A visit to the Bibliotheque Nationale, Rue de Richelieu, the “old site”, of course. You know what an incurable romantic I am.
Every city has its forbidden place. It might be anything from a presidential palace to a dangerous ghetto, but in Paris, and for me, it is a library. Unlike the Louvre or the Center Pompidou, the Bibliotheque Nationale is an ivory tower, a citadel apart. Set in the very heart of the city, between the Bourse and the Palais Royal. The B.N., as its habitues call it, remains one of the of the world treasure houses.
Apart from experts and connoisseurs, astonishingly few people have an inkling of the extent of its riches. To say that it contains one hundred thousand manuscripts (1986 numbers when I visited the first time), twelve million books, and fifteen million prints and drawings may give some notion of the scale of holdings, but nothing of their range and quality. The figures begin to become alive only once one knows that the stocks include the manuscripts of Beethoven’s Appasionata and Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, two of surviving forty or so Gutenberg Bibles, and works by the likes of the fifteenth-century Master of the Playing Cards, Albrecht Dürer, and Jaques Callot. It has paintings by Fragonard and Toulouse-Lautrec-to mention just two-and a collection of uniquely rare objects d’art. Go beyond these obvious “highlights” and you will find out that the collections encompass everything from ancient maps to botanical engravings, from daguerreotypes to Egyptian papyri of astonishing antiquity, from Celtic burial treasure to Greek coins, from comic books and greeting cards to century-old proclamations.
The timeless monuments of the creative mind lie stored side by side with centuries of ephemera. As one begins to perceive the extent of the library’s holdings, a sense of vertigo sets in. Alain Resnais, the nouvelle vague cineaste of Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima Mon Amour, once made a short documentary about the B.N. and called it The Memory of the World, and since the library burned at Alexandria, not other archive can so have deserved that lofty title.
Aside from the scholars, who gets a chance to see the B.N.’s treasures? For centuries, the answer has been “Next to nobody.” Certain masterpieces are occasionally shown in temporary exhibitions, but such events have traditionally been mounted without fanfare. Generally speaking, only a handful of the B.N.’s holdings ever see the light unless they have been requested by specialists engaged in some proven form of research. The majority of the riches remain the preserve of an exceptionally well informed or influential few. Why so elitist a situation should still obtain in these days of mass-marketed haute culture becomes clear as one penetrates the labyrinthine ways of this ancient and complex monument.
The library origins are royal, going back to 1367 or 1368, when Charles V put together a collection of manuscripts in a tower in the old Louvre Palace; but the main nucleus of the future B.N. can be traced to an iron- and- leather- bound trunk of volumes bequeathed in 1483 by Louis XI, who had his ambassadors seek out Greek and Oriental manuscripts.
For that slender treasure, known as the Bibliotheque Royale, to grow into twenty million volumes, two major events had to take place. One was the institution, in 1537, of the depot legal, an act that obliged (and still obliges) all printers and publishers in France to donate a copy of everything they produce to the Bibliotheque. The other was the Revolution of 1789, when many of the rich contents of abbeys and aristocratic houses wound up at the B.N., whose collection of books alone more than doubled as a result.
Even so major changes have taken place since last I visited; the B.N. will always be less accessible to the public than the international museums with which it ranks. There are very practical reasons for this: even with optimal climate control and lighting, its treasures are too fragile for everyday display. You can have a million people walk by the Mona Lisa, properly protected no harm will come to her. However, you cannot let a million people finger a manuscript, no matter how careful they are. It would not survive.
Still, hardy scholars are drawn here like moth to the intellectual flame. In the fast book-lined space, with its soaring gilded arches the air seems to crackle with the united effort of straining minds. Down dark corridors and up spiral staircases, as in some exalted scholarly Dungeons and Dragons, are the libraries specialized departments. The least expected aspect of the B.N. is the fabulous rich Cabinet des Medailles, which houses coins, medals, and objects d’art.
Through endless corridors lined with unimaginable riches, you arrive in a brightly lighted world of technological prowess. State-of-the-art conservation equipment bathes damaged scraps of manuscripts and magically pulls them back into page form. But, the B.N. is not a traditional institution for nothing. Side by side with the modern machinery are tools and materials that have been used for centuries. Just to give you an idea of the of the work involved; to restore a twelfth-century Arab manuscript took 1,200 hours, no dawdling. The manuscript of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables was a little easier-only 900 hours.
The things you will find at this library have a personal resonance for the French people. To them the Bibliotheque Nationale is not a silo for books, but the memory of a nation.
Or, indeed, as one or two others have said, of the world.