The pursuit of knowledge and business acumen appear not to be mutually exclusive. Consider Giovan Pietro Vieusseux, the man whose scientific and literary gabinetto (?reading rooms') in Florence not only linked Italian and European culture but were also an important resource for those pursuing Italy's unification over a century and a half ago.
Vieusseux was born in Oneglia, near Imperia, on September 28, 1779, the first of 12 children in a merchant family of Swiss origin. As an adult, he travelled widely in search of commercial opportunities. Travelling through Europe, Russia, Turkey and Tunisia, he not only soon spoke several languages fluently, but he wrote about his experiences, publishing his Journal Itineraire de mon voyage en Europe (1814-1817). However, in 1819, after the failure of the family business, he moved to Florence.
Assisted by a bank guarantee provided by his brother-in-law's firm in Livorno and well aware of the entrepreneurial possibilities offered by the public subscription libraries that were springing up elsewhere on the continent, Vieusseux opened his Gabinetto Scientifico e Letterario. After a two-month search, he housed it in three reading rooms in Palazzo Buondelmonti in busy piazza Santa Trinita. For a sizable daily, monthly, quarterly or yearly fee, he provided his (then exclusively male) readers with a place where they could meet and discuss newspapers and magazines in their own languages, in particular, English, French, German and Russian. They were usually foreigners on the grand tour or expatriates living temporarily or permanently in Florence. Dictionaries, maps and other books were also available for consultation.
In response to requests by his clients, in 1821 Vieusseux added a circulating (or ?lending') library to his enterprise and, as he lived on the floor above the Gabinetto, he began organising weekly gatherings, strictly by invitation only, for intellectuals and distinguished visitors. The men exchanged ideas about literature, politics and other issues that were of particular interest to Vieusseux, like education, advances in agriculture and recent scientific discoveries.
That same year, with the assistance of Ugo Foscolo and Vieusseux's friend Gino Capponi, Vieusseux published the first issue of L'Antologia, a periodical in Italian that focused on natural sciences, geography and travel. Initially, many of the articles were translated from other languages, but soon the focus shifted to current political and social problems with contributions by some of the best Italian writers of the day. Alarmed by what he considered the periodical's ?revolutionary' ideas, Grand Duke Leopoldo II, the same man who had granted Vieusseux honorary Tuscan citizenship in 1824, closed the journal down in 1833.