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Guglielmo Libri-Carrucci dalla Sommaia was born in 1803 in Florence, Italy. In the course of his life this Tuscan count excelled as a mathematician, scientist, scholar of Italian scientific history, journalist, book collector, and, most notoriously, as a book thief. Libri was a studious young man, skilled in French, English, German, and Latin, and interested in mathematics, philosophy, and history. Even as a child Libri was a book collector, purchasing rare editions in Florence by the age of 12, and producing catalogues of his own books by the age of 17 (Ruju and Mostert 61). He attended the University of Pisa and obtained his doctorate in natural sciences in 1820. After receiving his doctorate he continued with his own studies of mathematics and physics, and began publishing papers on mathematics that garnered international attention from scholars. At the young age of twenty-one, Libri was appointed Professor of Mathematical Physics at the University of Pisa. Throughout the early years of his career, Libri became interested in researching the history of science, and eventually set-out to write a complete history of science in Italy. His four-volume Histoire des sciences mathématiques en Italie was published between 1838 and 1841, and this undertaking further fueled his passion for manuscripts, rare books, and autographs which were the basis of his research.
Libri traveled to France twice as a young scholar, the first time in 1824, when he had the opportunity to meet French scientists and political figures, attend a ball given by King Charles X, deliver a paper at the Académie des Sciences, and form friendships with the astronomer and radical politician Dominique François Arago and the historian and professor François Guizot, among others. He returned to France again in 1830 shortly before the July revolution, and Libri participated with some of his friends in the armed insurrection that made Louis Philippe, Duke of Orléans, the King of France. When he returned to Italy, Libri became involved with politics there and began meeting with the secret political society of Carbonari in efforts to establish a liberal constitutional government. He was exiled from Italy in 1831 because of his political activity, and this time fled to France to live and begin his career anew. With the help of his friend Arago, Libri was able to become a French citizen, which allowed him to begin teaching at the Collège de France. Shortly after, he was appointed to a position at the Sorbonne and was elected as full member of the Académie des Sciences, again with the help of Arago, who was then the secretary of the Académie des Sciences.
Libri had arrived in France with little money, but during the 1830s as he conducted research for the Histoire des sciences mathématiques en Italie, he became known as the leading collector of scientific and mathematical books and manuscripts of the time. He was able to build his collection with little funds by buying on credit from booksellers and borrowing money from a contact in Italy, as well as his mother. He was a bookseller as much as a book collector, and he had his mother buy books for him in Italy, where prices were better than in France and England, which he sold abroad for a more favorable profit. He maintained contacts in England and Germany who purchased books and manuscripts for him. Libri conducted a series of auctions from his collection which helped fund further purchases, and he also bought several large collections by auction. By 1841 Libri estimated his collection to contain 1,800 manuscripts, and in 1847 he estimated his printed books to number 40,000 volumes (Ruju and Mostert 162 and 166).
As a patron of libraries, particularly when he was conducting research for Histoire des sciences mathématiques en Italie, Libri continuously criticized French libraries for their lack of care for the books and manuscripts they held. He criticized libraries for losing books, for leaving them unattended, for purchasing stolen books, and for theft by employees blamed on patrons. Libri was not alone in his complaints, especially of the state of the Bibliothèque Royale in Paris. The Bibliothèque Royale had no restrictions on how many books could be borrowed or for how long, so books could be borrowed for a lifetime and then sold off or lost, and little or no records were kept of what books were borrowed, by whom, and which librarian loaned the book. At this time French libraries were in a general state of disarray. The Bibliothèque Royale was in the difficult process of becoming a public institution, the Bibliothèque Nationale. The provincial libraries had been chaotic since the French Revolution, when thousands of books and manuscripts had been seized from clergy and aristocracy and brought to the provincial libraries, where the librarians were so overwhelmed that scores of volumes were either stolen or seized for the Bibliothèque Nationale by bibliographers sent from Paris.
Under Libri's friend Guizot, who led the Ministry of Public Instruction, more regulations were eventually put in place for the provincial libraries, yet it was not until 1837 that removing books and manuscripts from public libraries was made illegal. The Ministry of Public Instruction asked provincial libraries for catalogs of books and manuscripts in their possession and lists of missing items, and Libri suggested to the Minister that a commission be formed to investigate the manuscript collections of the provincial libraries and create catalogs of their holdings. The commission would send library inspectors to the libraries to either work with the librarian to catalog the collections or to do it themselves (many of these libraries had incomplete catalogs already). The catalogs would then be published together as a complete catalog of all manuscripts in the public libraries of France. Libri was appointed as the Secretary of the newly formed commission, as well as one of the inspectors. With this new position, Libri was given increased access to manuscript collections, staying for extended periods at libraries, looking at collections unsupervised, and asking librarians to allow him to work after hours. It is during this four year period that Libri is accused of stealing countless books and manuscripts from the French public libraries. Libri retired from the commission in 1846, having contributed only to the first volume of the Catalogue Général des Manuscrits des Bibliothèques Publiques des Départements, which was published in 1849.
During his years as inspector Libri conducted large-scale theft of books and manuscripts from French libraries. According to Ruju and Mostert, Libri's collection of manuscripts contained over 90 manuscripts from before the twelfth century, which even then were rarely available for sale (203). Libri is believed to have stolen a number of these manuscripts from some of the provincial libraries he visited as inspector. He spent a great deal of time at the Bibliothèque Mazarine, where he was given his own private work area and was often noticed exploring areas closed to other patrons where uncatalogued and duplicate material was kept. He developed the habit of requesting that librarians send particularly interesting or rare items to his home, so that he could look over them unhurriedly and share with the rest of the committee, and he may or may not have returned these items (McCrimmon 20). As more complaints and questions arose about texts found missing after a visit from Libri, Libri denied any wrongdoing and continued to lament the mishandling of French libraries. He did much to hide his thefts, such as improvising his recollections and receipts of actual book purchases to include items acquired illegally, removing identifying marks like library stamps, and rebinding and restoring books to remove marks of ownership and appear like a different copy. He sent books to Italy to be bound in an Italian style to hide their provenance, and he even forged inscriptions on some of his books and manuscripts to add to their value. Libri also collected old paper and had restorers add blank leaves to the front and back of books so he could sell them as "perfect" copies, and he was even found to have added false title pages and altered title pages to either increase a book's value or confuse its identity.
Suspicions also arose about Libri among his circle of friends and fellow bibliophiles because his collection was so staggering and seemed incongruous with his salary as a professor. In 1842 Libri was anonymously accused of theft from a library to the police. Some of the political foes Libri made during his years in France joined in the accusations, and rumors increased over several years about Libri illegally augmenting his collection from the libraries of France. Libri continuously maintained that the accusations were political in nature, professional jealousies, or that he was accused in error. But Libri began to make preparations to part with a large portion of his collection, and considered donating it to several libraries but ultimately did not. He instead negotiated with the British Museum for the sale of the manuscripts, and though interested they could not meet the price he asked. In 1846, Libri sold the collection of 1,923 manuscripts to the Earl of Ashburnham for 8,000 pounds, requesting that the sale remain secret, though rumors of the sale circulated anyway. He also conducted a large auction in Paris in 1847 of about 3,000 of his most valuable books. Despite these large sales Libri still maintained a collection of about 30,000 volumes, and collected about that many again from 1848 forward (McCrimmon 8).
During this time the police received more accusations about Libri, including an anonymous letter in 1845 that accused Libri of stealing 300,000 to 400,000 francs worth from libraries in the South of France, having library stamps removed from the stolen books and then rebound in Italy, with one such book then sold to the British Museum for 6,000 francs (Ruju and Mostert 239). The accusations were passed along to M. Boucly, procurer du roi, who slowly conducted an investigation, issuing a report in 1848 that accused Libri of theft and recommended legal action against him. This report was given to Libri's friend Guizot, who was by this time the Prime Minister of France, and Guizot dismissed the report but kept it in his office and notified Libri of its existence. It might have been forgotten there had the revolution of 1848 not broken out shortly after, with revolutionaries overtaking the Foreign Ministry building and Guizot fleeing to England. The Boucly report was later found in the possession of the new Foreign Minister and it was soon published in Le National and Le Moniteur Universel. In the time between its discovery and publication, Libri was tipped off to impending legal action against him; while in attendance at a meeting of the Institut, another member, who had been told of the discovery of the report, slipped him a note that sternly warned Libri to never return to the Institut again. Libri left immediately and began packing his library and destroying papers. He sent off 18 crates of books and manuscripts to England, stashed some books and papers with friends and in unoccupied houses in Paris, burnt incriminating papers in his hearth, and fled from France.
The Boucly report was published in March of 1848, and the new government began a thorough investigation into Libri almost immediately, while Libri began writing profusely in his own defense. The ensuing Libri affair lasted many years, with the publication of pamphlets by Libri and his supporters in his defense in the years before and after Libri was found guilty and condemned in the Acte d'accusation of April 1850. Libri's first pamphlet, published in 1848, the Réponse au Rapport de M. Boucly Publié dans le Moniteur Universel du 19 mars 1848, was a lengthy critique of Boucly's investigation and allegations against him, as well as insistence that the accusations were political in nature, stemming from his alliance with Guizot, his views on Italian politics, and other political controversies from his past. Libri tried to build arguments in his defense with the little evidence and records he had with him in England, employing friends in France to do research in libraries into some of the books and manuscripts in question. In 1849 Libri published a 327 page defense, Lettre à M. de Falloux, where he argued that because of the disorganized state of French libraries, bookshops in Europe were replete with books that had the stamps of French libraries, so it was not unusual for his own collection to have the same. It also contained a long list of books that had once belonged to public libraries of France and Italy, along with the date, price of sale, and the bookseller from whom Libri purchased the book. However, the Acte d'accusation of 1850 was a stronger indictment of Libri's thefts than the Boucly report had been; it detailed at length the loss of specific books from specific libraries and the discovery of library stamps and cut-out autograph letters among the papers Libri had left behind in Paris. Notably, it reported on the missing leaves from the Institut's manuscripts of Leonardo da Vinci, which were shown to have disappeared immediately after Libri looked at the manuscripts and some of which were included in Libri's sale to the Earl of Ashburnham. Despite the Acte, Libri still had strong support from some of his contacts, including Guizot, the medievalist professor Achille Jubinal, the author and journalist Paul Lacroix (Bibliophile Jacob), the bibliographer Gustave Brunet, and the historian and author Prosper Mérimée. Pamphlets by Libri and his supporters appeared about the accusations for years after 1850, yet the conviction stood.
Libri was sentenced in absentia to ten years imprisonment, but he refused to return to France to stand trial or serve the sentence. Libri had supporters abroad and within France, but the general sentiment in France and in the French media was of certainty of his guilt. Libri passed away in 1869, and it wasn't until years after, in 1883, that his guilt was absolutely proven. Léopold Delisle, the head of the Bibliothèque Nationale from 1874 to 1905, was able to prove that 166 of the items that Libri sold to Lord Ashburnham had originally belonged to French national libraries, and those items were eventually returned to France. Because of Libri's methods of theft, the actual number of items he stole is not known. Libri's role in the history of French libraries is peculiarly dichotomous; he is known as a book thief of grand proportions who sold off France's precious manuscripts abroad to perhaps never be retrieved, but also as an extraordinary book collector whose critiques of French public libraries influenced the improvement of library organization and increased care of rare materials.
The collection Procès Libri houses materials from the Libri affair on the subject of Guglielmo Libri and the accusations that this Italian scholar and bibliophile stole countless rare books and manuscripts from French national libraries while employed as an inspector of libraries. When Libri was accused of theft, he and his supporters wrote a flurry of pamphlets in Libri's defense, disputing individual claims of theft and arguing that the neglectful state of French libraries led to confusion over the location of library books and the prevalence of library-owned books in the private market in general. The collection, dating from 1848 to 1861 and bound together in two volumes, consists of manuscript table of contents for both volumes and thirty-one items in total, including pamphlets, newspaper clippings, and manuscript notes.
The collection is organized into two series, "Tome 1" and "Tome 2", and the items within both series are listed in the order they appear in the volumes, which is roughly chronological. "Tome 1" contains three manuscript notes and eleven pamphlets, and "Tome 2" contains one manuscript note, four newspaper clippings, and fourteen pamphlets.
Of particular interest may be the manuscript letter written by Guglielmo Libri in 1851 (item 1) to his lawyer, Henry Celliez, about the accusation that Libri had stolen the 1475 Bologna edition of Petrarch's the Trionfi, among many others, from the Bibliothèque Mazarine, and the subsequent discovery of the book still on the shelves of the library. With this letter is a manuscript note, possibly in Celliez's hand, listing six of the titles that Libri was accused of stealing from the Bibliothèque Mazarine, followed by a list of bibliographic details to research in Libri's defense, perhaps in reaction to Libri's letter.
Also of interest is the fragment of a manuscript letter (item 24) written and signed by Achille Jubinal, a medievalist and former professor at Montpellier and supporter of Libri, in regard to the contested books of the Bibliothèque Mazarine. This is followed by a pamphlet written by Jubinal, Un Nouvel Épisode de l'Affaire Libri (item 25), which concerns the news that the stolen texts had been found still on the shelves of the Bibliothèque Mazarine by the paleographer Joseph Balthazar Silvestre. Jubinal's autograph appears at the head of item 22, an untitled pamphlet also about the reappearance of the stolen texts. Two of the pamphlets in Libri's defense written by Jubinal have manuscript gift inscriptions by Jubinal to unknown recipients (items 18 and 19).
Published items of note in the collection include the first written defense by Libri, the Réponse de M. Libri au Rapport de M. Boucly (item 1); Libri's second pamphlet, the 328 page criticism of his persecution (item 2); the Acte d'accusation of 1850, published in the newspaper Le Droit: Journal des Tribunaux (items 14 and 15); and the petition of 1861 to the senate on Libri's behalf (item 28), signed by his supporters, including Prosper Mérimée, François Guizot, Paulin Paris, and Édouard Laboulaye.
- University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
- The processing of this collection was made possible through generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, administered through the Council on Library and Information Resources' "Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives" Project.
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