Antony Magliabecchi

Antony Magliabecchi  was born at Florence, on the 29th of October, in the year 1633. His parents were so poor as to be well satisfied when they got him into the service of a man who sold greens. He had not yet learned to read, but he was perpetually poring over the leaves of old books, that were used as waste paper in his master's shop. A bookseller who lived in the neighborhood, observed this, and knowing that the boy could not read, asked him one day what he meant by staring so much at pieces of printed paper? He said, that he did not know how it was, but that he loved it of all things; that he was very uneasy in the business he was in, and should be the happiest creature in the world if he could live with him, who had always so many books about him.

The bookseller was pleased with this answer; and at last told him, that if his master were willing to part with him, he would take him. Young Magliabecchi was highly delighted, and the more so, when his master, agreeably to the bookseller's desire, gave him leave to go. He went, therefore, directly to his new business. He had not long been there, before he could find out any book that was asked for, as readily as the bookseller himself. In a short period he had learned to read, and then he was always reading when he could find time.

He seems never to have applied himself to any particular study. A love of reading was his ruling passion, and a prodigious memory his great talent. He read all kinds of books, almost indifferently, as they came into his hands, and that with a surprising quickness; yet he retained not only the sense, but often the words and the very manner of spelling.

His extraordinary application and talents soon recommended him to Ermina, librarian to the Cardinal de Medicis, and Marmi, the Grand Duke's librarian. He was by them introduced to the conversation of the learned, and made known at court. He now began to be looked upon everywhere as a prodigy, particularly for his unbounded memory.

In order to make an experiment in respect to this, a gentleman of Florence, who had written a piece, which was to be printed, lent the manuscript to Magliabecchi. Sometime after it had been returned, he came to the librarian with a melancholy face, and told him that by some accident he had lost his manuscript; and seemed almost inconsolable, entreating Magliabecchi, at the same time, to endeavor to recollect as much of it as he possibly could, and write it down. Magliabecchi assured him he would do so, and on setting about it, wrote down the whole, without missing a word.

By treasuring up everything he read, in this wonderful manner, or at least the subject, and all the principal parts of the books he ran over, his head became at last, as one of his acquaintance expressed it, "an universal index, both of titles and matter."

By this time, Magliabecchi was grown so famous for the vast extent of his reading, and his amazing retention of what he had read, that it began to grow common amongst the learned to consult him when they were writing on any subject. Thus, for instance, if a priest was going to compose a panegyric upon any favorite saint, and came to communicate his design to Magliabecchi, he would immediately tell him who had said anything of that saint, and in what part of their works, and that, sometimes, to the number of above a hundred authors. He would tell them not only who had treated of their subject designedly, but of such, also, as had touched upon it incidentally, in writing on other subjects. All this he did with the greatest exactness, naming the author, the book, the words, and often the very number of the page in which the passage referred to was inserted. He did this so often, so readily, and so exactly, that he came at last to be looked upon almost as an oracle, for the ready and full answers that he gave to all questions proposed to him in respect to any subject or science whatever.

It was his great eminence in this way, and his almost inconceivable knowledge of books, that induced the Grand Duke, Cosmo the third, to make him his librarian. What a happiness must it have been to one like Magliabecchi, who delighted in nothing so much as reading, to have the command and use of such a collection of books as that in the Duke's palace! He was also very conversant with the books in the Lorenzo library; and had the keeping of those of Leopoldo, and Francisco Maria, the two cardinals of Tuscany.

Magliabecchi had a local memory, too, of the places where every book stood, in the libraries which he frequented; he seems, indeed, to have carried this even farther. One day the Grand Duke sent for him to ask whether he could get him a book that was particularly scarce. "No, sir," answered Magliabecchi, "for there is but one in the world, and that is in the Grand Signior's library at Constantinople; it is the seventh book on the second shelf, on the right hand, as you go in."

Though Magliabecchi lived so sedentary a life, with such an intense and almost perpetual application to books, yet he arrived to a good old age. He died in his eighty-first year, on the 14th of July, 1714. By his will he left a very fine library, of his own collection, for the use of the public, with a fund to maintain it; and whatever should remain over, to the poor.

In his manner of living, Magliabecchi affected the character of Diogenes; three hard eggs, and a draught or two of water, were his usual repast. When his friends went to see him, they generally found him lolling in a sort of fixed wooden cradle, in the middle of his study, with a multitude of books, some thrown in heaps, and others scattered about the floor, around him. His cradle, or bed, was generally attached to the nearest pile of books by a number of cobwebs: at the entrance of any one, he used to call out, "Don't hurt my spiders!"