view of lake Bolsema


Montefiascone is a small town perched on the highest point of an extinct volcano whose crater is now filled with the Lake of Bolsena. It is a landmark, visible for miles around. The ancient Romans called it Mons Faliscorum (Mountain of the Falisci), but the name goes back yet further to the Etruscans, whose heartland lay between present day Rome and Florence. In the middle ages it marked the northern limit of papal territory, and the remains of a great fortress, or the “Rocca”, mark its importance as a frontier town. When the seat of the papacy moved to Avignon in the fourteenth century, Montefiascone became an important stopping-place on the road from there to Rome.

But from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century all the land round became the private fief of the Farnese family, whose most famous member was Pope Paul III. In 1649 Innocent X re-annexed the territory, and in 1686 Marcantonio Barbarigo, a member of a famous patrician family of Venice, was elected Cardinal and appointed Bishop of Montefiascone and Corneto (now Tarquinia). He was determined to repair the neglect of his predecessors, and built a large seminary to educate the priests who would minister to the needs of his diocese. This building still stands at the top of the town, near the old Rocca.


An important feature of the seminary was its library, a handsome long room with a vaulted ceiling and walls painted in trompe l’oeil. Part of its decoration still survives, although the present shelves, in handsome dark wood cases, are of later date. An arched window overlooks the town, with a wrought iron balcony incorporating the Barbarigo arms. The earliest inventory of the contents of the library, drawn up in 1692-3, contains almost 300 books, many of which are still there. At some point before his death in 1706 the Bishop added books, some going back to the fifteenth century, that had belonged to his Venetian ancestors, one of whom, Pierfrancesco Barbarigo, had been the principal investor in the famous Aldine press.

Besides this ‘foundation’ collection, books came from other libraries, among them the monastery founded by Cardinal Odoardo Farnese on the Isola Bisentina, one of two islands on the lake of Bolsena, about 1600. The learned Cardinal Garampi added more books in the eighteenth century, including books in Hebrew and other oriental languages, among them a copy of the great Walton polyglot bible. The Napoleonic invasion of Italy brought damage and loss to the library, in part put right by his successor Jean Siffrein Maury. Among the books now added were some from German monasteries suppressed about 1800. Where the library had previously contained theology and works on canon law, books of secular learning and education were now added, including scientific and geographical works.

A gateway tower adjoins the seminary church, also built by Barbarigo, and on its other side is a doorway with the legend ‘Typographia Seminarii’ over it. This was the site of a printing press that was part of the Seminary until World War II, when the Seminary again suffered (one of the books used as a shutter still has machine-gun bullets in it). In recent times, the Library has benefited from the annual conservation course, through which many of the books have been restored and a modern catalogue undertaken. The Library can now look forward to a future of continued scholarly use.


In 1987 advice was sought regarding the care and maintenance of the historic Seminario Barbarigo Library. On behalf of the Seminary, GianCarlo Breccola and Anthea Bulloch consulted Cheryl Porter, a professional book conservator, on the understanding that the library and its collection were in need of, and worthy of urgent attention.

In order to prioritise the work, Cheryl enlisted the help of Nicolas Barker, a leading international scholar of rare books and manuscripts, and formerly Head of Conservation and Deputy Keeper at the British Library. Dr Barker stressed the importance of the collection and urged the seminary to safeguard the library as soon as possible. With his help, as well as the help of many others, Cheryl was able to organise a survey of the condition of the collection and subsequently devise a strategy for dealing with the relevant problems.

The library consists of about 5000 volumes and is housed in an elegant room with the books arranged on built-in floor to ceiling wooden presses. Some original frescoes remain on the walls, especially above the entrance door. The ceiling has recently been completely renovated and painted with the coats of arms of the founders of and the donors to the seminary and the library. The library is no longer used by the seminary as a teaching facility for the training of priests. (The books needed to fulfil this purpose had previously been removed to the main collection at La Quircia in Viterbo). Those books that remained had, as a consequence, been neglected for many years; unvisited, save for a few priests, who recognised its relevance to the seminary and its history. Apart from a general ambiance of dust and neglect, there were a number of serious and urgent problems.


Some time previous to 1988, there had been a major flood from the bathrooms above the library and Press N had suffered directly. The wood of these shelves had distorted and there was widespread mould and water damage to the books, especially those in the lowest shelf (vi). These had more-or-less ceased to be identifiable as books and presented a serious health hazard to readers. The ceiling of the room too, had been damaged by water from the bathrooms above. Gesso from the walls behind the books was cracked and crumbling and falling onto the books. Lighting was inadequate and the wiring was old. The floor was in generally good condition though there were a number of broken tiles and long and wide cracks running parallel to the south wall. The windows on the east wall were leaking rain water and allowing unacceptable levels of light to shine directly onto books in presses K, L and M. The balcony door did not fit properly and failed to secure the room against the environmental changes from without, whilst permitting vermin access to the room. The bodies of mummified rats were subsequently found behind books on the shelves.

The library was infested with insects and there were rodents feeding on the book bindings and the paper text blocks. Birds’ eggs were found on the shelves and there was extensive evidence of woodworm activity affecting the books and the library furniture. There was no adequate catalogue of the collection.


Since 1987, much has been achieved to safeguard this wonderful library at the heart of the historic seminary.

Almost immediately, Don GianPaolo Guaram took in hand the disconnection of the water to the bathrooms above the library. This room is now dry and there is no water circulating or held anywhere above the library. Thanks to the generosity of Don Antonio Patrizi, the doors to the east and the west of the library were replaced. The new doors are fitted and much in keeping with their surroundings. In 2000 the ceiling of the library was replaced with a plain white gesso, painted with the cardinal’s coat of arms. The central lighting was incorporated into the design to provide much-needed reading light. The walls have been re-plastered and now no longer crumble and fall onto the books and the shelves.

From 1988, conservation students from Camberwell College of Arts and Crafts and the University of Northumbria, as well as practising conservators from the British Library and the Public Record Office in London, came to work in the library for one month each summer. Subsequently, international teams of professional conservators and librarians have come to assist with a programme of conservation and preservation.

The conservation teams have systematically cleaned the library and its collections (every shelf and every book) and they return each summer to ensure that this vital work is maintained. Animal bodies, nests, eggs, waste and other debris is cleared out from the library and preventative treatments are laid down and applied. Any new infestation is noted, as is any detail of relevance to the future well-being of the collection.

The woodworm has been treated, and continues to be treated with a solution developed by Dr Robert Child, Head of the Conservation Department of the National Museum of Wales.

Books with live insects have been treated with a vacuum-packing technique, developed by Stuart Welch, of Conservation by Design, and Dr Nicholas Hadgraft, a Cambridge-based professional conservator.

Mouldy books have also been vacuum-packed until the mould is inactive, and is then cleaned from the books by teams of conservation students adhering to Health and safety guidelines.

Phase boxes have been made to protect important and vulnerable items and a number of books have their own custom-made boxes.

There has been an on-going programme of first-aid repair to those books in need of attention – e.g. board corners and in-situ repair- as well as more involved conservation work, such as board- hitching, leather repair, re-attaching end bands.

A cataloguing system for this library was set up under the direction of Nicolas Barker. The work was begun by Julianne Simpson (Wellcome Trust) and has subsequently been continued by Charlotte Miller, of Sotheby’s London (ex-Lambeth Palace and the British Institute, Florence). She has been assisted from time to time by professional librarians from around the world, and especially Nicolas and Iona Bell of the British Library and the RNIB and Carolyn Rampling.

Work has also been done on the seminary archives. These are of vital importance to the history of the institution. The archives date to the founding of the seminary and though much time and effort has been expended in storing the collection in a systematic and safe way, there is still much to be done.

In addition to the work on the library itself, an international summer school has been established and this runs in parallel to the practical work. The courses are fee-paying, and the revenue raised is entirely used to fund the work in, and the buying of materials for, the library. Surplus funds are used to pay for the building and other practical work required for the safeguarding of the library.

Work planned for the following year(s) include: the provision of UV/IR screening to the windows and glass door, repair of the floor of the library and the blocking of the holes in the outside walls of the library. Subject to the approval of the Rector this work should take place in the near future.