The popes had always had a library, but in the middle of the fifteenth century they began to collect books in a new way. Nicholas V decided to create a public library for "the court of Rome"--the whole world of clerics and laymen, cardinals and scholars who inhabited the papal palace and its environs. He and Sixtus IV provided the library with a suite of rooms. These were splendidly frescoed, lighted by large windows, and furnished with elaborate wooden benches to which most books were chained. And, unlike some modern patrons, the popes of the Renaissance cared about the books as well as about the buildings that housed them. They bought, borrowed, and even stole the beautiful handwritten books of the time. The papal library soon became as spectacular a work of art, in its own way, as the Sistine Chapel or Saint Peter's. It grew rapidly; by 1455 it had 1200 books, 400 of them Greek; by 1481, a handwritten catalogue by the librarian, Platina, showed 3500 entries--by far the largest collection of books in the Western world.
This Library of Congress on-line exhibit presents the story of the Vatican Library as the driving intellectual force behind the emergence of Rome as a political and scholarly superpower during the Renaissance. WebPages devoted to mathematics, medicine & botany, and nature will be of most interest to historians of science. Each page includes a description of the Vatican Library's impact on the field as well as a few images of texts. The graphics are sparse, in part, because the on-line exhibit was created in 1993. It is however, still a useful resource for the history of renaissance science.