Building A Library: The Cavagna Sangiuliani Collection at Illinois

In 1921 the University of Illinois acquired the Cavagna Sangiuliani Collection of Italian imprints and manuscripts from the heirs of Count Antonio Cavagna Sangiuliani di Gualdana (1843-1913), seven years after discussions of its purchase began. In February 1914, the Leipzig firm Gustav Fock had informed University President Edmund J. James of the availability of the collection, estimated at 85,000 printed works; 7,500 prints; and 12,000 maps and documents relating to the history of Italy and its art. James asked head librarian Phineas L. Windsor and University faculty to investigate the collection’s status and contents. Previous estimates of its size were refined, but Cavagna’s library was considered to be remarkable, vast, and indeed just the sort of notable collection the library was looking for. Its purchase would greatly add to James’s plan to build the library’s collections to at least one million books as quickly as possible, in order to establish the University as a leading center for advanced study.

Communications between the University and Cavagna’s family, led by sons-in-law Oscar Mörlin-Visconti and Luigi Cesare Bollea, continued for several years. The negotiations were hindered by war, as well as by insurance, shipping, and other bureaucratic matters, but the collection was finally cleared for export in March 1921. Weighing twenty tons, the collection was shipped over on the steamer Dante Alighieri.

Photograph of the transport of the Cavagna Sangiuliani Collection from Zelada (or Zelata), province of Pavia. 

The Collection at Illinois

Librarian Adah Patton and others began cataloging the collection immediately upon its arrival, distributing items to various departmental libraries. Cataloging librarian Meta Maria Sexton (1883-1959) would spend thirty years working with the collection, cataloging over 20,000 books and compiling the guide Manuscripts and Printed Documents of the Archivio Cavagna Sangiuliani in the University of Illinois Library in 1950, which remains the primary listing of these historical documents. In January 2015, the Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML) won a Cataloging Hidden Collections grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) for “Cataloging Cavagna: Italian Imprints from the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries.” The project’s team has succeeded in making accessible another 20,000 titles that remained uncataloged for nearly a century; cataloged over 600 bound manuscripts dating from the fifteenth to twentieth century; and added item-level descriptions to finding aids for over sixty linear feet of manuscript and printed material, including ephemera and maps, from the Archivio Cavagna Sangiuliani.

Bookplate designed for the collection by W.C. Titcomb, featuring the Cavagna family crest and the motto of the University of Illinois: Learning and Labor

Antonio Cavagna Sanguiliani's monogram, surmounted by a crown with elements of the Cavagna family coat of arms: a golden lion and blue band with a golden basket ("cavagno") within

This exhibition celebrates the history of the collection at the University of Illinois, its collector Antonio Cavagna Sangiuliani, and the extraordinary depth and breadth of the collection. The items on display illustrate just a sample of the potential opportunities for study the collection can foster across a broad variety of subjects and disciplines. In addition to its unsurpassed contributions to the study of the history of Italy, its laws, and its families, the Cavagna Sangiuliani Collection remains a foundational part of the University Library.

Building a Library: The Cavagna Sangiuliani Collection at Illinois was originally a physical exhibit on display in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library from September 14 to December 14 2018. It was curated by Chloe Ottenhoff, Rare Book and Manuscript Cataloging Coordinator. For a reflection on the creation of the physical exhibit and photos of the exhibit, please visit this article from the Conservation Lab blog


The “Cataloging Cavagna” project and this exhibit were made possible by a generous grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources, with support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

This important work could not have been done without the leadership of RBML’s former director Valerie Hotchkiss, who was the original principal investigator of the grant. Thanks are also due to co-principal investigators Anna Chen (2015-2016), now Head Librarian, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, UCLA; Travis McDade, Curator of Law Rare Books, College of Law (2016-2017); and Lynne M. Thomas, Head of RBML (2017-2018).

Special thanks to:

Curator: Chloe Ottenhoff

Project Catalogers: Daniel Abosso, Katherine Bergen, Tad Boehmer, Julie Christenson, Nate Evans, Ann Foster, Sarah Hoover, Sarah Lindenbaum, Mariagabriella Stuardi, Rosemary Trippe, and Tesfaye Wolde-Medhin.

Digital Exhibit Arrangement: Nora Davies

Additional thanks to:
Quinn Ferris and Marco Valladares Perez (Conservation); Rachael Johns and Angela Waarala (Digitization Services); Linda LaPuma Bial, Eva Miller, and Dennis Sears (RBML); Kathie Veach (Manager For Research Administration); Walter Wilson (Krannert Art Museum); and Martin Graphics.