1902 Encyclopedia > Sir Anthony Panizzi

Sir Anthony Panizzi

SIR ANTHONY PANIZZI (1797-1879), principal librarian of the British Museum, was born at Brescello in the duchy of Modena, September 16, 1797. After taking his degree at the university of Parma, he became an advocate, and speedily obtained considerable practice. Always a fervent patriot, he was almost of necessity implicated in the movement set on foot in 1821 to overturn the miserable Government of his native duchy, and in October of that year barely escaped arrest by a precipitate flight. He first established himself at Lugano, where he published an anonymous and now excessively rare pamphlet generally known as / Processi di Rubiera, an exposure of the monstrous injustice and illegalities of the Modenese Government's proceedings against suspected persons. Expelled from Switzerland at the joint instance of Austria, France, and Sardinia, he repaired to England, where he arrived in May 1823, in a state bordering upon destitution. His countryman Foseólo provided him with introductions to Roscoe and Dr Shepherd, and by their aid he was enabled to earn a subsistence in Liverpool by giving Italian lessons, while diligently instructing himself in English. Roscoe further introduced him to Brougham, by whose influence he was called to London to assume the professorship of Italian in University College, upon the foundation of that institution in 1828. His chair was almost a sinecure; but his manners, his culture, and his abilities rapidly ingratiated him with the best London society; and in 1831 Brougham, having become lord chancellor, used his ex officio position as a principal trustee of the British Museum to obtain for Panizzi the post of an extra assistant librarian of the printed book department. At the same time he was actively prosecuting the most important of his purely literary labours, his edition of Boiardo's Orlando Innamorato. Boiardo's fame had been eclipsed for three centuries by the adaptation of Berni; and it is highly to the honour of Panizzi's taste to have redeemed him from oblivion, and restored to Italy one of the very best of her narrative poets. His edition of the Orlando Innamorato and the Orlando Furioso was published between 1830 and 1834, prefaced by a valuable essay on the influence of Celtic legends on mediaeval romance, and dedicated to his benefactor Roscoe. In 1835 he edited Boiardo's minor poems, and was about the same time engaged in preparing a catalogue of the library of the Royal Society, which led to a warm controversy. Panizzi was shortly to find library work of a much more important and agreeable description in the institution with which he was officially connected. The unsatisfactory condition and illiberal management of the British Museum had long excited discontent, and at length a trivial circumstance led to the appointment of a parliamentary committee, which sat throughout the sessions of 1835-36, and probed the condition of the institution very thoroughly. Panizzi's principal contributions to its inquiries as respected the library were an enormous mass of statistics respecting foreign libraries collected by him upon the Continent, and some admirable evidence on the catalogue of printed books then in contemplation. In 1837 he became keeper of printed books upon the retirement of Mr Baber, and immediately set himself to grapple with the special tasks imposed upon him by the peculiar circumstances in which he found the library. The entire collection, except the King's Library, had to be removed from Montague House to the new building; the reading room service had to be reorganized; rules for the new printed catalogue had to be prepared, and the catalogue itself undertaken. All these tasks were successfully accomplished ; but, although the rules of cataloguing devised by Panizzi and his assistants have become the basis of whatever has since been attempted in this department, the progress of the catalogue itself was slow. The first volume, comprising letter A, was published in 1841, and from that time, although the catalogue was continued and completed in MS., no attempt was made to print any more until, in 1881, the task was resumed under the direction of the present principal librarian. The chief cause of this comparative failure was injudicious interference with Panizzi, occasioned by the impatience of the trustees and the public. Panizzi's appointment, as that of a foreigner, had from the first been highly unpopular. He gradually broke down opposition, partly by his social influence, but far more by the sterling merits of his administration, and his constant efforts to improve the library. The most remarkable of these was his great report, printed in 1845, upon the Museum's extraordinary deficiencies in general literature, which ultimately procured the increase of the annual grant for the purchase of books to £10,000. In 1847 his friendship with the Right Hon. Thomas Grenville led to the nation's being enriched by the bequest of that gentleman's unique library, valued even then at £50,000. In 1847-49 a royal commission sat to inquire into the general state of the Museum, and Panizzi was the centre of the proceedings. His administration, fiercely attacked from a multitude of quarters, was triumphantly vindicated in every point; and the inquiry had the excellent effect, not merely of establishing his reputation, but of abolishing the main source of maladministration, the anomalous position and illegitimate influence of the secretary. Panizzi immediately became by far the most influential official in the Museum, though he did not actually succeed to the principal librarianship until 1856.

It was thus as merely keeper of printed books that he conceived and carried out the achievement by which he is probably best remembered, the erection of the new library and reading room. The want of space had become so crying an evil that purchases were actually discouraged from lack of room in which to deposit the books. Panizzi cast his eye on the empty quadrangle enclosed by the Museum buildings, and conceived the daring idea of occupying it with a central cupola too distant, and adjacent galleries too low, to obstruct the inner windows of the original edifice. The cupola was to cover three hundred readers, the galleries to provide storage for a million of books. The original design, sketched by Panizzi's own hand on April 18, 1852, was submitted to the trustees on May 5 ; in May 1854 the necessary expenditure was sanctioned by parliament, and the building was opened in May 1857. Its construction had involved a multitude of ingenious arrangements, all of which had been contrived or inspected by Panizzi with the genius for minute detail which he shared with so many men equally remarkable for the general breadth of their conceptions, and with the mechanical inventiveness of which he was continually giving proof. There is probably no building in the world better adapted to the purpose which it is intended to serve; and it is no discredit to the designer if, imposing as it is, neither the space nor the funds at his disposal allowed him to plan it on the colossal scale which its utility would have warranted.

Panizzi succeeded Sir Henry Ellis as principal librarian in March 1856. The most remarkable incidents of his administration were the great improvement effected in the condition of the Museum staff by the recognition of the institution as a branch of the civil service, and the decision, not carried out for long afterwards, to remove the natural history collections to Kensington. Of this questionable measure Panizzi was a warm advocate; he was heartily glad to be rid of the naturalists. He had small love for science and its professors, and, as his friend Macaulay said, "would at any time have given three elephants for one Aldus." Many important additions to the collections were made during his administration, especially the Temple bequest of antiquities, and the Halicarnassean sculptures discovered at Budrun by Mr C. T. Newton. Feeling the effects of age and excessive labour, he expressed a wish to retire in 1865, but remained some time longer in office at the instance of the trustees. He ultimately retired in July 1866, receiving as a special mark of distinction a pension equal to the full amount of his salary. He took a house in the immediate neighbourhood of his cherished institution, and continued to interest himself actively in ita affairs until his death, which took place on April 8, 1879. He had been created a K.C.B. in 1869.

Along with Panizzi's visible and palpable activity as the centre of energy at the British Museum was another systematic activity no less engrossing and important, but unacknowledged by himself and little suspected by the world. His devotion to the Museum was rivalled by his devotion to his country, and his personal influence with English Liberal statesmen enabled him to promote her cause by judicious representations at critical periods. Throughout the revolutionary movements of 1848-49, and again during the campaign of 1859 and the subsecpuent transactions due to the union of Naples to the kingdom of Upper Italy, Panizzi was in constant communication with the Italian patriots, and their confidential representative with the English ministers. He laboured, according to circumstances, now to excite now to mitigate the latter's jealousy of France ; now to moderate their apprehensions of revolutionary excesses, now to secure encouragement or connivance for Garibaldi. The letters addressed to him by patriotic Italians, edited by his literary executor and biographer, Mr L. Fagan, alone compose a thick volume. His own have not as yet been collected ; but the internal evidence of the correspondence published attests the priceless value of his services, and the boundless confidence reposed in his sagacity, disinterestedness, and discretion. He was charitable to his exiled countrymen in England, and, chiefly at his own expense, equipped a steamer, which was lost at sea, to rescue the Neapolitan prisoners of state on the island of Santo Stefano. His services were recognized by the offer of a senatorship and of the direction of public instruction in Italy ; but England, where he had been legally naturalized, had become his adopted country, though in his latter years he frequently visited the land of his birth.

Panizzi's merits and defects were those of a potent nature. He was a man born to rule, and in a free country would probably have devoted himself to public life and become one of the leading statesmen of his age. His administrative faculty was extraordinary: to the widest grasp he united the minutest attention to matters of detail. His will and perseverance were indomitable, but the vehemence of his temper was mitigated by an ample endowment of tact and circumspection. He was a powerful writer, a persuasive speaker, and an accomplished diplomatist. He was undoubtedly arbitrary and despotic ; in some few points upon which he had hastily taken up wrong views, incurably prejudiced ; in others, such as the claims of science, somewhat perversely narrow-minded. But on the whole he was a very great man, who, by introducing great ideas into the management of the Museum, not only redeemed that institution from being a mere showplace, but raised the standard of library administration all over England. His successors may equal or surpass his achievements, but only on condition of labouring in his spirit, a spirit which did not exist before him. His moral character was the counterpart of his intellectual : he was warm hearted and magnanimous, extreme in love and hate, a formidable enemy, but a devoted friend. The list of his intimate friends is a long and brilliant one, including Lord Palmerston, Mr Gladstone, Roscoe, Grenville, Macaulay, Lord Langdale and his family, Rutherfurd (Lord Advocate), and above all, perhaps, Haywood, the translator of Kant. His most celebrated friendship, however, is that with Prosper Mérimée, who, having begun by seeking to enlist his influence with the English Government on behalf of Napoleon III., discovered a congeniality of tastes which produced a delightful correspondence. Mérimée's part has been published by Mr Fagan ; Panizzi's perished in the conflagration kindled by the Paris commune. The loss is to be regretted rather on account of the autobiographical than the literary value of Panizzi's share of the correspondence, although he was an accomplished man of letters of the 18th century pattern. But no man of ability has more completely exemplified the apophthegm of another distinguished person, that success is won less by ability than by character.

See L. Fagan, Life of Sir Anthony Panizzi, 2 vols., London, 1880. (R. G.)

The above article was written by: Richard Garnett, LL.D.

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