Neustift has a large church featuring precious vestments and an excellent library. The Dominican priest Felix Faber, from Augsburg, describes the Augustine collegiate church in Neustift near Brixen, a mid-way point on his way to the holy land. The library has been the largest and most significant collegiate library in Tyrol since the Late Middle Ages to this very day, despite losing many of its books due to a farmer skirmish in 1525, countless fires, and the major Dissolution of the Monasteries at the start of the 19th century. Claustrum sine armario quasi castrum sine armamentario: a castle would be nothing without an armoury, and the same applies to books, which are the soul of every cloister.
In 1142, Bishop Hartmann commissioned its building just a couple of kilometres away from the bishop’s seat in Brixen in South Tyrol. Soon Neustift became an important spiritual and cultural centre. An imposing book collection was essential for celebrating mass, personal and communal prayer, table readings and for the cloister school that goes as far back as 1160. Part of the collection was given as a gift to the cloister, part was purchased or commissioned directly, most were however written by the abbots and monks themselves, and the number of books increased exponentially. The biggest boom was during the establishment of the writing workshop in the 15th century.
Provost Nikolaus Scheyber (1439–49) commissioned two extensive graduated bands made of large folios (approx. 70 x 50 cm) that could have only been made as a result of a team effort in a functioning scriptorium. The production of the large parchment bands, the black iron gall ink as well as the different colours derived from plants and minerals required an incredible amount of knowledge. The Augustine Canon Friedrich Zollner, who came to Neustift from the Langezenn cloister in Nuremberg for the library, worked as a writer. Countless, yet unknown hands worked on completing the showpiece with fleuronée initials and opaque colour painting which stands out for its attention to detail. On a slim bolus layer of applied gold sheet, the liturgical book still conveys its fascinating festive character to this very day, something which would have been even more vibrant more than four centuries ago.
The invention of the printed book around 1450 revolutionised the production and dissemination of texts. Thanks to the strategic location at the crossroads of an important travel and trade hub in the alpine area but also thanks to its extensive network of other cloisters in Southern Germany, Neustift expanded its book collection swiftly. No fewer than 820 incunabulum were obtained by 1500. Specific books continued to be handwritten, as writing books was still considered a special ‘service rendered to God.’ The most well-known example is when the Canon of Neustift, Stefan Stetner, wrote a liturgical tome in 1524 under the orders of Provost Augustin Posch (1519–27). The document is considered one of the most valuable texts in Tyrol. The lively fleuronnée as well as the ornamental and pictorial content, including vivid margin decorations painted with opaque colours, together with the two-page miniatures are some of the most ‘valuable work from the Renaissance in southern Germany’ (M. Roland).
The increase in books, the wish for representation, and the will to reflect the Baroque feeling demanded an expansion of the library in the 18th century. Provost Leopold de Zanna (1767–87) built a new building on the southern side of the cloister: master builder Giuseppe Sartori from Sacco, near Rovereto, one of the best Tyrolean architects of his time, built a two-story hall with a circular gallery between 1771 and 1778. Hans Mussack from Sistrans near Innsbruck furnished the hall (11 x 23 m) with precious stuccos in white and gold, conveying a decisively festive character. The impressive portals with wood inlay work, the rock slabs making up the floor in white, black, and red with a central rosette and the inset wall wardrobe with a wood-carved title, a good 42 of them to be precise. The original four-paned windows with lead glazing are also a rarity. There are a good 20,000 books in this hall, with another approximate 76,000 in the adjacent rooms. They document the centuries-old significance of the cloister as a cultural and training centre that goes way beyond the province.