1 January 2018

Guglielmo Libri – book thief

Nobleman stole more than 30,000 books and documents

Guglielmo Libri is thought to have stolen more than 30,000 books, manuscripts and letters
Guglielmo Libri is thought to have stolen more
than 30,000 books, manuscripts and letters
The notorious 19th century thief Guglielmo Libri, who stole tens of thousands of historic books, manuscripts and letters, many of which have never been found, was born on this day in 1803 in Florence.

A distinguished and decorated academic, Libri was an avid collector of historic documents whose passion for adding to his collections ultimately became an addiction he could not satisfy by legal means alone.

He stole on a large scale from the historic Laurentian Library in Florence but it was after he was appointed Chief Inspector of French Libraries in 1841 – he had been a French citizen since 1833 – that his nefarious activities reached their peak.

As the man responsible for cataloguing valuable books and precious manuscripts across the whole of France, Libri had privileged access to the official archives of many cities and was able to spend many hours in dusty vaults completely unhindered and unsupervised.

He was in a position to “borrow” such items as he required in the interests of research with no pressure to return them. Where the removal of a book or document was forbidden, he would smuggle them out under the huge cape that he insisted on wearing – on the grounds of supposedly poor health – even in the height of summer.

Although he began to arouse suspicion, it was not until 1848 that a warrant was issued in France for his arrest.  Tipped off, Libri had already fled to London, taking with him about 18 trunks containing more than 30,000 documents.

Some 72 letters written by Descartes were thought to have been stolen by Libri
Some 72 letters written by Descartes were
thought to have been stolen by Libri
These included 72 letters written by the great French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes, as well as the Tours Pentateuch, a late sixth or early seventh-century illuminated Latin manuscript of the first five books of the Old Testament, which he stole from the Library of Tours.

With no extradition agreement existing between France and Britain at that time, Libri was thus able to evade justice, even though he was tried in absentia in 1850 and sentenced to 10 years’ jail.

Indeed, he lived a good life in London, mainly by selling books, often to members of the English nobility, or else at auction.

The Tours Pentateuch later became known as the Ashburnham Pentateuch after it was sold to the 4th Earl of Ashburnham by Libri in 1847.  Two auction sales in 1861 are said to have netted him more than one million francs.

Born Count Guglielmo Libri Carucci dalla Sommaja, he was a precocious academic who began studying law at the University of Pisa at the age of 16 before switching to mathematics and being appointed professor of mathematical physics at the age of just 20.

He made many friends in Paris during a sabbatical visit in 1824 and when his involvement back in Italy with the secret revolutionary plotters known as the Carbonari led to the threat of arrest, it was to Paris that he escaped.

Libri's History of Mathematical Sciences drew on stolen documents
Libri's History of Mathematical Sciences
drew on stolen documents
He became a French citizen in 1833 and his academic stock continued to rise. He obtained a professorship at the Collège de France and in 1834 he was elected as assistant professor in the calculus of probabilities at the Sorbonne and elevated to the French Academy of Sciences.

Between 1838 and 1841, Libri wrote a four-volume tome entitled History of the Mathematical Sciences in Italy from the Renaissance of literature to the 17th Century, drawing from 1800 manuscripts and books by Galileo, Descartes, Leibniz and others which he claimed were in his personal collection. It was discovered later that many had been stolen from the Laurentian Library.

He cultivated contacts in high places to protect his reputation. His appointment as Chief Inspector of French Libraries, for example, came about through his friendship with the influential French Chief of Police, François Guizot.

Libri remained in England until 1868, when his declining health persuaded him to return to Italy.  He died the following year in Fiesole, just outside Florence, at the age of 66.

Although many of the huge number of items Libri stole have never been returned, having been forgotten about or left to gather dust in private libraries and storerooms, one of the missing Descartes letters, written in 1641 to Father Marin Marsenne, the priest and polymath who oversaw the publication of his Meditations on First Philosophy, turned up at Haverford College in Pennsylvania in 2010.

The Laurentian Library - the long building in the middle of this picture - was fitted out to a design by Michelangelo
The Laurentian Library - the long building in the middle of
this picture - was fitted out to a design by Michelangelo
Travel tip:

The Laurentian Library – the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana – dates back to 1523, when the Medici pope Clement VII commissioned it to be built in a cloister of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, which is situated between the Duomo and Santa Maria Novella railway station. Home to some 11,000 manuscripts and 4,500 historic books, it was built to designs by Michelangelo in Mannerist style and is considered one of his greatest achievements, not only for elegance of its architectural features but for the innovative use for space to maximise the library’s capacity without detracting from its aesthetic beauty.

The remains of the Roman amphitheatre at Fiesole
The remains of the Roman amphitheatre at Fiesole 
Travel tip:

Fiesole, a town of around 14,000 inhabitants, is situated about 8km (5 miles) northeast of Florence on a hill offering panoramic views. It was built on the site of an Etruscan city probably founded in the eighth or ninth century BC. In the middle ages it grew to be as powerful as Florence until it was conquered by the latter in 1125 after a series of wars. Among several notable sights is its 11th century Romanesque Cathedral of St Romulus and many Roman remains, including those of an amphitheatre still used for open-air concerts during the summer.  Historically popular with wealthy Florentines as a place to build their villas, it still has the reputation of an upmarket residential area.

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