Stupidity; censorship; changes in format and changes in taste; war; and of course the inevitable accidents, especially flood and fire. Such are the hazards to the frail life of books. Ultimately, there is power in an ancient book both as work of art and thought, kept alive by people who loved books and knew that books are an essential element in civilization. When barbarism comes to outweigh culture, through foreign invasion or social revolution or deliberately nurtured through sloth and ignorance, works of art are often taken to be “useless” and destroyed. In waves of materialism and in revolutions, everything old is apt to be judged obsolete. It is a barrier to progress; or it is lumber; or it is reactionary; or it is indelible and unspendable.
And so it has always been. Boccaccio, who was a great booklover and book finder, once visited the monastery of Monte Cassino. He was particularly eager to see the library, with all its treasures of handwritten books. Very humbly he asked one of the monks for admission to it. “Walk up” , said the monk, “it’s open.” It was. It had no door; grass was grwoing on the window sills; the shelves, the benches, and the books themselves were shrouded in thick dust. Some of them, he found, had lost pages or even whole quires, others had their margins cut off. Boccaccio wept. He cried tears of pity ” that the work and study of so many illustrious geniuses should have fallen into the hands of scoundrels.” As he left, he asked a monk how such valuable books could have been so odiously mutilated. “Well,” said the monk, “some of the brothers wanted to earn a few pennies: so they took a page and scraped off the writing and made little psalters to sell to children; and from the page margins they made gospels and breviaries and sold them to women.”
When a bibliophile sees good books neglected and on the road to destruction, his first impulse is to rescue them. Say not “steal.” Some splendid books from Monte Cassino are now in Florence. If it was not Boccaccio who “conveyed” them there, it was an even more fanatical booklover, Niccolo Niccoli; or an agent of his and of the house of Medici. One of these manuscripts alone- bless the hand that saved it- is the only surviving book that contains Tacitus’s account of the civil war after Nero’s suicide and of the reigns of Claudius and Nero; it also has Apuleius’s wonderful romance, The Metamorphoses, sometimes called The Golden Ass. This magnificent Codex, written in the eleventh century , now rests peacefully in the Laurentian library, above the cloister of the church of San Lorenzo.
Near it is the only surviving manuscript of the first six books of another work by Tacitus, the Annals, found in Germany. Had these two manuscripts not been “conveyed” they might well have been cut up into amulets, and we should have lost one of the greatest historians who ever wrote of absolutism and the degeneracy of despotic power.