A Brief Outline of the History of Libraries/Chapter 10

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Statues of Learned Men sometimes placed in Libraries; a praiseworthy Custom which originated with Asinius.

A MOST appropriate method of decorating a library, one which ought to be imitated by us to-day but unhappily is not, is that of placing in it and near their writings the statues or busts of great authors. How delightful it must have been to the readers to see them, and how stimulating to the mind! We all wish to become familiar with the features and the general appearance of great men, with those material bodies in which dwelt their celestial spirits, and, lifting our eyes from their books, here they are before us! You could read the writings of Homer, Hippocrates, Aristotle, Pindar, Virgil, Cicero, and others, and at the same time feast your eyes upon the counterfeit presentment of each one. Again I say, a most beautiful custom, and why, Most Illustrious Friend, do we to-day not imitate it, under your leadership?

This idea seems to have originated with the Romans—not every good thing, after all, has come from the Greeks! Pliny is of this opinion. "Nothing," he says, speaking in his most happy vein, "is more delightful than to have knowledge of the face and bearing of the authors one reads. Asinius Pollio, at Rome, apparently originated this idea of placing statues in libraries; that same Asinius who was the first, by founding a free library, to make the wisdom of mankind free to all. Whether the kings at Alexandria and Pergamum, who showed great zeal in the founding of libraries, had done the same before, I find it impossible to learn." So it seems, as I have said, that Asinius was the originator of the idea; and Pliny says that he placed in a library, the first public one opened in the city (not, in the world, as some absurdly render the phrase), the statue of a living man, Marcus Varro, the first person to have that honour. Afterwards the same distinction was shown to others, either through courtesy or because it was justly due them; for example, to the poet Martial, who boasted that Stertinius wished to place a statue of him in his library. But for the most part this honour has been reserved for the dead, and for those who have, by common consent, proved their greatness.

Pliny says, "A certain custom, now just established, ought not to be passed by in silence. I refer to the fact that they place in libraries, not only the statues in gold, silver, or bronze of those whose immortal souls may be said to be speaking there through their books, but also the statues of those whose books are not there; and even imaginary statues of those of whom no portraits have been preserved." He calls the custom a new one, meaning that it originated with Pollio. He says also that these statues of the dead were for the most part made of metal. I would add that they were also made of plaster, in which they were easily duplicated for private libraries. Juvenal says, "Though you may find everywhere busts of Chrysippus in plaster."

Indeed I think the portraits were sometimes paintings, and that perhaps they placed portraits at the beginnings of books. Seneca says, "Those exquisite works of highest genius, illustrated with the portraits of their authors." Suetonius says of Tiberius, "He placed their writings and their portraits in the public libraries among the old and accepted authors." And Pliny in his letters remarks, "Herennius Severus, a most learned man, is very desirous to place in his own library the statues of Cornelius Nepos and Titus Atticus." So, according to these two writers, both statues and portraits were used. Pliny also says, in speaking of Silius Italicus, "He owned many villas in these same places, and in them he had many portraits; moreover, he not only owned them, he almost worshipped them, especially the portrait of Virgil." Vopiscus says of Numerian that a certain oration of his was held to be so eloquent that it was decided that a statue be made of him as an orator, not as emperor, and placed in the Ulpian library with this inscription: "To Numerian, Emperor, the greatest Orator of his time." Sidonius, justly boasting of a statue erected to himself in the same place, says, "Nerva Trajan has seen fit to place an enduring statue of me, in honour of my writings, among other authors in both libraries." By "both libraries" he means that his statue was set up in the Greek as well as in the Latin library.

Small portraits or statues were, it seems, often placed on brackets projecting from the cases or shelves on which stood the works of the writers they represented. I quote a line from Juvenal, "And bids the bust of Cleanthes guard the shelf on which his works repose."

The same custom is referred to in the distich which was inscribed on a bust of Virgil: "No harm can come to a poet who is honoured by having both his verse and his bust upon the library shelf;" meaning that he has attained to lasting fame who lives both in his books and in his sculptured likeness. Note also the seals or medallions above the shelves referred to by Cicero in a letter to Atticus. In Cicero's day they ornamented libraries with statues of the gods as well as of authors.