The old mansion passes unnoticed between the trees of the park. It cannot compete with other places that surround it. Coliseum, Campidoglio, Circo Massimo and all the other wonders of Rome’s city centre are just behind the edge of the park. It looks as a modest lady sitting quietly between princesses showing off gowns and jewellery to decide who is the fairest of them all. It is normal that tourists givea quick look from outside and never go in, but sometimes beauty does not like to shout, and the true nature of a place call for a special sight to be unveiled. Who would say that a free access Paradise for travel writers is waiting inside?
Indeed, this mansion, unknown to many, is the lair of a brotherhood who watch a treasure. Nothing to be scared of, it is not a haunted place nor is dangerous as a dragon lair, the only risk is to be victim of a spell, and dream so far to get lost in the world. Would you step inside? All you need is ring a prosaic bell and…
Broad and dark old tables marked by moths, strong furnitures as it used to be, frescoed ceilings, spacious and elegant rooms, windows looking to the lush vegetation of a Mediterranean garden and, high walls completely covered by shelves and shelves of wonders within the reach of your hands: over a million of documents about geography and travelling and all that comes with it.
400.000 volumes, in French, English, Italian, Greek, Russian, several thousands rare documents published between XVI and XIX century, manuscript records of travel, more than 2000 journals published in the last two centuries, a map collection of 200.000 pieces and 200 ancient and rare maps from XV to XIX century. All is within the reach of your hands because here touching is not forbidden but welcomed.
Browse the old card catalogue written by hand with diligent calligraphy of yesteryear, or consult the digital database, or wander with your eyes on the shelves and have access to a never-ending mine of travel inspirations, tales, informations, seductions, that you cannot find on internet or in common libraries.
The hare many ways to please your mind. I start with a National Geographic Magazine dated back to February 1902 (it costed 25 cents) reading about a trip through Siberia by Ebenezer J. Hill. Then I am seduced by the green land of Scotland and I spot what the Scottish Geographical journal was discussing in 1885 as I would do with a 2017 blog. How changed over time the perception of the world? Beginning from my home-land (Italy) passing by Africa, China, Japan, America, maps by maps I discover how the world looked to our travellers ancestors.
I come back the to reading room with a book published in 1782. It smelt of mould, the page are thick and rough, I can feel the mark of the letters the mechanic press left on the paper in a sort of unwanted Braille. The book is a report of some English gentlemen who went to Canary Island. They swear to god that the Guanci people were so agile to come down from the mountain jumping from rock to rock, and that they could eat as much as 20 rabbits and 1 goat in one meal.
In 1880 an Italian traveller was bewitched by the smells of Abyssinia, spices and moss the sellers used to burn to catch visitors and how “At night everything die. People abandon the city for the villages where is fresher and sleep is sweeter”.
1929, Dancalia, the members of the expedition were caught by the local warriors. They were kidnapped, treated, left down the burning sun of Africa day after day till suddenly they were released.
1880, Africa again, two of the traveller died, as half of the animal they had, of the survivors nobody will go on, but through separate ways they will make the journey back home.
1913, India, when the Italian expedition attended to a buddhist symbolic dance probably was not that surprised and found themself almost at home. India was quite close to Italy about that: people dressed up in a strange way to play and dance strange music in strange places…
What more? African warriors, wild animals, rivers, ices, mountains, people and cities that time denies: they belong to a past age, when the world was bigger, human being slower, the journey harder, and there were still blank spaces on the world map.
It was a different world and different was their approach to travel writing. Compares to the contemporary travel writers the old school looks better prepared, sensitive and effective. The core of their writing was simple: Geography. In other words how the places shaped people and how people got shaped by places. There are not lists of best things to do or see in their writing, not mention of how cool is the travel writers, but the voices of people and places, true emotion, trembling evocation of the beauty, deep thoughts of people who were really travelling.
I put back all the books and I walk between the rooms of the Library. For 150 years, with passion, devotion, and the same patience of an amanuensis, the members of the Italian Society od Geography gathered here an invaluable treasure: the memory of all those came before us, travellers pushed by a pure desire of knowledge stronger than any greed.
What you will find here is capable to break time and distances to teach us, once more, the higher values of travelling. This is not a mere library, it is a a sort of Sanctuary, aParadise for all Travel writers in the heart of Rome.
Brief History of the Geographic society and particularly of the Italian Society of Geography
Geographical societies are private associations established especially during 19th century and the beginning of 20th, to promote studies and research in Geography and related topics, with special regards to explorations.
The “Société de Géographie de Paris (1821)” is considered the oldest although some Italian academies (Accademia degli Argonauti, 1684 and Accademia dei Georgofili, 1753) and the so-called British African Association (1788) are considered important ancestors.
Such societies sprang up all over the world but especially in Europe. They amounted to more than 300 at the end of the 19th century. Several of them are still active and both their activities and publication have a high scientific relevance.
The Geographic Societies played a fundamental role in renewing and promoting the study of geography, modernise and promote the cartographic production, exchanging knowledge on international basis, in guiding and implementing systematic exploration of areas discovered to the west because of the colonization, making of them the first protagonist of cultural contacts.
The Italian geographic society was founded in Florence (at that time capital of Italy) in 1867 and moved to Rome in 1872 where it is still based. It publishes is own journal (Bollettino della Società Geografica Italiana) from 1868 together with other publishing initiatives.
In 1869, it organized the first Italian expedition in Eritrea Africa, with a mission to Eritrea leaded by Orazio Antinori. Later expeditions went to Tunisia in 1875 and Ethiopia the year after and in 1878 Lake Victoria, Morocco, North-east Passage. The expedition went more numerous and frequent till including initiatives in Asia and America.
In the twentieth century the Society abandoned the direct exploration and focused its activity on Italian migration abroad and promoted systematic research to modernize the teaching of geography in schools, on the phenomena of hydro geological problem and about earthquakes, and generally oversaw initiatives of systematic study of Italian territory.
Nowadays the Society it is internationally regarded as an outstaning institution regarding Geography and related studies and it is still wonderfully alive promoting many initiatives. Its most recent activities include research and education directed both to professionals and amateurs. Every year they run a “Festival of travel writing”.
The seat of the Society is in Rome, in the Beautiful “Palazzetto Mattei” in Villa Celimontana, 900 meters from Coliseum. The palace and the garden, formerly a vineyard, date back to 1580 and were based on a project of Jacopo Del Duca a student of Michelangelo. Both the Garden and the Palazzetto Mattei undergone several modification till they get the present shape.
Here is the link to the English version of the Italian Society of Geography official website , where you can find contacts, direction, time schedule and any practice info you would need.