The Library of St. Mark, patron and symbol of the Venetian State, owes its origin to the patronage of Cardinal Bessarion. Born in the Greek city of Trebizond, on the Black Sea, at the beginning of the fifteenth century, Basilius became a Basilian monk, taking the name of Bessarion. From 1430 to 1436 he attended the school of the greatest Greek philosopher of the age, Giorgio Gemisto, known as Pletone, becoming thoroughly acquainted with Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and classical culture in general. In 1438 he was made Archbishop of Nicaea. In this capacity he participated at the Council of Ferrara-Florence, convened by Pope Eugene IV in accord with Emperor John VIII of Byzantium with the aim of unifying Western and Eastern Christians. He stood out as the most notable figure of the Council and it was mainly through his efforts that the Union was proclaimed on 6 July 1439 in Florence. But it was rejected by the Greeks, who saw it as a new imposition by the West, and the Council's efforts thus proved in vain. Bessarion was one of the few who remained faithful to the Union, and he accepted the rank of Cardinal, convinced he could thus help the cause of the Greeks.
Once a Cardinal he devoted himself to two causes: as a diplomat, to the defence of Greek territories under attack by the Turks; as a man of culture, to the propagation of Greek thought, above all Neoplatonism, and the preservation of the writings of ancient Greek civilisation, whose total destruction he feared as a result of the Turkish advance. He thus managed to gain possession of, or to have copied, most of the masterpieces of ancient Greece. In 1468 he decided to donate his books to Venice: the decision testified to his faith in the constitutional system of the Republic, the esteem in which he held the most important men of government, and the affection he felt for the city. He saw Venice, with its prosperous Greek colony, as a second Byzantium, heir to the Byzantine tradition. It was the only power to have taken on the task of opposing the Turkish advance: since 1463 a terrible war had been raging between the Sultan and the Republic, and it was not to end until 1479.
Thus Venice became the recipient of Bessarion's donation in 1468: around 750 codices, to which he later added a further 250 manuscripts and some printed works. Venice solemnly accepted the donation: and so the project of a "pubblica Libreria" in Venice was realised; the project had first been conceived by the poet Petrarch a century earlier, in 1362, but despite the hopes raised, nothing had come of it.
The Venetian State undertook to place the volumes in a building worthy of their importance; but it was not until 1537 that it proved possible to start work on the Library, to a design by Jacopo Sansovino, who succeeded in harmonising the noblest classical style of the Renaissance with the striking Venetian setting.
The collection, after its removal to the new site, was further enriched by new donations and bequests. Mention can be made of the most important ones: 1595: Jacopo Contarini of S. Samuele (which came into effect only in 1713, with the extinction of the family-line); 1734: G. B. Recanati; 1792: Tommaso Giuseppe Farsetti; 1797: Jacopo Nani; 1843: Girolamo Contarini.
The Marciana also added to its collections by purchases (for example, the important collection of the antiquarian Amedeo Svajer, 1794), the acquisition of portions of monastic libraries, such as that of SS. Giovanni e Paolo of Venice and S. Giovanni di Verdara of Padua (late 18th century), and also thanks to the obligation imposed on all printers to deposit one copy of every book published, as established by a Venetian law of 1603 (the first of its kind in Italy).
After the fall of the Venetian Republic, the Library was further enriched by the acquisition of some of the libraries of religious institutions suppressed during the Napoleonic period. It remained in its original site until 1811; in that year, by decree of the Regno Italico, it was moved to the Doge's Palace; in 1904 it was moved to the Sansovinian building of the Zecca (the Mint). In 1924 the Marciana regained possession of the Library Palace, in addition to the Zecca and also part of the Procuratie Nuove. Thus it now occupies not only its original building, but also the severe building of the Zecca, built by Sansovino between 1537 and 1547, where the coinage of the Republic was minted.
The Marciana now contains around a million volumes, including 13,000 manuscripts, many of which richly illuminated. There are 2,883 incunabola and 24,055 cinquecentine.
Hugely important for Greek culture, Venetian history and Venetian publishing, the Library of St. Mark, recently enlarged by important donations (the Teza collection: around 30 thousand volumes, mostly relating to eastern civilisations; the Tursi collection, around 15 thousand volumes by foreign travellers in Italy), plays a major role in the cultural life of the Veneto and serves scholars all over the world.