Magliabechi, Anthony

, one of the most celebrated, and certainly one of the most extraordinary men of his time, was born at Florence, Oct. 28 or 29, 1633. His parents, who were of low rank, are said to have been satisfied when they got him into the service of a man who sold fruit and herbs. He had never learned to read, and yet 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 neighbourhood, and who had often observed this, and knew the boy could not read, asked him one day, “what he meant by staring so much on printed paper?” He said, “that he did not know how it was, but that he loved it; 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, pleased with his answer, consented to take him, if his master was willing to part with him. Young Magliabechi thanked him with tears in his eyes, and having obtained his master’s leave, went directly to his new employment, which he had not followed long before he could find any book that was asked for, as ready as the bookseller himself. This account of his early life, which Mr. Spence received from a gentleman of Florence, who was well acquainted with Magliabechi and his family, differs considerably from that given by Niceron, Tiraboschi, and Fabroni. From the latter, indeed, we learn that he was placed as an apprentice to a goldsmith, after he had been taught the principles of drawing, and he had a brother that was educated to the law, and made a considerable figure in that profession. His father died while he was an infant, but Fabroni makes no mention of his poverty. It seems agreed, however, that after he had learned to read, that became his sole employment, but he never applied himself to any particular study. He read every book almost indifferently, as they happened to come into his hands, with a surprizing quickness; and yet such was his prodigious memory, that he not only retained the sense of what he read, but often all the words, and the very manner of spelling them, if there was any thing peculiar of that kind in any author.

This extraordinary application, and talents, soon recommended him to Ermini, librarian to the cardinal de Medicis, and to Marmi, the grand duke’s librarian, who introduced him into the company of the literati, and made him known at court. Every where he began to be looked upon as a prodigy, particularly for his vast and unbounded memory, of which many remarkable anecdotes have been given. A gentleman at Florence, who had written a piece that was to be printed, lent the manuscript to Magliabechi; and some time after it had been returned with thanks, came to him again with the story of a pretended accident by which he had lost his manuscript. The author seemed inconsolable, and intreated Magliabechi, whose character for remembering what he read was already very great, to try to recollect as much of it as he possibly could, and write it down for him against his next visit. Magliabechi assured him he would, and wrote down the whole ms. without missing a word, or even varying any where from | the spelling. Whatever our readers may think of this trial of his memory, it is certain that by treasuring up at least the subject and the principal parts of all the books he ran over, his head became at last, as one of his acquaintances expressed it to Mr. Spence, “An universal index both of titles and matter.

By this time Magliabechi was become so famous for the vast extent of his reading, and his amazing retention of what he had read, that he was frequently consulted by the learned, when meditating a work on any subject. For example, and a curious example it is, if a priest was going to compose a panegyric on any saint, and came to consult Magliabechi, he would immediately tell him, who had said any thing of that saint, and in what part of their works, and that sometimes to the number of above an hundred authors. He would tell not only who had treated of the subject designedly, but point out such as had touched upon it only incidentally; both which he did with the greatest exactness, naming the author, the book, the words, and often the very number of the page in which they were inserted. All this he did so often, so readily, and so exactly, that he came at last to be looked upon as an oracle, on account of the ready and full answers that he gave to all questions, that were proposed to him in any faculty or science whatever. The same talent induced the grand duke Cosmo III. to appoint him his librarian, and no man perhaps was ever better qualified for the situation, or more happy to accept it, He was also very conversant with the books in the Laurentian library, and the keeping of those of Leopold and Francis Maria, the two cardinals of Tuscany. Yet all this, it is said, did not appease his voracious appetite; he was thought to have read all the books printed before his time, and all in it. Doubtless this range, although very extensive, must be understood of Italian literature only or principally. Crescembini paid him the highest compliment on this. Speaking of a dispute whether a certain poem had ever been printed or not, he concluded it had not, “because Magliabechi had never seen it.” We learn farther that it was a general custom for authors and printers to present him with a copy of whatever they printed, which must have been a considerable help towards the very large collection of books which he himself made. | His mode of reading in his latter days is said to have been this. When a book first came into his hands, he would look over the title-page, then dip here and there in the preface, dedication and advertisements, if there were any; and then cast his eyes on each of the divisions, the different sections, or chapters, and then he would be able to retain the contents of that volume in his memory, and produce them if wanted. Soon after he had adopted this method of what Mr. Spence calls “fore-shortening his reading,” a priest who had composed a panegyric on one of his favourite saints, brought it to Magliabechi as a present. He read it over in his new way, the title-page and heads of the chapters, &c. and then thanked the priest very kindly “for his excellent treatise.” The author, in some pain, asked him, “whether that was all that he intended to read of his book?” Magliabechi coolly answered, “Yes, for I know very well every thing that is in it.” This anecdote, however, may be explained otherwise than upon the principles of memory. Magliabechi knew all that the writers before had said of this saint, and he knew this priest’s turn and character, and thence judged what he would chuse out of them and what he would omit. Magliabechi had even a local memory of the place where every book stood, as in his master’s shop at first, and in the Pitti, and several other libraries afterwards; and seems to have carried this farther than only in relation to the collections of books with which he was personally acquainted. One day the grand duke sent for him after he was his librarian, to ask him whether he could get him a book that was particularly scarce. “No, sir,” answered Magliabechi; “for there is but one in the world; that is in the grand signior’s library at Constantinople, and is the seventh book on the second shelf on the right hand as you go in.” Though this extraordinary man must have lived a sedentary life, with the most intense and almost perpetual application to books, yet he arrived to a good old age. He died in his eighty-first year, July 14, 1714. By his will he left a very fine library of his own collectionfor the use of the public, with a fund to maintain it and whatever should remain over to the poor. By the funds which he left, by the addition of several other collections, and the bounty of some of the grand dukes, his library was so much augmented as to vie with some of the most considerable in Europe. Of this collection, a catalogue and | description of the works printed in the fifteenth century was published by Fossi, under the tide “Catalogus codicum sseculo XV impressorum in Bibliotheca Magliabechiana, Florentiae adservantur,Florence, 3 vols. fol. 1793—1795.

Of the domestic habits of Magliabechi, we have many accounts that represent him as an incorrigible sloven. His attention was so entirely absorbed by his books and studies, that he totally neglected all the decencies of form and ceremony, and often forgot the most urgent wants of human nature. His employment under the grand duke did not at all change his manner of life: the philosopher still continued negligent in his dress, and simple in his manners. An old cloak served him for a gown in the day, and for bed-clothes at night. He had one straw chair for his table, and another for his bed; in which he generally continued fixed among his books till he was overpowered by sleep. The duke provided a commodious apartment for him in his palace; of which Magliabechi was with much difficulty persuaded to take possession; and which he quitted in four months, returning to his house on various pretences, against all the remonstrances of his friends. He was, however, characterized by an extraordinary modesty, and by a sincere and beneficent disposition, which his friends often experienced in their wants. He was a great patron of men of learning, and ha4 the highest pleasure in assisting them with his advice and information, in furnishing them with all necessary books and manuscripts. Cardinal Nods used to call him his Maecenas; and, writing to him one day, he told him he thought himself more obliged to him for direction in his studies, than to the pope for raising him to the purple. He had the utmost aversion to any thing that looked like constraint. The grand duke knew his disposition, and therefore always dispensed with his personal attendance upon him; and, when he had any orders to give him, sent him them in writing. The pope and the emperor would gladly have drawn him into their service, but he constantly refused their most honourable and advantageous offers. The regimen he observed contributed not a little to preserve his health to old age. He always kept his head warmly covered, and took at certain times treacle, which he esteemed an excellent preservative against noxious vapours. He loved strong wine, but drank it in small quantities. He lived upon the | plainest and most ordinary food. Three hard eggs and a draught of water was his usual repast. He took tobacco, to which he was a slave, to excess; but was absolute master of himself in every other article.

He died in the midst of the public applause, after enjoying, during all the latter part of his life, such an affluence as very few persons have ever procured by their knowledge or learning, and which, as he had acquired honourably, he bestowed liberally.

Though he never composed any work himself, yet the commonwealth of learning are greatly obliged to him for several, the publication of which was owing to him; such as the Latin poems of Henry de Settimello, the “Hodseporicon” of Ambrose Camaldula, the “Dialogue” of Benedict Aretin, and many others. A collection of letters addressed to him by literary men was printed at Florence, in 1745, but is said to be incomplete. 1


Tiraboschi.Fabroni Vitæ Italorum, vol. XVII.—Niceron, vol. IV.— Spence’s Parallel.