For three months I lived in Milan, Italy, so broke I couldn’t even take the metro across town, let alone spend the afternoons in museums, soaking up the art and freedom of expression. There wasn’t much about my life in Milan that felt very free, I was feeling as if in some sort of personal prison. My only friend, an actress and an artist called me and told me on my last day in Italy, she was taking me to Brera, the artist/university zone right in the middle of Milan. In the midst of the sudden changes and the disappointment of things I had missed or would miss now that I was leaving, with a friend of the most unexpected sort, I found myself brimming with inspiration and freedom. My soul’s cry was met silently in the Braidense National Library, for free.
That afternoon, I walked into the great, quiet hall as if into a cathedral. The musty scent of old pages and aged leather filled my nose. Thousands upon thousands of books stretched up the walls, their thick, bound leather covers painstakingly adorned with gold leaf and lengthy titles. I walked slowly down the length of the main room, built over 300 years ago and housing nearly a million books. I glanced at the titles of massive volumes, crumbling with age, “The History of Italy”, “The History of Asia”, and a nine volume series on the insects of South America. I marveled at the meticulous detail that was once bestowed upon the skins of literature, science and history. A book was a piece of art from cover to core. It was a prized possession, a source of pride for both author and owner. It was a symbol of knowledge, drive, creation, ambition and freedom. I wanted to reach out and trace my fingers over what were literally the pages of history, to linger on the thoughts of men and women who live immortal through their words.
Enormous crystal chandeliers hung from the center of the room, casting fragmented light across the dark bookshelves and up onto the fresco-painted ceiling. A fifteen foot tall painting of the library’s founder, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria hangs on the back wall, a seven foot round globe of the world sits in a glass cube at her feet.
Downstairs historic sculptures guarded the entrances and busts of renowned artists and philosophers lined the university halls. Librarians spoke in hushed tones with students crouched behind sleek laptops. I wondered what it would be like to study art and philosophy in a place as sacred to art and philosophy as this. Scattered tourists passed the glass displays of Vivaldi’s music, black scratches on yellowed paper. Hundreds of years of history, hundreds of years of philosophy and art, science and literature surrounded me. Hundreds of years of human creativity, knowledge and expression hummed into my being. They were inspired words and notes put to paper, recorded and made fleeting thoughts immortal. It was the ultimate proof of freedom of the mind, of the expression of the soul. And it was proof that I could still feel inspiration of art and literature even if I couldn’t afford to go see Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” at the museum around the corner.
The heaviness of my broken heart and broken illusions dissipated under the influence of the aroma of the old books, the reverent silence. I smiled as I saw my friend walking just as slowly in her own reverie, under the power the books held. I thought of how had I had all the experience of Italy I wanted or thought I would have had, I would have never dreamed of a friendship in her who appreciated the beauty of an old library. And I wouldn’t have spent my last day in Italy in a dark, musty library, in the presence of thousands upon thousands of books, reminded of the beauty of the freedom and capabilities of the human mind, reminding me to let my soul fly free.
About the Author: Jillian Bright is an avid adventurer, solo traveler and writer from Northern California who lives to see the beauty of this world and write about it all.
Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.