I wonder how many are yet around to share my memories of the wonderful library of Villa Venezia that brightened our undergraduate years in the University before it fled Thurstan Road to Peradeniya. It was, probably, Jennings’ predecessor Marrs, who picked on the exotic Villa Venezia to house the University Library. I have not yet come across any photograph, or drawing, of this miniature Venetian palazzo built for an imaginative, but long forgotten, Colonial grandee amidst the lush greenery of Cinnamon Gardens.
The Villa was a baroque two-storied pink building flanked by elegantly twisted columns, and overhung by an ornate balcony that would have enthralled Romeo. A large ground floor room charmed its readers by walls frescoed by scenes from Greek and Roman mythology, closely copied from Venetian originals. The top floor housed the library proper and the spacious reading room. This was an era long before the invasion of electronic gadgetry. Reference books were ranged subject-wise on wooden shelves to be withdrawn, on request, by helpful, and surprisingly literate, Library Assistants.
The spacious and airy reading room held long desks and chairs for readers silently poring over reference books. Generally this silence was interrupted only by the scraping of chairs pushed back by departing readers. But there was one time-honoured exception. This was when readers noticed a lovely fresher creeping stealthily along the corridor or a courting couple oblivious to the readers. These diversions gave rise to ‘The Stamp’. This was the spontaneous scraping of shoes by the whole community of readers who, meanwhile kept their heads buried in their books with enthusiasm. Much stamping took place during the Vacation, inspired/provoked by the holiday wear of female undergrads. These young ladies were very properly dressed in sarees during lectures. But when Vacation dawned on me and no lectures threatened, they embraced casual wear to visit the library at Villa Venezia. Bird watching male undergrads now enjoyed admiring the elegant calves of fair batch mates in short dresses – a welcome change from ankle length sarees.
The disappearance of Villa Venezia took place after I left University. Unimaginative University authorities seem to have missed the opportunity of acquiring this unrecorded architectural gem. It fell to the wreckers’ sledge hammers of the philistine who bought the property.
So ended the life and death of Villa Venezia, as the first library of our first University, Its ornate splendor and marble floors now echo only in the memories of those ancients who loved its ambience many decades ago. May this essay be its requiem!
( 1948- 1952)