I am old enough to remember the British Museum when it had books. (Of course, it still has books, but not in quite the same way…) However, I am not old enough to remember the days when it was open ‘from 9 till 3 from Monday to Friday between the months of September and April inclusive, and also at the same hours on Tuesday in May, June, July, and August, but on Monday and Friday only from 4 till 8 during these four months’. And to get in, you needed ‘printed tickets to be delivered by the porter upon application in writing’. This was in 1759, in the days when the contents of the museum were divided into three separate departments: Printed Books, Manuscripts, and Natural History.
The nucleus of the printed books department was made up of the library of Sir Hans Sloane – 50,000 volumes which in his will he offered for sale to the nation, along with his manuscripts and natural history collections. George II was not interested, but Parliament, to its credit, acquired them, later adding the Harleian and Cotton libraries. George II handed over the royal collection of printed books and manuscripts, and transferred to the museum the privilege which the royal library had acquired under Queen Anne of ‘being supplied with a copy of every publication entered at Stationers’ Hall’. King George III began immediately on his accession to buy and donate books, and later acquisitions included the libraries of Sir John Hawkins, Dr Burney, Sir Joseph Banks (hurrah!) and his sister Sophia Sarah Banks, who collected coins, medals, and what today would be called ephemera.
The director of the British Museum had the title of ‘Principal Librarian’ in the nineteenth century, and under him were the Keepers (and Assistant-Keepers). On 27 April 1831, Antonio Panizzi was appointed ‘Extra-Assistant Librarian’, beginning an association with the museum which lasted until his death in 1879 and is commemorated in the annual Panizzi Lectures on bibliographical topics.
Antonio Genesio Maria Panizzi had been born in Brescello, near Modena, in 1797. Trained as a lawyer, in the period of repression which followed the defeat of Napoleon and the re-imposition of (foreign) monarchical rule on the various Italian kingdoms, duchies and grand duchies, he became involved in the secret revolutionary societies which sought to bring about Italian unity and self-government. It seems likely that (although he always denied it) he was a member of the Carbonari (his close friend and biographer Louis Fagan states unequivocally that he was), or he may have been one of the delightfully named Sublimi Maestri Perfetti. Either way, he was known to the police, and fled the country in 1822 to avoid imminent arrest. Tried and condemned to death in absentia, he was sent a bill by the Inspector of Finances to cover the cost of his prosecution and execution (including the fee for the hangman). From Liverpool, where he was making a living as a teacher of Italian with the support of William Roscoe, historian, botanist, abolitionist and philanthropist, he sent back a cogent argument in favour of non-payment.
Panizzi was energetic, hard-working, enthusiastic, and a really good hater. He knew he was right, and everyone else was wrong, from the idiots at the Royal Society who didn’t know enough Latin to catalogue their own library, and then wouldn’t pay him when he put it right for them, to the greedy and narrow-minded publishers who were reluctant to hand over the copies of new books to which the museum was entitled. He was in a state of almost constant warfare with his own colleagues at the museum, and his various advances in the hierarchy were vigorously resisted – a good starting point was usually his foreignness, though in fact he became a naturalised Briton in 1832 (which caused a breach with his fellow exile Mazzini). Interestingly, a number of the Museum’s staff since its foundation had been foreigners, including the Dutch Mathieu Maty, the Swiss Joseph Planta, the German Carl König, and the Swedish Daniel Solander (Banks’s friend, colleague and librarian), and none of these had chosen naturalisation. These precedents did not of course prevent meetings at which speakers expressed concern that Panizzi had been seen selling white mice on the streets of London; Fagan acidly notes that ‘had it been a few years later, possibly the distinctive title of organ-grinder would have been added’.
But such xenophobic cabals could not prevent his rise first to Keeper of Printed Books in 1837 and then to Principal Librarian in 1856. He fought for grants from the government to purchase books, cultivated friendships which led to major benefactions to the museum, and conceived the idea of the circular central Reading Room, designed by Sydney Smirke and built between 1854 and 1857, which provided space for 302 readers and 1.5 million books.
At the same time, he kept up his interest in Italy and its politics: he was a welcome visitor at the Whig ‘HQ’ at Holland House, and a friend of statesmen, including Palmerstone and Gladstone. He raised money for refugees; he went to Naples and lectured the king (nicknamed ‘Bomba’ after his shelling of his own citizens in the city of Messina) on his treatment of political prisoners; he bought a boat which he hoped would rescue political prisoners from an island off the Italian coast (sadly, it was wrecked in a storm off Yarmouth).
Panizzi retired from the museum in 1866 after a breakdown in his health, though he continued to take a keen interest in its future developments, including the transfer of the natural history collections to a separate site. He was made a Knight Commander of the Bath in 1869 (arise, Sir Anthony): the year before, he had been created a senator of united Italy (though he never took his seat). His reforms to the museum, his scholarly work, his political activities, and his feuds and arguments, are described in great detail in Fagan’s two-volume biography, published the year after Panizzi’s death in 1879. The work is partisan in the extreme, but it certainly gives a lively portrait of the ‘foreigner’ who transformed the British Museum into the greatest library in the world.