The Artwork Hidden in Libraries, Museums, and Gardens

Trinity College Library, Dublin. Trinity College Library, Dublin. Image credit: Urko Dorronsoro via Flickr.

When you think about the world’s greatest art, your mind might immediately jump to those works in large international collections like the Louvre Museum in Paris or the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. Such blockbuster collections clearly overflow with a wealth of artistic wonder, but what about the great artwork hidden in somewhat unexpected places?  

Let’s explore some of the fantastic art found off the beaten path in this top five tour of global libraries, museums, and gardens. Regardless of whether these locales might already be on your radar or are new to you, we are sure you’ll want to add these sites to your trail when you’re in any of these great cities. 

Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, Italy

La Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan

A view of the entrance to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, with a sculpture of Cardinal Borromeo at right. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Northern Italy’s capital for all things art and design, Milan is a well-defined hub for fans of Renaissance art. For example, the Pinacoteca di Brera holds an impressive collection of Renaissance paintings, and the nearby convent of Santa Maria della Grazie boasts a dining hall bedecked with Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci’s depiction of the Last Supper. Nestled between these locales, however, is the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, a typically off-the-radar locale that nevertheless boasts an incredible collection of library art.

Established in the seventeenth century by Cardinal Federico Borromeo, the library began as a collection of more than 15,000 volumes and eventually grew to include artwork. Much of that art has moved into the associated pinacoteca (gallery). Still part of the library’s collections, though, are twelve codices (ancient manuscripts) of Leonardo da Vinci drawings. They serve as one of the most expansive collections of his sketches in one institution. These brilliant works on paper showcase Leonardo’s plans for numerous projects, all rendered in incredible detail (not unlike the record-breaking Head of a Bear by da Vinci that sold via Christie’s earlier this year for £8,857,500). But these sketches are only the tip of the artistic iceberg; the Ambrosiana’s library art collection reportedly holds more than 10,000 drawings by master artists.

A drawing by Leonardo da Vinci of a crossbow (1500), from the Codex Atlanticus

A drawing by Leonardo da Vinci of a crossbow (1500), from the Codex Atlanticus. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Library at El Escorial, near Madrid, Spain

View of the Main Library at El Escorial

View of the Main Library at El Escorial. Image credit: Xauxa Håkan Svensson, CC BY-SA 3.0.

No palace complex in the Renaissance or Baroque era was complete without a library. But what makes Spanish King Philip II’s later sixteenth-century palace library so spectacular was not necessarily the volumes it held, but the art that adorned it. One of the most spectacular examples of library art in all of Spain, the main library at the El Escorial Palace exudes the opulence of Baroque design as it was emerging in Spain in the late 1500s.

The upper barrel vault of this library’s long library chamber is subdivided into frescoed registers depicting the four Liberal Arts and Sciences – such as arithmetic, astronomy, grammar, and music – painted di sotto in sù (forshortened to create visual continuity, despite the unusual angle of an arch) to echo the erudite intentions for the space. Milanese artist Pellegrino Tibaldi created many of the frescoes in this chamber and purportedly took much of his inspiration from his study of earlier Roman masters in spaces like the frescoed corridors of the Vatican Palace. Accordingly, this spectacular space signifies the status and intellect of the Spanish king, while also offering visitors a hint of Italian Baroque splendor.

Natural History Museum, London, England

Natural History Museum, London.

Natural History Museum, London. Image credit Michael D Beckwith via Flickr.

London’s Natural History Museum offers an encyclopedic collection of natural history for those who visit its galleries. Established in the eighteenth century by Sir Hans Sloane, the museum’s holdings have ballooned since into a vast collection of nearly 80 million spectacular specimens and artefacts (including some discovered by famed naturalist Charles Darwin).

Art (and interior design) aficionados might flock, though, to the museum’s incredible collection of John James Audubon prints. Often on display are images from Audubon’s iconic Birds of the Americas (1827-1838), a massive publication packed with more than 400 images of various fowl. This book is considered Audubon’s landmark creation and can achieve incredible auction prices. For example, one edition auctioned at Christie’s in 2018 sold for $9,650,000. The price to view the John James Audubon prints in the Natural History Museum? Nada.

Botanical Garden, Atlanta, Georgia

Glass Sculpture by Dale Chihuly at Atlanta Botanical Garden.

Glass Sculpture by Dale Chihuly at Atlanta Botanical Garden. Image credit: Mark Doliner via Flickr.

The Atlanta Botanical Garden opened to the American public in 1973 as a natural oasis for Atlantis residents to escape from the booming metropolis that was becoming the city. Since then, these gardens have grown to encompass more than thirty acres of blooming beauty. Part of that beauty, however, stems from the art on display in the garden.  

Interspersed among the flora are glass installations by contemporary artist Dale Chihuly. Initially installed as part of a monumental 2004 exhibition entitled, “Chihuly in the Garden,” some of this imaginative Chihuly glass art still accents the grounds to create a stunning interplay between the colors of nature and the playful whimsy of Chihuly art glass, which is renowned internationally for its artful inspiration by nature and organic motifs.

Trinity University Library, Dublin, Ireland

Trinity College Library, Dublin

Trinity College Library, Dublin. Image credit: Hernán Piñera via Flickr.

Ensconced in the Irish capital city of Dublin is Trinity University, one of Ireland’s most prestigious universities and home to Trinity University Library. Officially established in 1556 as part of the university’s inauguration, the Trinity University Library is Ireland’s largest library with approximately 7,000,000 volumes in its collection. 

One of the library’s most celebrated rare volumes is the Book of Kells, perhaps the most treasured example of art in libraries. Gifted to the library in the 1660s, this ninth-century book is an illuminated manuscript extensively illustrated by medieval artists to bring Latin biblical prose to life. As one of the earliest such illustrated books to survive, the Book of Kells showcases the luxurious craftsmanship required to create such illuminated manuscripts, with many of its 600-plus pages filled with intricate motifs and gold leaf accents. Only portions of the book are on view at a given time, but even a glimpse at several of its pages reveals its impeccable beauty.

Christ Enthroned, from the Book of Kells Illumintated Manuscript on show at Trinity College Library

Christ Enthroned, an illustrated page from folio 32v of the Book of Kells. Image via Wikimedia Commons.  

Hiding No More

Seeking out these and so many other hidden artworks in libraries, museums, and gardens around the globe can make the experience of art all the more gratifying. Whatever you enjoy – whether it is medieval masterworks or modernist marvels – there are hidden wonders to seek out in every corner of the world.