top of page
  • Writer's pictureSheldon Goodman

The Greatest Library of Them All

Libraries are a world you can get lost in.

Earlier this week I paid a visit to my local cemetery, where I filmed a video about John Harris – the subject of one of my sixty second videos on Twitter. He’s buried in Queen’s Road Cemetery, Croydon. I explored his legacy to both the British Museum and the British Library by looking at his remarkable career as an artist and facsimilist – have a watch here first:

I’ve decided to share another life story I discovered after researching the life and times of Mr. Harris. Unexpectedly this week I’ve found myself in a triptych of men involved in the history of books at one of our most brilliant institutions. After my #MuseumFromHome detailing Harris’ mentor, John Whittaker, I just had to tell you about the British Museum’s ‘Keeper of Books’ who Harris worked for, who made it his life’s work to enlarge and improve a national library.

Construction of the Round Reading Room. Photograph by William Lake Price, 1855.

1. The Middle

Our story starts in 1854.

The Central Court of the British Museum had lost its peaceful tranquility and resounds with the sound of clattering and banging: a gigantic, stark iron structure was being constructed in its heart by the builders of Mr. Fielder. A stout, mutton-chopped figure eyed its gradual building from the sidelines: his eyes bristling with pride at the graft and pressure he’d applied to get his collection a purpose built home. His library was getting a proper home. No longer would endless extensions and rooms need to be found and built. This was the jewel in the crown.

Sir Anthony Panizzi

Sir Anthony Panizzi (1797-1879) by George Frederic Watts 1888 after an original of c.1860 © National Portrait Gallery, London

What jarred many was that Antony Panizzi wasn’t British, but Italian. The sheer audacity that a foreigner was in charge of the finest book repository in the world! His ability to increase the number of books the museum had from 235,000 to eventually 540,000 volumes got him his fair share of enemies, such as Sir Frederic Madden, Keeper of Manuscripts – who was his only colleague to refuse to acknowledge Panizzi’s appointment as Principal Librarian (essentially, Director of The British Museum) when he was appointed two years after the enormous steel-framed reading room was completed two years later.

Panizzi’s early years perhaps explained his zeal for his work and probably explained his ability bat off racial prejudice. Born in Brescello in Northern Italy in 1797, by the mid 1810’s he was a practicing lawyer who was devoted to Italian independence. He was allegedly linked to the Carbonaro, a secret society that disagreed with the current political regime under Duke Francis IV of Modena. Tipped off that he was likely to be arrested for his probable connection, he fled to Switzerland in 1820 and wrote bitterly of the state of affairs back home. So inflammatory were his writings that in absentia he was sentenced to death.

Unable to go back home, he arrived in England with, in his own words, ‘with not quite a sovereign in [my] pocket, knowing no one, nor a word of the language’.

2. A New Start

Like many Italians who had been exiled, he had connections he could call on in what would become his new homeland. Under the advice of poet and revolutionary Ugo Foscolo, he was introduced to William Roscoe, an author who had significant influence and respect when it came to Italian literature who afforded him the circumstance in teaching Italian in Liverpool.

Foscolo’s exhumation at Chiswick Old Cemetery, 1871. I *think* Panizzi is 1pm to the coffin. Image from the AKG website

(Foscolo is buried in Chiswick Old Cemetery: I paid a visit to his grave a few years ago. I had inadvertently followed in Panizzi’s footsteps as he was present at Foscolo’s exhumation in 1871 ahead of burial back in his native Italy: it was here that he also took a brougham from his lodgings at the British Museum at 5am in 1864 with Garibaldi, who was visiting England at the time, to pay his respects with the great Italian general.)


Foscolo’s grave in 2016. Photo by me 

He eventually met Henry Brougham, MP and lawyer, who managed to secure him a position at the University of London teaching Italian, where he happened to be a trustee. Financially this was disastrous for Panizzi and, in an effort to remedy the inconvenience he’d brought on his friend, Brougham managed to secure him a position as Extra-Assistant Librarian at the British Museum.

3. The British Library Museum

At this point the British Library was not a separate entity from the museum and its collections, book and artefact alike, were considered rather mediocre by the time this enthusiastic young man started working there. Thus began an almost one-man war in turning the collection into something world-class: not only did he introduce a new method of cataloguing, adherent to his 91 principles, he also secured in 1842 the policy that every British book published should have a copy represented in his library.

The Round Reading Room at the British Museum – The British Museum Blog

The Reading Room in around 1924. Photo: Donald Macbeth.

It was during this time he worked with the aforementioned John Harris, who was brought in for his skill in book conservation with heritage specimens from the collection. Harris’ work in replacing or repairing pages was so exquisite that Panizzi couldn’t work out what was original and what was repair: he insisted Harris initial his worked pages to allow the books to be as honest as possible.

Sir Anthony Panizzi (1797-1879)

Photograph of a full length portrait of Signor Panizzi standing, facing towards the camera. This photo was owned by Prince Albert. 1888 after an original of c.1860, © Royal Collection Trust

He believed himself to always be right and his staff, dealing with his bombast and occasional petty grudges (his feud with author Thomas Carlyle, who referred to him as ‘a fat pedant‘ stands out here as an example), held unfailing loyalty to their employer, who exhausted himself in amassing a library that rivalled the the Bibliotheque Royale in Paris.


Sir Anthony Panizzi by Ernest Edwards, albumen carte-de-vise, circa 1864 © National Portrait Gallery, London

By the 1860’s the exertions of housing the British Libraries books, cataloguing an enormous collection and ill health had him beg his friend (and Prime Minister!) William Gladstone that he wished to retire: his skill and work with the museum however prevented an easy, straightforward exit. He was never one for titles and honours: only accepting his knighthood from Queen Victoria in 1869 at the request of Gladstone. In truth he was far more impressed with his bust that had been sculpted by Baron Marocetti that stood over the entrance of his reading room.

At St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, Kensal Green. Photo by Iain MacFalaine.

According to the British Newspaper Archive, the decade of his death only saw three mentions of him in print: his legacy grew as the years wore on. Laid to rest in St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, Kensal Green in April 1879, this man – whose first language wasn’t even English, created something that enriched the literature of his adopted home country.

Contact us - The British Library

The British Library, a daughter of the Museum, as it is today by St. Pancras. 


Further Reading and Source Material:

E. Miller, ‘Antony Panizzi & The British Museum, The British Library [website], 1979,, (accessed 16th April 2020)

P. R. Harris, ‘Panizzi, Sir Anthony [formerly Antonio Genesio Maria]’ The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [website], 2008,, (accessed 16th April 2020) 

L. Fagan, ‘The Life of Sir Anthony Panizzi, K.C.B.: Late Principal Librarian of the British Museum’, Google Books [website], 2012,,+panizzi,foscolo&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjGjMCwj-7oAhUBu3EKHTtLBJIQ6AEIKDAA#v=onepage&q=garibaldi%2C%20panizzi%2Cfoscolo&f=false, pp 250, (accessed 16th April 2020)

#UgoFoscolo #Italian #history #ReadingRoom #BritishMuseum #Independence #library #books #Italy #AntonyPanizzi #Resistance

2 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page