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Biblioteca Nationale Centrale di Firenze

Kristen Robbins ARCH 685: Independent Study December 1, 2012

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INTRODUCTION The Biblioteca Nationale Centrale di Firenze, or the National Central Library in Florence, Italy is a landmark for the Italian people. For over a century the Library has served as a center for knowledge and culture. In 1966 the National Library because of its proximity to the Arno River, suffered first hand at the disaster of the largest flood Florence had seen since 15578. With the help of volunteers and the staff of the Library, the flood did not completely end the Library. Even though much of the Library’s collection could not be saved, the building itself survived and had minimal structural damage. This paper will discuss the history of the National Library and how it came to be today, the 1962 addition that expanded the Library greatly, and what affects the 1966 flood had on the building.

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HISTORICAL BACKGROUND The history of the National Library actually begins with the famed Florentine librarian Antonio Magliabechi (1633-1714). Magliabechi was a book connoisseur and had a collection consisting of 40,000 books and 10,000 handwritten manuscripts7. His obsession with books is often noted to be extreme, causing some historians to label him a ‘bibliomaniac’. Bibliomania is an obsessive symptom and a compulsive disorder which involves the collecting or even hoarding of books to the point where social relations or health are damaged3. The Grand Duke Cosmo III hired Magliabechi to


be his personal librarian in 1673 and with this title Magliabechi became one of the most influential people to the founding of the National Library. After his death, Magliabechi left his entire collection to the people of Florence, stating that it should “form a universal public library for the benefit of the city, and especially for the poor, clerics, priests, and laypeople who do not have a way to buy books nor have the study power”8. By 1861, Magliabechi’s book collection that was housed in two rooms of the Palazzo Vecchio had expanded. King Victor Emmanuel II decided to take the ‘Magliabechiana collection’ and form the core of what was to become the National Library8. Several years later in 1869 the National Library made a law stating that it held the production rights to copy any book published in Florence. By the rate of acclimation of books, the Library soon earned the title of ‘Centrale’ from the “Regolamento Organico delle Biblioteche del Regno"- which translates to the Regulation of Libraries in the

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[Italian] Kingdom8. The National Library of Florence is one of two Italian national libraries, with the other residing in Rome. The turn of the century brought about more change for the National Library. In May of 1900 the Ministerial Committee decided to give rise to a new building, providing a broader and stronger home to the Library. The site was chosen to be the Santa Croce district, located behind the church with a view of Corso Del Tintori. The site location at that time housed the Santa Croce Cloister, designed by famous architect and engineer Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), as well as the friars’ barracks known as ‘Calvary’. The name ‘Calvary’ for the barracks stemmed from the War of Siena during the reign of Cosimo I, when the Cloister was invaded by Spanish militia on horseback10. Until the 1900s, the location behind Santa


Croce was related to military tradition with strong religious roots. The Calvary barracks were eventually relocated to the Piazza Della Zucca (as seen in Figure 3) in 1907 in order to make room for the new library building10. Once the Brunelleschi Cloister (as seen in Figure 2) was unveiled to be the neighbor for the new National Library building, it received much attention from Florence. There was a great impact of this re-discovering of the Cloister; “an architectural masterpiece, long forgotten and disfigured,


was important because [it was a] ‘binding’ element that

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spurred the proposed project of a new Library building”10. The Brunelleschi Cloister is marked by its vaulted portico, multicolored detailing, and sandstone, as seen in Figure 4. These features helped inspire the final design of the National Library building.    








Before the demolition and construction could begin on the new building, an architect and engineer were asked to submit designs. After finding several designs lacking, an agreement passed between the City of Florence, the Bank Central Savings and Deposits, and the State Administration that there would be a competition for the design of the library. On February 4, 1902 a convention was held to write the competition rules and requirements10. The convention drew up twelve articles requiring that the building be built along the Corso Del Tintori, facing the Piazza Cavalleggeri and Arno River. The total cost of the work was estimated to amount to 900,000 Lire with a contribution from the Municipality of 300,000 Lire10. The Committee for the competition included seven members, including two librarians, Ministry of Education Officials, and other qualified personnel. The committee had high hopes that the library would take only nine years to complete, but several complications slowed down construction . Along with the size and scale of the large project, the funding of new construction and demolition was quite costly. Italy had a thinly stretched economy during the First World War and construction slowed tremendously10.


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The competition requirements included several different articles stating design requirements and program necessities. Some of the articles that greatly affected the design and scope of the final building included articles three, four, and five. The programmatic outline for the library was listed in article three, with specifics for the types of catalogs, manuscripts, and books that the library collection held10. Article three also stated that the rooms holding these precious collections did not require direct sunlight. The use of harsh sunlight on fragile materials would damage their quality, therefore the use of filtered skylights were to be used in the final design of the building. Article four stated more specifically about the chosen site for the project. The building’s main entrance should be on Corso di Tintori, but should also have a second entrance on Via Magliabechi (as seen in Figure 5). Via Magliabechi is the road named for the previously mentioned librarian that started the National Library collection; and it is also the road that leads to the Santa Croce Plaza. The article continues to discuss the importance of having Santa Croce and the Brunelleschi Cloister as prominent influences of the site. It asks the designers to be aware of the aesthetic views and integrity of space for the church and the


cloisters10 This acknowledgement of preserving the


spatial quality and culture of the historical district helps produce a better suited building. The last item that article four requires is that the Arno River’s location be taken into the

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design’s account. The article states that the library should have no floor level below street level. This particular clause of the article is not very prominent in the competition outline but could have been implemented stronger due to the Florence Flood of 1966. Article five argued more for the style and quality of aesthetics of the library building. It stated that the building should be of great artistic taste, in order to fit the standards of the city of Florence. The city has wonderful historic architecture and the committee wanted to ensure the continuation of this excellence. The candidates who participated in the competition had a deadline to submit their applications by July 31, 190310. A few years went by however before the ultimate winner was decided and finally by June 7, 1906, Cesare Bazzani had been announced as the winner. Cesare Bazzani (1873-1939) was a prominent Roman architect and public figure in society. He was a member of the Council of Public Works and had designed significant


architectural contributions to Italy, such as the National Gallery for Modern Art and Palace of Fine Arts in Rome5. After winning the competition for the National Library, Bazzani emphasized that the main objectives of his design were the “aesthetic feeling of the building” and its “practicality”10. A quote from Bazzani’s memorandum of the building gives the basis for his design:


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“I did not try to do something archeological. Manifesting the era in which the work is done, taking this event from the elements of the environment, and guided by the memories and traditions of history, seemed to me to be the best decision. [...] And to not enslave my feelings and resources of our time unduly traditions, I tried to be environmental.”5 At the turn of the century, Bazzani’s design for the library won because of his blending of ‘modern’ and ‘tradition’10. The design solution was for the building to be parallel to the Arno River, with the main entrance in the middle of the façade. On each side of the entrance, the adjoining wings were not in line with each other, but instead went parallel to Corso del Tintori. By putting the wings of the building at different angles, Bazzani used the entrance façade as an axis point and made a harmonious effort with the road. This was an environmental solution for that time because Bazzani adapted to meet the needs of the program but kept the organic nature of the road. FIGURE 8: CURRENT FLOORPLAN OF THE B.N.C.F.

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BUILDING DESCRIPTION Other architectural elements of the library were kept with traditional Florentine style. The porch recalls the welcoming of a fifteenth century Tuscan loggia, mimicking the grand proportion of the


plaza facing it, inviting people into the Library. The glazed terracotta and detailing on the façade are decorative in nature and are expressive of nearby monuments like the Brunelleschi Cloister10. The structure of the library is reinforced concrete, designed in such a way to ensure the proper load distribution from the heavy storage of catalogs and books. The foundation is set four meters below the road surface10. The use of wood was not permitted as a precaution again fire hazard and so the roof terraces are also concrete with their loads distributed through load bearing walls. Preventative measure was also taken against fire by the use of two water tanks placed at the top of the two front towers. The interior spaces have a uniformity of light, achieved through the use of skylights throughout the








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building (as seen in Figure 10). With the main structure being of reinforced concrete, the façade along Corso del Tintori is mostly “pietra serena”- sandstone10. Figure 11 shows the different materials used by Bazzani; such as sandstone for the strong architectural elements like the arches and blocks of the façade, Maiolica terracotta for the recessed colored panels,


plaster for the spaces between the stone on the porch, and grey granite for the columns. Maiolica terracotta is fired clay that comes from the Italian word for Majorca, an island on the route to Italy from Spain. The colors are applied as metallic oxides to the unfired glaze, absorbing the pigment, and then once fired the colors (in this case bright red and green) are preserved9. The carved figures with a shield are carved white marble, with the mottos “Pro Humanitate” and “Pro Veritate”. In the two towers of the front façade are the great literary and science figures of Dante Alighieri and Galileo Galilei, cast


in bronze (as seen in Figure 12). The left wing of the building, along Via Magliabechi, houses the prominent Rotunda (as seen in Figure 13). This curved architectural feature was meant to be a

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grand tribute to Dante and Galileo, but not to overshadow Santa Croce10. The interior of the rotunda is known as ‘Galileo’s dome’, but the exterior keeps a flat top (as seen in Figure 14 and 15). By not exceeding the height of the church and not obstructing views of the bell tower, Bazzani retains respect for the historical FIGURE 13: ROTUNDA OF B.N.C.F.

church. On May 8, 1911, King Vittorio Emanuele II laid the foundation stone during a ceremony to mark the beginning of the National Library construction8. This ceremony turned out to be symbolic in nature, as the majority of the construction was not completed until 1935. Finally on October 35, 1935 the National Library was inaugurated, and coincidentally the Santa Maria Novella train station was also inaugurated the


same day8.

1962 ADDITION For twenty-seven years the National Library continued to flourish and act as a staple in Florence society. By 1960s, it was decided that an expansion would be necessary to serve as the National Bibliography and Processing Center for the Library. The architect chosen for the expansion was Vincenzo Mazzei, who completed the addition in 19628. This


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addition to the library was rectangular in shape and had a large percent of the structure acting as a façade along Via Magliabechi. Attaching to the Library’s rotunda, the addition continues towards Santa Croce and sits in between the very public Via Magliabechi and the private Brunelleschi Cloisters. In 1962 the National Parks Standards Preservation Brief 14 had not been written yet (it was not published until 1986), nonetheless it can still act as a guideline to deem whether the addition is compatible to the historic Library building. In the NPS Brief 14, “New Exterior Additions to Historic Buildings: Preservation Concerns” several suggestions are given to help preserve the historical character of a building when designing an addition. The new addition should include a “small-scale hyphen to physically separate the old and new volumes”12. This can be seen in Figure 17, showing the entrance to the rotunda, Mazzei has a


small scale juncture between the old Library and the new construction. Another factor the Brief 14 points to is the use of correct materials, “the use of building materials should be in the same color range or value of the historic building...they should be harmonious and not distracting”12. Mazzei chose to use the same sandstone used in the older Library, but with less FIGURE 18: 1962 ADDITION TO THE B.N.C.F.

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decorative carvings and panels on the façade. Another guideline the Brief 14 gives is to direct the openings and fenestrations to align with the older structure. As one can see in Mazzei’s design in Figure 18, the simplified façade has large glass windows that are dramatically different from the older Library’s windows. This use of larger glass was permitted in the 1962 addition in order to allow the penetration of natural light. This was possible due to the fact that the storage of precious manuscripts and books were not to be in the new wing. Some privacy is offered by the row of trees planted in front of the addition, but the large windows greet a widely used pedestrian path allowing for views inside. Overall, the large size and scale of the 1962 addition does not quite follow the Brief 14’s requirement of a “simple and unobtrusive design that is not highly visible from the public right of way”12. Even though the Via Magliabechi is considered the secondary road to the larger Corso del Tintori, it is still a highly visible addition with a large modern façade. Mazzei’s expansion in 1962 dramatically altered the National Library.

ARNO RIVER FLOOD OF 1966 After the addition in 1962, disaster struck not only


the National Library, but also the entirety of Florence with the flood of the Arno River on November 4, 1966. Throughout the early morning of November fourth, waters from the Arno had already been pumping continuously into the city. The Valdarno dam was opened around 4:00AM because engineers feared bursting; and the waters of the Arno

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stretched even to the outskirts of Florence4. At its fastest speed, the water reached 60 kilometers per hour (roughly 37 miles per hour)4, bursting into churches, businesses, homes, and charging down the narrow alleys of Florence. No national alarm was raised because November fourth is a national holiday and the whole town was sleeping while the most of the damage was happening. This also meant that businesses and public buildings were locked and extremely difficult to reach inside with the high waters. In the Santa Croce district waters reached up to five meters high4. In the National Library it is estimated that 1,300,000 items were damaged from the flood waters, including books, manuscripts, and precious artwork4. This was


about one third of the BNCF core collection. The items located at the basement level had originally been placed on the lower levels because of the hope of saving them from bombings during WWII10. However the basement proved the worst place for storage of historic artifacts, not only from the flood waters, but also from all the mud and oil that comes with the water. Diesel-run boilers from the neighboring residences also caused a lot of harm to the BNCF collection10. In order to save the waterdamaged books a Restoration Workshop was set up. This clinic was vital in drying,


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cleaning, and restoring the items of the BNCF. The ‘Opificio delle Pietre Dure’ – is the name of the Restoration Clinic today, and they still occupy a few offices in the National Library. With the help of volunteers from around the world, as well as the Restoration Workshop employees, many damaged books were saved. The technique of conservation was innovative for the time and included freezing the books to preserve the mud-damaged pages4. All the volunteers in the city working in the aftermath of the flood were referred to as ‘Mud Angels’1. The efforts to save the items in the BNCF collection were truly inspiring; however, the effects left from the flood on the Library building itself was something that could not have been stopped. The National Trust for Historic Preservation writes in the brief Treatment of Flood-Damaged Older


and Historic Buildings that water is one of the most harmful elements to a building11. After the floodwaters recede, the first step to restore normality is the drying process. A constant rate of ventilation is the key to drying out the water, with careful measures not to dry the space too fast. Using “industrial equipment to remove moisture at a fast rate”11 may cause permanent damage, therefore open windows and dehumidifiers are suitable options. Damaging effects of water in buildings can include rot, rust, spalling, and mold growth. The flood waters often find their way inside walls or the building envelope itself so it may be necessary to open walls to let the trapped moisture dry out. For the 1966 flood, the amount of mud should have been

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removed while wet because this is when it is easiest to clean. The electrical system of the BNCF was checked, with the electrical outlets and mechanical chases found in need of rising out the mud10. The recommendation from the NTPS is to use a non-sudsing cleaning product to clean any remaining dirt of the historic surfaces. A disinfectant should also be used to “remove bacteria, germs, and odor left from floodwaters”11. Along with the cosmetic flood damage, the structural integrity of a building must be checked after an influential flood. The BNCF does not appear to have significant structural damage; however, a technical report should be produced from time to time to survey the condition of the Library. This report would prove useful in making sure the historic building does not decay from the lasting effects of water damage or from old age. The masonry deterioration from flood waters is caused by the impurities found in the masonry that dissolve, like FIGURE 23:MASONRY DETERIORATION

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soluble salts. These salts are carried to the surface and leave a white residue called efflorescense11. If the surface of the building has been treated with a sealer, the salts become crystalized and trapped behind the surface and eventually crack the surface pushing outward (as seen in Figure 23). The result of cracking and chipping of the surface is called spalling11. Along the bottom of the building surface the flood waters may have eroded some of the soil. As seen in Figure 24, the soil should be replaced so that the water slopes away from the building.


During the 1966 Flood the basement of the Library filled with water and mud causing great loss and damage. The Library was required to wait several days before pumping the water out of the basement8. This was due to the danger of hydrostatic pressure outside the basement versus the interior. If the groundwater level is the same or higher than the basement level of water it is not beneficial to pump it out. As seen in Figure 25, the water will either return and seep back into the basement or the groundwater pressure will cause damage to the foundation walls.

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The most apparent damage that the Library is currently facing from the 1966 Flood is the high content of moisture still present in the building. The presence of moisture can physically be felt in the air, as well as the appearance of mold in the basement level. Mold has been proved to cause a number of human health problems such as asthma, irritant effects,


hypersensitivity pneumonitis, and opportunistic infections6. The reduction of moisture in the building can help prevent not only mold growth, but also the fluctuation of building materials sizes. When moisture is present and traveling from material to material, the water causes the building material to expand or shrink. Charles Graham explains in his essay on Limiting Abnormal Mold Growth in Buildings, that “a method of escape must be provided for the moisture...either to diffuse inside or outside the wall...And most of the moisture will diffuse to the interior”6. Dehumidifiers can help take away much of the presence of moisture in the air in the lower basement levels of the Library. Avoiding moisture in a building can help in the

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form of durability of materials, improved production of mechanical systems, and improved indoor air quality6. In conclusion, the 1966 Florence Flood was a devastating flood that affected many and integrated many fields of work. The study of the National Library building’s current condition shows that a further investigation should be applied. The structural integrity, as well as cosmetic damage, should be monitored. The reason for monitoring is because the Library is a cultural landmark of Italy; and the security, health and welfare of the users of the Library is also in need of protection. The Exhibition Catalog of the construction of the Library building by Guglielmo Malchiodi was an excellent source that provided much history and background of the National Library. Nonetheless, the catalog was published in 1986, a year which now means that the study is over twenty five years old. A new study of the building’s condition, with special emphasis on mold presence and moisture content, should be conducted. The National Trust for Historic Preservation states that with “proper cleaning and drying out procedures, the only reminder of floodwaters in historic structures should be a watermark and date on the wall.”11 Even though the last report I found in my research was to be from 1986, it is not true to say that the National Library has forgotten about the Arno Flood of 1966 and its aftereffects. The Library, as well as the City Council Members of Florence, takes very seriously the memory of the Arno Flood. Each year on November 4, a ceremony is held remembering those who lost their lives in the flood, the damage the flood inflicted on the city, as well as the future possibilities of flood risk (as seen in Figure 27 and 28). The National Library is a building that has withstood national disasters and other trials for

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over a century and will continue to survive for many years to come. Italy’s national landmark is a remarkable building that needs restoring to its full potential.








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References 1. “Angeli del Fango.” Accessed December 1, 2012. 2. Basilico, Gabriele. “Cesare Bazzani: un Accademico d'Italia.” Umbrian Associated: Perugia, 1986. 3. “Bibliomania.” Last modified 24 November 2012. Accessed December 1, 2012. 4. Clarkson, Christopher. The Florence Flood of November 1966 & Its Aftermath. Copyright Christopher Clarkson. 2003. 5. Elia, Mario. “Bazzani, Cesare.” Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani. L’Encyclopedia Italiana, Vol 7, 1970. Accessed December 1, 2012. 6. Graham Charles. “Limiting Abnormal Mold Growth in Buildings.” Thirteenth Symposium on Improving Building Systems in Hot and Human Climates. Houston: 2002. Accessed December 1, 2012. 7. Koch, Theodore. “Some Old-Time Old World Librarians.” The North American Review. Boston, 1914. Issue 705. Accessed December 1, 2012. 8. “Informazioni Generali.” Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze. Accessed December 1, 2012.

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9. “Maiolica.” Last modified 19 November 2012. Accessed December 1, 2012. 10. Malchiodi, Guglielmo. “L'edificio della Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze.” Exhibition Catalog. Florence, 1986. 11. Sewell, Jim. “Treatment of Flood-Damaged Older and Historic Buildings.” National Trust for Historic Preservation. Washington D. C., 1993. 12. Weeks, Katie, and Anne Grimmer. Preservation Brief 14. National Parks Service. Washington D. C., 1986.

Research Paper for Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale  

A research paper written on the condition of the National Library of Florence, Italy. The historic building is suffering from a flood that...