The National Library of France. Always on the move.

The National Library of France. Always on the move.
“A room without books is like a body without a soul”. The Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF) certainly has its soul, a great and generous one. According to the library statistics, it offers its readers about 14 million books, and 250,000 manuscript. Officially created by the merger of the old National Library with the new Library of France in 1994, the BNF is spread out over five sites: François-Mitterrand, Richelieu, Arsenal, The Opera Library and Maison Jean Vilar in Avignon, as well as Gallica, the digital collection. The beginnings It all started in the Middle ages. In 1368, Charles V installed his rich private collection in the Louvre, but it was dispersed after his death. It is Louis XI who can be considered the founder of the royal library, as he laid down the base for its continuity in the second half of the XVth century. At first, there were only manuscripts. Then, in tune with the growth of the the French monarchy, the collection began accumulating books (after the invention of the printing press in 1450), engravings, prints, medals, and coins. The collection expanded due to acquisitions, gifts, trophies, and confiscations. If there is a date worth noting in the library’s history, it is December 28, 1537, when king humanist Francis I required publishers to deposit a copy of every book printed in the kingdom in the library. This certainly helped the collection grow. So-called ‘double legal deposit’ (deposit by printers and booksellers) still applies nowadays and concerns all printed documents and graphic production. When in Paris, stop by two principal sites of The National library: Richelieu, the most ancient and François-Mitterrand, the most modern. Stop one: Richelieu The history of this library is one on the move, due to a continuous search for space. Nowadays bounded by four streets, Richelieu, Colbert, Viviene and Petits-Champs, it took centuries to define and arrange this quadrilateral location in the 2nd arrondissement (district). Colbert, the Minister of Finances of Louis XIV, had extended the royal collections and, because of a lack of space in the Louvre, installed them at rue Vivienne in two mansions that belonged to him – the first emplacement of the library in the quarter. A major period in the library‘s history, considered the golden times, is related to the abbot Bignon, the royal librarian. He enriched the collection and developed a system of departments, each directed by a librarian – the system survives today. If from the end of the XVIIth century only a small circle of educated people had access to the library, by decree of 1720 it was to be opened to the public once a week in the morning. In 1721, Bignon started to transfer the royal collection in the ancient palace of the cardinal Mazarin. Over the following centuries the collection continued its growth, especially increasing after the confiscations during the Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. You will surely better understand this major problem of space shortage if you take a walk in the narrow streets of the area. Anyway, step-by-step, the library was appropriating local neighborhood, adding the gallery Mazarine, liberated by la Bourse in 1825, and mansion Tubeuf from the Treasury. During the second half of the XVIIIth and the first half of the XIXth century there were proposals of many projects of serious enlargement and transfer, but none of them ever came to fold. (Pictured below: ‘The project of Etienne-Louis-Boullée. 1785’) It was during the Second Empire (1852-1870) that the library acquired its contemporary look. Following the analysis of commission directed by Prosper Mérimée, Napoleon III ordered a reconstruction, but not the transfer of the site, and called it the Imperial National Library. The chosen architect, Henry Labrouste, was already famous for construction of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. His project, approved in 1859, would last until 1873. A major contribution by Labrouste is the reading room that bears his name. Room Labrouste, opened in 1868, became the symbol of the library. Built on a square plan, it was covered with nine domes of enamelled faience supported by sixteen slender columns. A semicircular apse completes this set. (Pictured below: H. Linton. Inauguration of the new reading room in June 1868) The architect Jean-Louis Pascal continued the work of Labrousse. He conceived and started the second most spectacular area the Oval Room. Its oval is 45 meters long and 34 meters wide. People working in the gorgeous place, you can still glance at it at least through the small windows. You can visit some temporary exhibitions, but mainly don’t miss the Cabinet of medals and antiques on the second floor. While walking up the monumental staircase, cast a look to the original plaster sculpture of Volter by Houdon, recently moved from the Honour Hall to the landing of the Cabinet because of reconstructions. The heart of the philosopher is said to have been put in the base of the monument. Some don’t believe rumours that the heart was there, others do and wonder if it was removed during the transfer of the sculpture. Finally, the Cabinet! Integrated in the library as the Department of coins, medals and antiques, it has been open since the seventeenth century. It owes its birth to the Cabinet of French kings, which united several collections, especially that of the duke of Luynes. This wonderful little known museum has rare examples of Greek pottery, stones, coins, Roman marbles, but also ivories, bronzes and silverware and contains a number of symbolical objects for the French history, such as so-called bronze Throne of Dagobert dating to VII-IXth centuries. Wait! Before leaving the library, take a look on the Department of Manuscripts. Its pivot possesses 10,000 illuminated manuscripts, thus, the incomparable collection of medieval art. Thanks to…

Lead photo credit : Portrait of François I (1494-1547), king of France, Jean Clouet, Public Domain

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