from holding public office. He now faces another trial on charges of criminal conspiracy. Dell’Utri is under investigation for his connection to the Girolamini scandal but hasn’t been charged. Many of the stolen volumes have been found — 80%, the police chief in charge of recovery told the BBC — but some of them, no doubt, have been damaged beyond repair.