At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Sir Antony Panizzi - revolutionary librarian

Political refugee knighted by Queen Victoria


Panizzi was a friend of the British Lord Chancellor, Henry Broughton
Panizzi was a friend of the British Lord
Chancellor, Henry Broughton
Sir Anthony Panizzi, who as Principal Librarian at the British Museum was knighted by Queen Victoria, was a former Italian revolutionary, born Antonio Genesio Maria Panizzi in Brescello in what is now Reggio Emilia, on this day in 1797.

A law graduate from the University of Parma, Panizzi began his working life as a civil servant, attaining the position of Inspector of Public Schools in his home town.

At the same time he was a member of the Carbonari, the network of secret societies set up across Italy in the early part of the 19th century, whose aim was to overthrow the repressive regimes of the Kingdoms of Naples and Sardinia, the Papal States and the Duchy of Modena and bring about the unification of Italy as a republic or a constitutional monarchy.

He was party to a number of attempted uprisings but was forced to flee the country in 1822, having been tipped off that he was to be arrested and would face trial as a subversive.

Panizzi found a haven in Switzerland, but after publishing a book that attacked the Duchy of Modena, of which Brescello was then part, he was sentenced to death in absentia by a court in Modena.

Threatened with expulsion from Switzerland, with Modena pressing the Swiss government to allow his arrest, he fled again, which is how he came to arrive in England in 1823.

Almost destitute by the time he reached London, he met a fellow revolutionary, the poet Ugo Foscolo, who was exiled in England, who gave him a letter of recommendation that enabled him to find work in Liverpool as a teacher of Italian.

Sir Anthony Panizzi was the subject of a caricature in Vanity Fair magazine
Sir Anthony Panizzi was the subject
of a caricature in Vanity Fair magazine
The job made him only a meagre living, but while in Liverpool he was befriended by Henry Broughton, a lawyer and politician who was destined for high office.  When Broughton became Lord Chancellor in 1830, he remembered Panizzi and smoothed the way for him to be appointed Professor of Italian at the newly-formed University of London (now University College, London).

Soon afterwards Panizzi obtained the post of Extra-Assistant Keeper of Books at the British Museum library and in time worked his way through the levels of administration at the museum to be Assistant Librarian (1831–37), Keeper of Printed Books (1837–56) and finally Principal Librarian (1856–66).

His appointment in that role met with some opposition, partly because, despite being a British subject since 1832, he was seen as unsuitable on account of his non-British heritage.  There were also stories that he had been so poor in his early days in London he had resorted to hawking items on the street in order to feed himself.

Yet Panizzi had impressed the hierarchy at the British Museum during his tenure as Keeper of Printed Books, when he increased the library’s stock from 235,000 to 540,000 books, making it at the time the largest library in the world.  

Although he ceased to be involved directly in the Risorgimento movement in Italy, he continued to further the cause of Italian liberty through his friendships with influential Liberal statesmen in England, including two prime ministers in Lord Palmerston and William Ewart Gladstone, whom he took to Naples to see for himself the inhumane conditions in which political prisoners were kept.

Panizzi met the exiled poet Ugo Foscolo in London
Panizzi met the exiled poet Ugo
Foscolo in London
He could, in fact, have taken an active role in Italian politics after unification, but declined invitations from Giuseppe Garibaldi and Count Camillo Benso di Cavour, the first prime minister of the united Italy, to serve as a senator or as a member of the Council of Public Instruction.

Instead, he remained in London, where he was knighted in 1869, three years after retiring, for his extraordinary services to the British Museum library.

His achievements covered a diverse range, from devising a new system for cataloguing books using the 91 Rules code, from which the current ISBD (International Standard Bibliographic Description) system evolved, to designing a shelf support – the ‘Panizzi pin’ – to stop wooden book shelves from wobbling.

Panizzi died in London in 1879 and was buried in the Kensal Green Catholic Cemetery.

The British Museum library became simply the British Library in 1973, although it continued to be housed in the museum’s buildings on Great Russell Street in Bloomsbury until moving to a new purpose-built facility on Euston Road in 1997.

The British Library has a staff meeting room called the Panizzi Room and the former Principal Librarian is remembered in the annual Panizzi Lectures.

Piazza Matteotti and the church of Santa Maria Nascente
Piazza Matteotti and the church of Santa Maria Nascente
Travel tip:

The small town of Brescello is about 25km (16mls) northwest of Reggio Emilia, on the south bank of the Po river. It has a pleasant central square, the Piazza Matteotti, dominated by the parish church of Santa Maria Nascente.  Brescello makes a good deal of its association with the Don Camillo novels of author Giovannino Guareschi, having been chosen as the setting for a series of films made in the 1950s and 1960s about a local priest, Don Camillo, and his constant run-ins with Peppone, the communist mayor, in what was meant to be a typical small town in rural Italy in the years after the Second World War.  There is a museum dedicated to the two characters, while visitors to the church of Santa Maria Nascente can see the crucifix that appeared in the films to speak to Don Camillo.  

Piazza Prampolini is an attractive square in Reggio Emilia
Piazza Prampolini is an attractive square in Reggio Emilia
Travel tip:

Positioned between Parma and Modena along the path of the Roman road known as the Via Emilia, the city of Reggio Emilia is often missed out on the tourist trail but the wealth of attractive squares within the hexagonal lay-out of the old city are well worth a traveller’s time. The city – or, at least, the surrounding province – is thought to be the home of Italy's world famous hard cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano, and is also credited with being the area of Italy from which the country adopted the tricolore as the national flag, with evidence that a short-lived 18th century republic, the Repubblica Cispadana, had a flag of red, white and green. 




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