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Alagonian Library

The Coast of Siracusa
November 30, 2020
Sanctuary of the Madonna of Tears
December 1, 2020
Alagonian Library

The Alagonian Library

The Alagonian Library represents a precious treasure-trove in which over 70,000 books are carefully conserved; the old section includes 20 illuminated manuscripts, 70 incunabula, and several thousand books printed between 1500 and 1830; the modern section goes from 1831 and is regularly updated with modern editions of books.
The bulky manuscripts, the illuminated manuscripts, the incunabula, the rare books from centuries past, represent a unique part of the cultural heritage of Siracusa, where erudite scholars, historians, students and researchers have studied and continue to do so.
“… sub anathematis paena proecipimus, ne quisquam ab hac Biblioteca Venerabilis Seminarii Clericorum folia, libros, quinterna, e manuscripta quacumque causa, vel quesito colore extrahere, et esportare…”
With the authority awarded to him in Canon Law, this anathema written by Bishop Giambattista Alagona, would ipso facto have fallen on anyone who dared to remove, for whatever reason, pages, manuscripts, books, or parts of books belonging to the Alagona Library in the Archbishopric of Siracusa.
In order to understand the reason that pushed Bishop Alagona to issue this important ecclesiastical decree, otherwise known as “excommunication”, we have to look at the period from the mid-18th century to the first thirty years of the 19th century, when Siracusa reached great cultural heights after centuries of oblivion that had followed the glories of the classical period.
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Two important schools helped to create the basis for this cultural rebirth; the Seminary and the Jesuit college, famous for its very strict schooling.

Intellectuals of great importance were educated in these schools, like the poet Tommaso Gargallo, and the priests Giuseppe Logoteta and Giuseppe Capodieci, to mention but a few, men who dedicated their lives to archaeological research and their studies, bringing the magnificent past of the city back to life.
Their published works reached even the remoter parts of the old continent, stimulating the imagination of many erudite Europeans who, with their interest in the past culminating in the so-called Grand Tour, so fashionable in that period, travelled all the way to Siracusa.
Welcomed as honorary members into the most important European academies, together with other intellectuals from Siracusa like Cesare Gaetani, Francesco Di Paola Avolio, and Saverio Landolina, they had many exchanges of letters with famous writers such as Alfieri, Metastasio, Sand, Canova, Cousin, and Montalembert. These letters, a unique and precious legacy, are still preserved in the Alagonian Library today.
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Another element that gave added impetus to the reawakening of cultural and intellectual activities in the city was the creation of a printing press at Siracusa.
The lack of a press in town meant that books, pamphlets and even simple leaflets had to be printed at Catania, Messina or even Palermo.
The growing number of works written by local intellectuals pushed the city Senate to summon a printer from Catania, Gioacchino Pulejo, to ask him whether he could create a printing press at Siracusa, and the subsequent agreement led to the inauguration in 1757 of a press in the courtyard of the Archbishop's Palace. The building that housed the printer’s still stands there, recognisable because of the blocks of dark lava stone used in the corner pilaster, as specifically requested when the contract was drawn up between the Senate representatives and Pulejo himself, as an act of homage to the building-materials of his city of origin.
It is in this context of cultural activity that the creation of the Archbishop's Library must be seen, built from the foundations by Bishop Giambattista Alagona, on the original site in via Minerva, as a Public Library for the education of the local youth, at his own expense. The bishop also donated all his own books, adding them to the collection of his predecessor Mons. Requisenz, but he was able to fill only one third of the shelves, and in 1791 the poet Tommaso Gargallo wrote rather snidely in his description of the city, Memorie Patrie per servire allo ristoro di Siracusa, when discussing the Alagonian Library; “ Appare rari Nantes in gurgite vasto” - “like a few shipwrecked swimmers in the vast sea”
The chronicles of the city record that the generous Bishop Alagona, having read this comment, hired a boat and went to Naples where he bought a large number of selected works, so that he could fill the empty shelves of the Library, and it was on this occasion that he bought the precious Polyglot Bible printed in London in 1652.
Over the years, the collection of books was increased thanks to donations from Abbot Sinesio, Count Gaetani, Baron Impellizzeri and Landolina, as well as 50 important manuscripts by the priest Giuseppe Capodieci, an endless source of fascinating information about the city’s history.
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And so, to take us back to where we started, whereas today the contents are protected by the most modern, sophisticated systems of control and surveillance, for more than two centuries we have to admit that the only system of protection that has permitted this incredible collection created by Bishop Alagona to come down to us unscathed, was to terrorise even the most ill-intentioned of visitors through the solemn excommunication that is still valid today.
Sergio Cilea

“… sub anathematis paena proecipimus, ne quisquam ab hac Biblioteca Venerabilis Seminarii Clericorum folia, libros, quinterna, e manuscripta quacumque causa, vel quesito colore extrahere, et esportare…”